The cross-country phase at the Blenheim Palace International Horse Trials forced some dramatic changes to the leaderboard, with the top three after the dressage out of contention.
William Fox-Pitt moved up from fifth to lead on Freddie Mac after a dramatic save at fence 11, when the long-striding chestnut slithered sideways over the big corner and landed on his knees. The world number one rider didn’t even shift in the saddle; he picked Freddie Mac up as if nothing had happened and continued faultlessly to finish the course with no jumping or time penalties.
“He was very good to stay on his feet,” Fox-Pitt said. “I seemed to have no contact and no reins, so I’m very lucky. What an amazing horse to pick up like that. He’s a lovely galloper and a horse that I feel has got a bright future.”
But he has no margin for error in what promises to be a nailbiting showjumping finale on Sunday because the cost of one rail covers the top four riders.
Dressage leaders Andrew Hoy and Cheeky Calimbo had an unfortunate run-out near the end of the course at the Brightwells Elite Event Horse Auction Corners (fence 23ab) while Emily King, who was lying second after dressage on Brookleigh, only got as far as the second fence where she had a fall but was unscathed.
Francis Whittington added just 1.6 time penalties on Easy Target to move up from fourth to second. “We started conservatively and we got a bit close to a couple of fences which is where we lost the odd second, but I’m really pleased with the horse,” said Whittington, who will be hoping that this is his big chance to win a first three-star CCI.
New Zealander Tim Price was relieved after his good round on Ringwood Sky Boy, on whom he is lying third. He brought the Irish-bred gelding to Blenheim at the last minute after an unfortunate unseating at the fourth fence at Burghley last weekend. The week before that, he had had to pull up his team horse Wesko at the end of cross-country at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in France.
“I’m rapt with him,” Price said. “That was definitely redemption. It’s nice to come to a beautiful competition like this and be right up at the sharp end. There’s no denying that the WEG was devastating but you have to learn to take the knocks.”
Looking ahead, he said: “Show jumping would be his weakest phase, but he’s been improving since Badminton [where they dropped from second to ninth] and I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve, though I haven’t been able to try them out in a three-day situation yet.”
Jodie Amos completes the quartet within a hairsbreadth of victory. She is fourth on the half Arab gelding Wise Crack after a superb cross-country round, one of eight within the optimum time of 10 minutes 35 seconds.
“He’s not your classically straightforward event horse,” explained Jodie, who is based at Aston-le-Walls with Nigel Taylor. “He was very flighty and for the first 18 months I had him he would just bolt with me, so he’s a bit of a late starter. But he has so much talent and, as he’s relatively young (10), he’s got lots to come. He was brilliant today.”
Wise Crack is by the Russian bred purebred arabian Phormative.
Francis Whittington was the only rider to get two horses round clear and inside the time and he has a second chance of victory with the fifth-placed Fernhill Highlight.
Italian rider Vittoria Panizzon (Merlot’s Magic), Kitty King (Persimmon), Pippa Funnell (Second Supreme), the USA’s Phillip Dutton (Fernhill Cubalawn) and Kiwi Jock Paget (Shady Grey) complete an international top 10.
Funnell currently holds the record of four Blenheim CCI wins, compared to Fox-Pitt’s three, although he has also won the CIC 8 and 9 year old Championship class twice in recent years.
Wills Oakden, 16th on Greystone Midnight Melody, is currently the highest placed British rider under 25, in contention for the Horse Trials Support Group’s £500 prize.
Fifty-five of the 74 cross-country starters completed with 37 clear rounds on a day when the beautiful park at Blenheim looked at its best and the footing, prepared by course-builder David Evans, was perfect.
Course-designer Eric Winter declared: “I’m really pleased – we had 50% clear which would be my ideal statistic and is slightly more than last year, and I predicted nine inside the time, so eight would be about right.
“Faults were well spread and there weren’t any bogey fences. The fences I thought would be difficult were – the rail-ditch-rail at 20 [Hope Valley Wooded Hollow] and the Abingdon & Witney College Bar and Corner at 11, which David Evans reckons that fence is past its sell-by date, so we’re going to invite William to the burning process!”
This was a reference to William Fox-Pitt not only nearly falling at fence 11 on Freddie Mac but also having run-outs there on his other rides, Seacookie, the 2012 winner, and last year’s CIC winner Fernhill Pimms, both of whom he retired.
• Dutch rider Tim Lips and Bayro lead on 39.3 after the dressage and jumping phases of the CIC3* for eight and nine-year-old horses, with the cross-country getting under way on Sunday morning.
Dressage leader, Australia’s Sam Griffiths, had seven faults to relinquish his lead, and is now on 43.6, just behind New Zealand’s Jonelle Price and Faerie Dianimo with 43.2.
Three riders are in fourth equal spot on 44,4 penalties; Australia’s Kevin McNab (Casperelli) New Zealand’s Jock Paget (Clifton Signature), and Britain’s Oliver Townend (Cooley Master Class).