No German rider has won the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials in its 67-year history, but two of them are heading the leaderboard after the first day of dressage and few would bet against this being the year that history is made.
Michael Jung, who flew straight to Badminton after his victory at Kentucky on Sunday, and La Biosthetique Sam FBW lead Andreas Ostholt (So Is Et), the pair earning the only sub-40 marks of the day.
Last to go, Francis Whittington gave the home crowd plenty to cheer about when scoring 40.0 penalties on Hasty Imp to slot into third place at this stage of the event, the fourth leg of the FEI Classics 2015/2016.
Jung has become a great favourite in Britain and a packed crowd gave him a warm reception after his test, which was obedient and soft with some expressive canter work. The Ground Jury, President Marilyn Payne (USA), Andrew Bennie (NZL) and Angela Tucker (GBR), gave him nines for his riding.
“It’s the ease of it all that makes him such a pleasure to watch,” said Olympic Dressage gold medalist Carl Hester, who was commentating.
“Sam was really good,” said Jung of the 16-year-old gelding who has given him Olympic, world and European titles as well as victory at Burghley last year.
“Before today, I felt he was quite nervous and that I hadn’t done enough work with him, but in the end he was very relaxed. I must thank all the people who have been looking after him while I was ‘on holiday’ in Kentucky.”
Ostholt, 38, who has not competed at Badminton for five years, is only 3.8 penalties behind, on a mark of 38.2 on So Is Et, a 13-year-old Westphalian gelding. “I have not scored in the 30s for two years, so it’s a good feeling,” he said.
Ostholt, whose brother Frank was placed at Badminton in 2007, is Head of the Riding Unit at the German Military Sports School at Warendorf.
Whittington said he was “over the moon” but was not going to allow his achievement to go to his head at this early stage of the competition. “I came here with no expectations,” he said.
“The horse has to work hard at this level and I am going to focus on one thing at a time. The main thing is that I need to concentrate [in Saturday’s cross-country] and ride forward.
“I’ve changed my mindset following a great conversation with Joseph Murphy in Ballindenisk recently. It’s cleared my mind and reminded me why I do this – for the fun of it. I’ve been here before [well placed after dressage] and know it can all change overnight so I’m just going to enjoy the moment.”
New Zealand’s Clarke Johnstone, who has returned to his home country to live, is in fourth place on the 12-year-old grey New Zealand Sport Horse Balmoral Sensation with a mark of 40.8.
His compatriot, Badminton first-timer Jesse Campbell, lying fifth, had the doubtful privilege of going into the arena after Jung, but he didn’t let that affect his concentration and the 13-year-old New Zealand Thoroughbred Kaapachino, a reliable performer in the dressage phase, produced a good test for 40.8.
“I’m a little on edge,” admitted Campbell, one of the tallest riders on the circuit, who revealed that things got off to a frenetic start when he lost his car keys and had to squeeze into Jock Paget’s suit for the first Horse Inspection.
“Kaapachino’s walk is always on the delicate side and I mucked up the halt, but I have to be pleased. Badminton is the reason you do this sport. I’ve wanted to come here ever since I sat up all night to watch Mark Todd win on Bertie Blunt in 1996.”
Five nations are represented in the top seven, with the 2014 winners Sam Griffiths (AUS) and Paulank Brockagh in sixth place ahead of Ireland’s Sarah Ennis on BLM Diamond Delux in seventh.
Riders have been making early assessments of Giuseppe della Chiesa’s cross-country course, which follows the same anti-clockwise direction as in 2015. It’s the Italian designer’s third year at Badminton and German team trainer Christopher Bartle considers “the pendulum has swung back to 2014”, which was generally considered a tougher course than last time.
“There is a lot to jump out there and you have to take confidence from fence to fence, but at the same time it is definitely doable,” he said.
Blyth Tait, currently 17th after scoring 48.5 on Bear Necessity V, is also well placed to offer an interesting perspective on the track, as this is the first time he’s ridden at Badminton for 13 years, having retired from the sport in 2004.
“I feel as if I’ve never been away,” said the former Olympic and world champion. “I’m feeling pretty brave now, but that may have changed by Saturday! The course is strong all the way and I’m not so keen on all the left turns – at Huntsman’s Close, the Gatehouse New Pond, and the Lake, among others – where it would be easy to run out.”
Tait finished runner-up at Badminton three times in the 1990s. “I’d be thrilled with a top 10 finish this week, but I must admit it would be nice to nail this event before I retire – again.”
There are several smart combinations yet to perform their dressage tests – the penultimate rider on Friday, Christopher Burton (AUS) on Nobilis 18, is strongly fancied to challenge Jung – and Carl Hester expressed the opinion that the competition was still wide open for “a mistake-free, expressive test” to take the lead.
Results after first day of Dressage
1 Michael Jung/La Biosthetique Sam FBW (GER) 34.4 penalties
2 Andreas Ostholt/So Is Et (GER) 38.2
3 Francis Whittington/Hasty Imp (GBR) 40.0
4 Clarke Johnstone/Balmoral Sensation (NZL) 40.8
5 Jesse Campbell/Kaapachino (NZL) 41.1
6 Sam Griffiths/Paulank Brockagh (AUS) 42.2
7 Sarah Ennis/BLM Diamond Delux (IRL) 43.6
8 Sarah Bullimore/Valentino V (GBR) 44.4
9 Jock Paget/Clifton Lush (NZL) 45.2
9 Rosalind Canter/Allstar B (GBR) 45.6
Images below © Mike Bain