Britain’s Oliver Townend kept his head in a tense final jumping round at the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials to score his first CCI4* victory for eight years and head a British sweep of the top four places.
He overcame a nerve-wracking moment when the 10-year-old Irish Sports Horse Ballaghmor Class crashed through the upright gate but, fortunately for him, the previous pair in the arena, Gemma Tattersall and Arctic Soul had given him breathing space when they had a fence down.
“This is very, very special. Such a lot can go wrong with a young horse – and he’s only just learned to do flying changes – but he’s in a different class to anything else I’ve ridden recently,” Townend said.
Townend, 31, won Badminton and Burghley in 2009 and is the British number one, but has struggled to find a consistently top horse since then. But on the cross-country, his Irish bred gelding by Courage galloped and jumped easily and looked a star for the future.
Tattersall finished third, slipping one place behind Piggy French who jumped clear on the mare Vanir Kamira to move up from fifth after cross country to the runner-up slot. It was a particularly triumphant return for French, who has taken a year off from the sport to have a baby.
“Our jumping round wasn’t that pretty, but who cares! Burghley is the toughest four-star in the world and to do well here is a dream!” French said.
Tom McEwen and Toledo de Kerser rose three places to fourth, a career best, with a beautifully judged clear round and Kristina Cook, one of the British gold medal team at last month’s FEI European Championships in Strzegom, moved up from 10th to seventh on Star Witness. The combination has been 40th after the dressage phase.
Richard Jeffry’s track produced seven clear rounds from the 40 finishers, two of which were with time faults.
New Zealander Tim Price was the highest-placed non-British rider, in fifth on Ringwood Sky Boy, who is by the same sire as Townend’s Ballaghmor Class. US rider Lynn Symansky was sixth on Donner and Andrew Nicholson (NZL) and his gallant 17-year-old Badminton winner Nereo were eighth with two rails down.
A huge crowd enjoyed perfect sunshine and thrilling sport with 29 clear rounds and plenty of excitement right until the very end on Mark Phillips’s cleverly designed track. The course threw plenty of challenges, and just three combinations were clear and inside time. Eleven combinations were eliminated, and four retired.
As the Brits surged up the leaderboard, there were some unexpected mishaps for senior riders.
Dressage leader Sir Mark Todd (NZL) was up on the clock with Leonidas ll when he fell off on landing over the brush at the Discovery Valley (fence 26).
“I was having a really good ride and he was fairly well up on time,” Todd said. “He just over-jumped. I may not have had too nice a stride into it and he just launched and lost his footing when he landed. It is not something he has ever done before … it is just really frustrating. Without that we probably would have been inside the time. I am not going to have too many more chances here.”
Third-placed Michael Jung (GER) and La Biosthetique Sam made the first mistake of their championship career with a runout at a skinny brush in the Trout Hatchery and subsequently retired.
Kristina Cook, fifth on Calvino ll, was held on course in front of the Discovery Valley and perhaps lost concentration as she had a frustrating runout and dropped to 18th place.
Andrew Nicholson (NZL) had a fall with first ride Qwanza at the new Storm Doris fence – angled logs from a tree which fell in the February storm. While Nicholson was winded in the fall, he was passed fit to ride Nereo, on whom he went clear with 7.6 time penalties.
“She (Qwanza) is a bouncy, buzzy thing and it was early on in the course,” Nicholson said. “It was a two stride combination and she did it in one – the second element is very big and very wide, and she is only little.”
With Burghley the last leg of the FEI Classics series, and although Michael Jung had retired across country after a rare mistake with La Biosthetique Sam, the German still secured the top prize in the series following a win at Kentucky and second places at Pau and Badminton.
French rider Maxime Livio, who was not competing at Burghley, remained in second place, counting a win at Pau and a second at Kentucky, and Nicola Wilson kept third with a fourth place at Pau and a second at Lühmuhlen.
“It’s been a brilliant season,” summed up the FEI’s Catrin Norinder, head of the Eventing and Olympic department.
“All six events have been thrilling and we’ve seen some fantastic performances from athletes and horses who have portrayed our sport in the very best light.”
Additional reporting: Diana Dobson