British riders have been shut out of the top dressage placings at the Badminton Horse Trials, with the country’s best placed riders in 18th equal after the second day of dressage.
Australian Christopher Burton and Graf Liberty pranced into the lead, with Germany’s Ingrid Klimke and Horseware Hale Bob a close second and Ireland’s Jonty Evans third on Cooley Rorkes Drift.
The Olympic team bronze medalist and his 12-year-old Irish Sport Horse Graf Liberty put up an outstanding mark of 32.9. The only riders to have bettered Burton’s score in Badminton’s 68-year history are fellow Aussie Andrew Hoy with Darien Powers in 2000, and Britain’s Pippa Funnell on Supreme Rock in 2002.
“I’m so proud of my horse. I can’t believe it. I deliberately didn’t push him too much at the start of the week – I didn’t even get on the horse until Wednesday afternoon – as I have been known to overdo it on him before, but he worked in better and better and to come out of the arena with a 32.9 is fantastic. I’m so happy,” Burton said.
Seven nations are represented in the top 10, and the best British starters – Tom McEwan (Toledo de Kerser) and Alexander Bragg (Zagreb) are 18th equal on 44.6 penalties. But most of the riders agree that the cross-country, the first from new designer Eric Winter, will produce major changes to the leaderboard.
Ireland’s Jonty Evans, back at Badminton for the first time in 10 years, broke down in tears on hearing his mark of 37.2, which puts him in third place, and pointed emphatically to Cooley Rorkes Drift, the horse that took him to ninth place at the Rio Olympics last year. The last Irish rider to win Badminton was Eddie Boylan (Durlas Eile) in 1965 and the last top-three finisher was Jessica Harrington, who was third with Amoy in 1983.
“I am just over the moon with him, he tried so hard, he was totally and utterly with me all through the test. He is a very special horse. What’s so amazing about him is that you know that if you turn up he will be there, and you can’t always say that about every horse.
“He is my horse of a lifetime. We have trained so hard and I’ve wanted to get under 40 for so long. It’s unbelievable, very special. I’d like to think the cross country will suit my horse – he doesn’t look big because I’m so lanky, but he’s got a long stride.
“Finishing on my dressage score is the aim!”
Speaking about the extra pressure that competing at such a world famous and historic competition as Badminton, Evans added: “You have to try and keep in your mind that this is just another event – obviously it’s not – but you have to try and keep it that way in your mind.
“Tomorrow’s cross-country is big and bold and there to be jumped and riders will have to use their heads and go out and do a good job.”
Sarah Ennis is next best of the Irish riders in 23rd place with Horseware Stellor Rebound (45.4), just ahead of Austin O’Connor with Kilpatrick Knight in 24th place on 45.8.
Belgium’s Karin Donckers (Fletcha Van ‘T De Verahof, 37.3) is in fourth, and US rider Lauren Kieffer and New Zealand’s Andrew Nicholson are fifth equal, having overtaken first-day leader Thibaut Vallette, who is now seventh. Defending champion Michael Jung is now ninth on La Biosthetique Sam but cannot be ruled out.
There were eight sub-40 dressage tests ridden in the field and with that Kieffer beat her personal best four-star score by more than four points, riding the 15-year-old KWPN mare Veronica (Pacific x Kimbel).
“She was so good in there,” Kieffer said. “I thought I was just going to have to keep a lid on it because she has just been wild all week, but she is such a professional and got in there and put her head down and buckled down to it.”
New Zealand’s Mark Todd is 13th and 14th with Leonidas II and NZB Campino respectively, but came out of the arena on Friday a little frustrated after his ride on Campino.
“The horse is very capable of doing a really good test but I think a lot of horses have been upset by the wind and everything else, and when he does get a bit nervous like that he gets snatchy in the hand and there is very little I can do,” Todd said.
Many of the riders reckoned that the cross-country would be a major disruption to the leaderboard. “I think it pretty much starts at the staircase and from then on it is question after question with very little let up,” Todd said.
Compatriot Tim Price, who is in 34th place on Xavier Faer, agreed. “I don’t think I have seen it bigger. It is massive. Even the let up fences are maximum and it is just the placement of everything. I think the cream always rises to the top and that is what is supposed to happen at 4* level. It would be great to see some of the young riders come through and learn something about themselves.”
Nicholson, who is in fifth equal place on Nereo with 38.0, blamed himself for the loss of a few marks, with “fluffed” flying changes, but was otherwise very pleased. “You can trust him to go in there and focus and give you 100%,” he said. “He was superb.”
He described the Eric Winter-designed course as “proper”. “They have had big tracks here before. This is big and it is fair, and we’ve got to ride it properly. Hopefully that is what I will do tomorrow.”
Riders have variously described the course as ‘massive’, ‘imposing’ and ‘needing total concentration’ with a mix of excitement and trepidation. Britain’s Izzy Taylor summed it up: ‘Eric [Winter, designer] has handed the responsibility to the rider, which is the right direction. I think we’ll be looking at some different results tomorrow.”
Klimke said: “It’s a mix of big bold fences and accuracy tests and you have to concentrate, but I have ridden some difficult courses in my time and I feel my horse is in good shape.”