Eventing superstar Michael Jung punched the air in a rare show of emotion as he left the dressage arena at the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials on Saturday.
The Olympic, World and European Champion now leads after the second day of dressage on La Biosthetique Sam, with 36.0 penalties.
Jung, who is competing for the first time at Badminton, was visibly thrilled by the crowd’s response to his superb test. Badminton is the fourth leg of the rich HSBC FEI Classics series, in which he is sitting in sixth place.
“There is a lot of atmosphere here but Sam was relaxed and he did a fantastic job,” Jung said afterwards. “I didn’t know the result when I came out of the arena, but I had a very good feeling about it.”
Asked whether he felt under pressure to prove himself at Badminton, one of the few major prizes missing from his CV, 30-year-old Jung laughed: “Of course I was a little nervous, but I think the riders most under pressure here are Andrew Nicholson and William Fox-Pitt!”
Of his ride on Sam, Jung said: “My horse was very concentrated and I feel it in the warm up – he’s very relaxed and concentrate to me and not to the spectators – I can ride him and touch him to the legs OK and he feels really good.”
Looking toward the cross-country, Jung said he thought it was a nice course. “You have long ways – you can go really fast forward and you can have time enough to prepare the next jump. It’s a really good building from the course designer. You have a few jumps to go into the course and many tricky fences but I think we can see a very nice course.”
Another Badminton first-timer, Italian army rider Stefano Brecciaroli (ITA), was also smiling broadly when he left the arena. He and his magnificent Belgian-bred horse, Apollo VD Wendi Kurt Hoeve, presented an elegant picture and surprised no-one when they were the first pair to score under 40 penalties. The Italian duo are lying second on 36.8 penalties.
Brecciaroli, who has won a CIC3* with Apollo on British soil this spring, was second after dressage at the London Olympic Games last year, eventually finishing 19th. For the last month, the Italian has been based with his close friend Andrew Nicholson (NZL), riding the Kiwi’s horses during his absence on his winning trip to Kentucky, and Nicholson has tipped Brecciaroli to win this weekend: “I’ve been teaching him to go much faster across country!”
Jung’s three Olympic team mates are all in the top 13. Dirk Schrade and the smart King Artus posted one of their best performances to slot into third on 39.2; individual Olympic bronze medallist Sandra Auffarth is in equal seventh place with a mark of 41.3 on Opgun Louvo, and Ingrid Klimke is 13th on Butts Abraxxas.
The ever-sporting Klimke put a good face on what was, for her, a disappointing dressage mark of 44.2. “It was like sitting on a five-year-old, not a 16-year-old,” she said of her double Olympic gold medal ride. “He was so relaxed outside, but the wind and the clapping made him want to change legs all the time. That was not our best test!”
Rising New Zealand star Jonathan Paget and his Pau runner-up, Clifton Promise, are fourth on 39.7. Paget has been training in Germany with Jung during the winter and his time with the German supremo is obviously paying off handsomely.
Paget, 29, is pleased with Promise, a New Zealand thoroughbred on whom he was part of the bronze medal-winning team at the London Olympics, 7th individually at the 2010 World Equestrian Championships, and second at the 2012 4* Pau in France.
“Certainly that first half of his dressage test was the best he has ever done,” said Paget. “Promise got a little excited going into the second half but did well … very well.”
After getting disappointing marks with his second mount Clifton Lush on Friday, he was determined to come out firing from the start.
“I thought Lush was perfect yesterday and didn’t put a step out of place but they (the judges) didn’t give him the marks. I thought he should have been in the low forties, but instead he’s on 48.2.”
The combination is in 24th equal place.
Paget is aiming to be clear and inside the time allowed on Sunday’s cross-country but he says it’s going to be tricky with a course that throws up constant challenges.
The Rolex Grand Slam is proving a thrilling sub-plot at Badminton and the two contenders could not be more closely matched. William Fox-Pitt is in fifth place on Parklane Hawk on 40.0 and Andrew Nicholson, the current HSBC FEI Classics leader, is sixth, a mere 0.2 of a penalty in arrears, on Nereo.
Nicholson is also 14th on Avebury and Fox-Pitt is equal 16th with Oslo in a closely-packed field in which 10 penalties covers the top 16 places.
Pippa Funnell (GBR), the only rider to have achieved the Grand Slam, 10 years ago, pulled off a superb piece of riding to be equal seventh on Redesigned, a horse who has been out of top level competition for three years.
Nicholson, whose best Badminton result is second behind Fox-Pitt in 2004, has been single-mindedly targeting the event for six months. “I’ve got two good horses that I have faith in,” he says.
“Avebury is the friendlier of the two, but he can be naughty if he thinks he can get away with it. If you don’t watch him when you turn him out, he’ll snatch the halter rope out of your hand and go galloping around, having a laugh. Nereo, who is a bit shy, is much more polite and is always 100% on your side.”
Of his test on Nereo, he said: “The walk isn’t the easiest – naturally he hasn’t got a brilliant walk, just with the photographers and the clicking of the cameras it got him a little jig joggy and it make the rein back a bit quicker than it should be, but otherwise I thought he was very good.
“That’s part of these big events – now I suppose there are more taking photos – its all noticeable, but just part of the sport. If the wind was perhaps blowing in a different direction then you never know, but its part of it all and you’ve just got to take it as it is.”
Nicholson said he was happy with his position: “I don’t like being in the lead after the dressage – I was in the lead after the dressage here once before and I finished second. And I was in second place in Kentucky last week and then won – so I’ll stick to that!”
Fox-Pitt also commented on the cameras this year. “I’m very pleased with Parklane Hawk – he did a lovely test. It’s a shame that he made a bit of a fluff of the rein back – we don’t normally do that. I think it was just nerves and the excitement and you’ve got all the cameras this year right behind them. I could feel him not really focusing on me and he lost his focus of attention for a second – but he came back really well and I was very, very pleased with how he went.”
Fox-Pitt predicts that the anti-clockwise direction of the cross-country course – it is reversed each year – offers the more rhythmic track. “I don’t think there’s a bogey fence,” he said, “but the cumulative effect of so many technical questions will be influential. The last two to three minutes are particularly intense.
“We are hoping that it is a tough course – I certainly am, especially not being in the lead after the dressage myself, so I shall be hoping it causes plenty of trouble!”
Shrade commented that course designer Hugh Thomas has produced every sort of question possible. “I think he will get what every designer wants, with faults around the whole course. It’s very well designed.”
Additional reporting: Diana Dobson; Rolex.
Results after Dressage
1 Michael Jung/La Biosthetique Sam (GER) 36.0
2 Stefano Brecciaroli/Apollo VD Wendi Kurt Hoeve (ITA) 36.8
3 Dirk Schrade/King Artus (GER) 39.2
4 Jonathan Paget/Clifton Promise (NZL) 39.7
5 William Fox-Pitt/Parklane Hawk (GBR) 40.0
6 Andrew Nicholson/Nereo (NZL) 40.2
7= Sandra Auffarth/Opgun Louvo (GER) 41.3
7= Pippa Funnell/Redesigned (GBR) 41.3
9 Christopher Burton/Holstein Park Leilani (AUS) 43.0
10= Sam Griffiths/Happy Times (AUS) 43.3
10= Tiana Coudray/Ringwood Magister (USA) 43.3
Images below © Mike Bain