What was expected to be a very testing course certainly proved to be exactly that, with faults spread all over the place, the difficult questions claiming some very notable scalps, and, of course, the cream rising to the top. With huge fences and a tight time, this was a true XC test, a day where, like Badminton 2014, a fast clear could lead to a meteoric rise up the leaderboard. Factor in perfect weather (the early rain cleared completely before XC started) and perfect going, and this time it was purely the course not the conditions that caused the problems. Jonelle Price rose from 19th after dressage to 3rd, and Chris Burton rose from 21st to 4th, with the only two clears inside the time, which is fairly unprecedented nowadays in eventing.
Michael Jung’s day encapsulated the two absolute extremes of our sport. He set out in a great rhythm on his keen jumping machine Fischerrocana FSH, lying in equal 1st after the dressage. She made a great job of the first four fences, went down the slope into the water to go under the Lion Bridge, tripped slightly, and fell straight over on her side in an instant, submerging them both. Michael rolled away fast but was obviously limping as he led her away, but fortunately he is made of tough stuff (of course, he’s an eventer!) and he came out again later to do a sublime clear on La Biosthetique Sam FBW, just two seconds over the time. He lost those two seconds (and more) when he brought a perhaps slightly puzzled Sam back to trot to go very circumspectly into the water before the Lion Bridge, totally understandably of course, but the rest of the round was at perfect 4* cruising speed and he never deviated for a second from his lines. They absolutely skipped around, making it look easy, and as “fun” as he has predicted at the press conference yesterday.
As expected, the extreme angles at the Trout Hatchery and at Discovery Valley took their toll, with riders and horses of the experience of Oliver Townend and Armada (who still nearly got the time in spite of a very expensive ‘drive-by’), Sam Griffiths and Happy Times, and various others, rueing a momentary blip. Ros Canter was having an absolutely fantastic round on Allstar B until the first Land Rover brush “bonnet” at Discovery Valley, where the horse’s focus suddenly went, and that was it.
There were the usual hard luck stories. Fischerrocana was the worst, a totally undeserved dunking. Gina Ruck was having a great round and decided to go the long way at the Trout Hatchery final element to be sure of a clear, only for Rehy Too to catch the top of it and deposit them both in the drink, and Andrew Hoy was having a great round until a bad moment at the corner at Capability’s Cutting ended his round. Both Annie Clover and Whitson did not look as if they were having a particularly fun time out there, unfortunately, a real shame.
There were the obligatory loose dogs chasing horses: Louise Harwood had this just before the biggest fence on the course, the Slate Mine. Apparently a fence judge rugby tackled another loose dog, successfully… Bravo to them! Please, Powers That Be, bring in big fines for owners who can’t hang onto their dogs. It’s so distracting and potentially dangerous.
Pippa Funnell and Redesigned had a totally class round, just not quite fast enough to be in the top ten. Paul Tapner and Kilronan also cruised round making it look pretty easy, but not quite fast enough… the time was tight. A special mention to Willa Newton, who scorched round with only 2.8 penalties without looking as if she was really hurrying at all, she just kept up a fantastic rhythm, a true art form around a course like this today.
Tim Price had an exemplary round, including going very smoothly from the Cottesmore Leap to the skinny brush on 4 strides not the 5 that most did.
Tina Cook pulled off an extraordinary save when Star Witness put a leg back down on take-off at the log part of the Trout Hatchery and nearly pitched onto his nose. Our photographer’s sequence which can be viewed here on our Facebook page is quite something to see… HOW on earth did she stay on that?!
Dressage leader William Fox-Pitt was having a supremely classy round until he was held after a fence was slightly broken, and when he got going again he opted the long route through Discovery Valley, but in a rather a senior moment rode straight past part B, repeating Kirsty Short’s mistake of only minutes earlier. Luckily for William he realised in time (perhaps assisted by the gasps and loud reaction of the crowd) and went back again, so picking up only a few time faults for his error, but this cost him very valuable time.
Our blogger Charlotte Brear had a truly fantastic clear on her totally genuine part-Shire Manor Missile. She did an excellent job, saw great strides everywhere, and he just kept on trying for her. It was a total pleasure to watch, we were all very proud and chuffed to bits for her. It wasn’t the fastest round of the day of course but a clear around a track like that on ones 4* debut, on a self-produced horse, for an amateur, is something to absolutely treasure. Huge congratulations to her and her whole team.
Chris Burton was the first, as number 84, to show that the time was feasible, his Jamaimo keeping up a relentless gallop and making it look pretty easy.
Francis Whittington was having a great round on Hasty Imp in his trademark smooth attacking style, until he went the long route at the Trout Hatchery. The horse’s rhythm went and he suddenly seemed unsure, with Francis almost carrying him over the brush, but sticking on to stay clear.
Some fences such as the upright gate at the Dairy Complex, and the very upright Slate Mine, all jumped far better than anticipated, which was really good to see. There was a lot of immensely classy riding. It was a hugely positive day for the sport – no bad falls (I think Rocana was the only horse fall, slipping sideways in the water, and that wasn’t at a fence), a really testing course that sorted out the field, and which punished mistakes, but not harshly. Such a very difficult balance for a course designer to manage, and today I think Captain Mark Phillips danced that knife-edge to perfection. All possible credit to those who went out there and went clear, and very best of luck to all in the SJ tomorrow.
Don’t forget that coverage of today’s XC is on BBC2 Sunday afternoon, before the final SJ.
All the videos so far can be watched HERE.