The weather could hardly have been worse for the first day of Dressage here at Badminton – cold, very blustery, and at times quite frankly tipping it down – and for many horses it was A Bit Too Flipping Much, and they lost their composure, throwing away lots of marks due to tension and tightness.
But, as ever, the cream rose to the top, and Francis Whittington had Catherine Witt’s stunning grey Easy Target (Smokey to his friends) going the best we have ever seen him: relaxed, correct, powerful and rhythmical throughout the test, for what I am sure is a personal best dressage mark at a 4* event for Francis.
The good marks just kept coming and coming, with only the walk 1/2 pirouette marks (a unanimous 6,6,6 from the judges) dropping below 7 , and a plethora of 8s with a couple of 9s for his riding. His whole test sheet can be drooled over here.
We then had quite a long wait for another really good test.
Italian rider Giovanni Ugolotti had Stilo Kontiki going beautifully, and the marks for the first part of his test looked very likely to trouble the very top of the leaderboard, including a 9 for the entry, but then the nasty weather conditions seemed to get to the horse and tension crept in.
Giovanni helped him regain his composure to save the rest of the test with good marks again, for a final score of 52.5 (25th place overnight) but the rider looked very rueful at the end.
After a few more tests where the vile weather definitely took its toll on the overall marks, Paul Tapner came into the arena on Kilronan, owned by Penny and Frederick Barker. He had the elegant grey totally settled, expressive and rhythmical, in perfect balance, and the judges rewarded him accordingly, putting them into the lead by 0.2 penalty, the slimmest of margins.
Interviewed just after his test, Tappers said that he felt the rain on his face just before he went in to do his test, and it reminded him of the time he won Badminton (on Inonothing, in 2010). In fact he came to the U.K. from Australia for the weather (?!), and said he doesn’t mind the rain at all, he hates getting sunburnt and he hates the drought and being dusty!
Then Lucinda Fredericks, also riding for Australia, presented her stunning Olympic ride Flying Finish, owned by Richard Ames and Angus Murray and the rider, with her usual poise, for a lovely, powerful, flowing test, to score 39.0 and slot into 3rd place at that point.
Those were the only 3 riders to break the 40-penalty barrier. Fourth place at the moment is held by evergreen Maestro Sir Mark Todd, who had NZB Campino going beautifully, for a score of 40.5.
The Leaderboard can be viewed here.
At the Press Conference, the top 3 riders answered questions. Tappers said that the weather conditions had no effect him, in fact when he felt the rain on his face he thought “bring it on, let it affect everyone else and not me.” He was very happy, in fact he was so relaxed in the canter work he had to remind himself to keep doing his job!
Tappers thinks that “the XC will be amazingly influential” and he’ll “be very surprised if there are more than 5 horses clear inside the time on Saturday.”
He thinks “the Vicarage Ditch area is still a very intense area, if anything Giuseppe has upped the ante in that area” and “he’s amplified those features, and actually found some hills” (going up to the new water jump) which “will make it more strenuous than usual.”
Francis Whittington, when asked about the huge improvement in Easy Target’s dressage in a year: “For me the big thing was that over this winter I’ve been learning to ride again. It was clear that I had a lot that I had to learn… I had a great belief that we could do a sub-30s dressage test” and he put the improvement down to “the work that we’ve been doing at home” and “the pattern of warm-up that we went through” (worked out over the previous 2 days with Ian Woodhead), for instance he worked out exactly how long it would take to do various parts of the warm-up. He, too, felt very relaxed in his test, more than usual.
Q: “Can you do better than that (in the dressage)?” Francis: “Yes, we can. Next year!”
He’s walked the course twice now, it seems to be getting smaller every time. “Huntsman’s Close is going to be a big question towards the end. It’s going to be an exciting competition on Saturday.”
Lucinda Fredericks: “It’s a true 4*. It really is. And the ground conditions are going to make it even tougher. The last time I came here with these sort of conditions was in…erm… 1992 with Arctic Goose.”
She’s glad she ran Flying Finish in the wet at Bicton. “From start to finish there are very few let-ups… if you have good jumps, they’ll come home well, if not, you’re going to have to dig deep.”