New Zealand’s Andrew Nicholson remains in pole position on Nereo after the second day of dressage at the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials.
The 53-year-old Kiwi, who performed his test early on Thursday morning, is still out in front of the 81 starters in the fourth leg of the FEI Classics series, although his lead has shrunk to just 1.2 penalties over world number two William Fox-Pitt and the 15-year-old stallion Chilli Morning.
Nicholson’s former ride, Armada – a full brother to Nereo – is in close contention in third place with Oliver Townend on 39.2. Ingrid Klimke is fourth on Horseware Hale Bob on 40.2 penalties, and New Zealander Jock Paget’s two rides, Clifton Lush and Clifton Promise, are in fifth and sixth place, separated by a mere 0.4 of a penalty.
With judges now able to award half marks under new FEI rules, the scores are tightly bunched – just 10 penalties cover the top 29 horses – making for a thrilling day’s cross-country on Saturday.
Nicholson, who has completed Badminton more times (33) than any other rider, admitted that he was quite surprised to find himself still in the lead after some strong performances by fellow competitors on Friday. “I expected to end up about fifth,” he said, “but Nereo felt very smart yesterday and I thought that if anyone beat me they probably wouldn’t be very far in front.”
Fox-Pitt, who is bringing his world bronze medal horse to Badminton for the first time, was rueing a couple of fluffed flying changes in an otherwise immaculate test. “It’s frustrating because Chilli is a horse that is normally very solid in this movement, but I’m very happy with him overall and he feels fantastic,” he said.
“He’s usually a very relaxed horse and has been half-asleep all week, so it was rather a bad moment for him to wake up!” added Fox-Pitt, who admits that he faces a long and anxious wait on Saturday as he only has the one ride this year and won’t be going across country until nearly the end of the day.
Townend, the last British rider to win Badminton (in 2009 on Flint Curtis), commented that this was Armada’s best test to date. “It’s all about the long-term work we’ve done together,” he said.
“This is the first time he’s come to Badminton felt he’s ready to do his job in the arena. Usually, you’re sitting on eggshells, but as the test progressed and when we got into the canter, I could ride him more and more.”
As anticipated, Germany’s Klimke produced a beautifully ridden, accurate test on Horseware Hale Bob, which was only marred by a few moments of tension, notably in the walk. The ever good-humoured Klimke, who took “Bobby” draghunting as a young horse, explained that he had suddenly heard the hounds in the Duke of Beaufort’s hunt kennels on the Badminton estate.
“He was really opening up at the start, with a lovely shoulder in, and I had a big smile on my face,” she said. “But then he heard the dogs and I had to tell him ‘come on, we’re not hunting’! But it’s good that he’s excited, because he needs to be awake tomorrow for the cross-country.”
Klimke added: “I’m looking forward to it and don’t feel there is any particular problem fence. My horse has scope and is neat on his feet and well balanced. We’re definitely going for it.”
Aoife Clark is the best of an eight-strong Irish contingent, finishing the dressage in 10th place on her 15 year-old New Zealand thoroughbred gelding Vaguely North.
Irish-bred event horses accounted for 41% of the accepted entries this year.
Riders have been weighing up Giuseppe della Chiesa’s Cross Country course, which last year claimed such notable scalps as Nicholson, Fox-Pitt, Mark Todd (NZL), Pippa Funnell (GBR) and Mary King (GBR). As is traditional, the direction has been reversed this year so that it runs anti-clockwise, the route riders tend to prefer, and the general perception is that the intensity has been reduced.
However, the Italian designer, only the fourth in Badminton’s 66-year history, has still set some of the difficult lines for which he is renowned.
The riders will have been carefully assessing the big brush corners at the ISH Studbook Huntsman’s Close (fence 8), which were so influential in 2014, the cunningly placed logs on undulating ground at the Swindon Designer Outlet Mound (15-16), the tricky carved hedges at the Mirage Pond (18), the choice of rolltops at the Shogun Hollow (22) and the curving line through three silver birch rails at fences 25-26, the complex named after Badminton’s official charity, Sense.
“The course is a little bit kinder than last year, with not as many combinations, but you can’t get away from the fact it is still big, it’s still Badminton, and there’s no room for error anywhere,” said the seasoned Kristina Cook (GBR), who is lying 11th on De Novo News.
“There is so much history at Badminton. I rode here when I was 21, many years ago. I was completely terrified then. I’ve had some amazing rides here, and I have also fallen off a few times as well, but that is the respect Badminton needs. Only the best come here.”
Images below © Mike Bain
Results after Dressage
1 Andrew Nicholson/Nereo (NZL) 37.8
2 William Fox-Pitt/Chilli Morning (GBR) 39.0
3 Oliver Townend/Armada (GBR) 39.6
4 Ingrid Klimke/Horseware Hale Bob (GER) 40.2
5 Jock Paget/Clifton Lush (NZL) 40.8
6 Jock Paget/Clifton Promise (NZL) 41.2
7 Paul Tapner/Indian Mill (AUS) 41.9
8 Niklas Bschorer/Tom Tom Go 3 (GER) 42.1
9 Bettina Hoy/Designer 10 (GER) 42.8
10 Aoife Clark/Vaguely North (IRL) 42.9