New Zealand’s Andrew Nicholson has jumped into the lead of the Burghley Horse Trials on two-time winner Avebury, after an influential cross-country.
From the 60 horses going into the second phase, 18 horses were either eliminated or retired on the 6420m cross country, though all but six of the finishers went clear with only time faults. No-one achieved the 11min 19sec optimum and those who could get within a minute of it found themselves shooting up the leaderboard.
A deceptive humidity in the air plus subtle changes to Mark Phillips’s track meant the optimum time of 11min 19sec was impossible to achieve and it took riders a while to work out the most economic routes on his new twisting lines.
Phillips said afterwards he had been very surprised no-one had finished inside the time allowed.
Despite the good ground conditions the water elements in particular proved tough for many of the horse and rider partnerships, resulting in the 11 minute 19 second optimum time proving elusive. Current Rolex Grand Slam of Eventing ‘live contender’ Sam Griffiths took an early lead on Happy Times, despite being held twice on the course, and is now lying in second after setting a highly competitive score that only Nicholson was able to match.
Dressage leader Jonathan Paget has dropped to fourth on Clifton Promise after having to change his plan at the water, and is lying just behind Oliver Townend on Armada, while Izzy Taylor (KBIS Briarlands Matilda) and William Fox-Pitt (Bay My Hero) complete the top six going into Sunday’s showjumping phase.
Nicholson was happy at the end of the course. “It would be unbelievable for us to win three consecutive Burghley titles, not just for myself, but also for the horse and the sport.
“He’s got a great competitive attitude and he loves the crowds. I set off quite conservatively on him because I knew I had a bit in hand but he really prefers it if I ride him like I stole him. He’s a fun horse to ride fast and he loves it when I turn him tightly.”
The 14-year-old Avebury, a horse Nicholson bred himself by the Irish Draught/thoroughbred Jumbo out of a thoroughbred mare, Memento, is quite a character and tends to have likings for particular venues – he has won the CIC3* at Barbury (GBR) three times in succession, for instance.
“Just to come here three years running on the same horse is amazing, let alone having the chance to win again,” Nicholson said.
He had deliberately done the first three minutes of the course a little quieter than usual, to allow Avebury to get into the rhythm.
Nicholson said he always aimed for the most economical lines, challenging himself to go inside any other tracks, and he thinks Avebury likes to play the same game.
“That is how I ride, and he does it too. I’d like to think he is being clever but I think he is saving his energy.”
Avebury had been a very consistent winner from the the word go, and had done Burghley five times, finishing inside the optimum time most of those.
Nicholson praised Phillips’s course, saying it had been very clever.
“It is good course designing. The conditions here are perfect, as always … after the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, it is a pleasure to run around here.”
Sam Griffiths, who headed the leaderboard on Happy Times right until the end of the day, was held twice on course, at five-and-a-half minutes and then again on the downhill run home through Winner’s Avenue. “I was having a cracking round when I was stopped the first time,” Griffiths said.
“I admit I was quite pleased to have a stop, but it did break our rhythm both times. But the crowd was amazing, sharing bottles of water and encouraging me. It’s the longest cross country round of my life, but it still feels good to jump clear round Burghley.”
Townend, the last rider to achieve the Badminton-Burghley double, in 2009, said of Armada, his Badminton runner-up this year: “We all know what a wonderful cross-cuntry horse he is. If you put him in the right place at the right pace, he’ll always help you, but I found it very noticeable how soon I found myself behind the time today.”
Paget, who lost several valuable seconds at the water, said Clifton Promise had kept fighting all the way home.
“I think the Trout Hatchery might have cost me the win,” he said afterwards. “I planned to go straight, but he did a little jink, rather like a half-pass, and I was suddenly facing the wrong way. I looked at my watch at fence 27 and when I saw 11 minutes I thought ‘you’re kidding me’. But I couldn’t have come home any faster – the horse gave me his all.
“We were careful at the beginning. I was watching some of the others who set out too fast and I didn’t want to be chasing a tired horse home.”
Instead, Promise had been “like a rocket” on the way home, he said.
Izzy Taylor (GBR), one of Britain’s best cross-country riders, had the joint fourth fastest time of 11.2 penalties on the little mare KBIS Briarlands Matilda and has risen seven places to fifth. “It wasn’t beautiful – in fact it was a bit hairy,” she said. “It’s a busy, twisting course, but the going was great.”
William Fox-Pitt (GBR) and the lovely Irish-bred gelding Bay My Hero, the dressage runners-up, had a couple of green moments and were then held in front of the Stamford Station, an imposing white oxer at fence 27. They eventually finished with 20.8 time penalties and are in sixth place.
The USA’s Hannah Sue Burnett rode a neat round on Harbour Pilot and is now best of the 17 Burghley first-timers in seventh, an improvement of seven places after dressage.
New Zealand’s Jonelle Price moved up to 11th after being 28th after the dressage. She had been fifth with The Deputy at Burghley last year, and had contemplated not starting him on Saturday.
“It is not worth putting miles on him that he doesn’t need. We didn’t come here to get 22nd,” she said.
Her husband, Luhmühlen winner Tim Price was unshipped when Ringwood Sky Boy hit one of the airy hurdle fences, a nod to the late Lord Burghley’s career as an Olympic hurdler, that comprised an influential new “slalom” question in the main arena at fence 4.
The other Kiwis did not have such a good run, with Neil Spratt (Upleadon), Craig Nicolai (Just Ironic), and Megan Heath (St Daniel) all eliminated.
Andrew Hoy, lying fifth after dressage on Rutherglen, was arguably going as well as anyone and was especially neat with his line through the Trout Hatchery (fences 13 and 14) but then decided to pull up at the far end of the course in front of fence 21.
Alison Springer and Arthur, sixth, dropped to 20th with a run-out at the open corner at the Maltings (fence 18) and Aoife Clarke (IRL), seventh, had a rather erratic ride on Vaguely North which ended with a fall at the Stamford Station.
Sarah Bullimore (Valentino V), the trailblazer and US rider Marilyn Little (RF Demeter), 1oth after dressage, were both given 21 penalties for breaking a frangible fence.
Reporting: Kate Green, Diana Dobson
Results after Cross Country
1. Andrew Nicholson/Avebury (NZL) 40.5 + 5.6 = 46.1
2. Sam Griffiths/Happy Times (AUS) 40.2 + 9.6 = 49.8
3. Oliver Townend/Armada (GBR) 48.3 + 6.8 = 55.1
4. Jock Paget/Clifton Promise (NZL) 38.8 + 16.4 = 55.2
5. Izzy Taylor/KBIS Briarlands Matilda (GBR) 48.3 + 11.2 = 59.5
6. William Fox-Pitt/Bay My Hero (GBR) 39.5 + 20.8 = 60.3
7. Hannah Sue Burnett/Harbour Pilot (USA) 48.5 + 13.2 = 61.7
8. Gemma Tattersall/Arctic Soul (GBR) 53.0 + 11.2 = 64.2
9. Bill Levett/Improvise (AUS) 48.7 + 17.2 = 65.9
10. Murray Lamperd/Under the Clocks (AUS) 50.2 + 18.8 = 69.0