June 24, 2024

Oliver Townend and Ballaghmor Class. Photo by Libby Law.

When just one horse-and-rider pair jumped clear in the morning session of showjumping at Defender Burghley today — that was Harry Meade and Away Cruising, for what it’s worth — we knew that nothing would come easily in this afternoon’s finale. Of course, that was already a bit of a given; of the top ten after cross-country, very few could be considered exceptional show jumpers, and certainly neither overnight leader Tim Price’s Vitali, nor overnight runner-up Oliver Townend’s Ballaghmor Class, would be easily bestowed with the accolade.

And so it began, and the rails, as predicted, fell en masse, even for typically very good jumpers. There were some excellent early efforts; first-timers Emma Thomas and Icarus and relatively inexperienced combination — and fellow Wesko Equestrian Federation benefactors — Kristina Hall-Jackson and CMS Google each delivered elusive clears, popping them up a handful of places apiece, as did Alex Bragg‘s upstart Quindiva, who moved into the top fifteen as a result. But in total? Just six of the 32 starters executed a double-clear round, which meant that by the time the final handful of combinations came forward, the atmosphere in the place was a true pressure cooker.

First, overnight fifth-placed Sam Watson and SAP Talisman tipped four rails, pushing themselves right out of the hunt; then, overnight fourth-placed Wills Oakden and Oughterard Cooley took one, despite a classy effort. Finally, it was the turn of third-place David Doel and Galileo Nieuwmoed, arguably the pair with the greatest advantage in this phase, as they’ve not had a rail in 2023 and jumped clear previously at both Badminton and Kentucky on the final day. Sitting in third overnight, they were, on paper at least, in a fortuitous position as far as mindset is concerned — but would the pressure of possibility still get to them? Would we see them tip the final fence and miss out, as we had done when they jumped in the lead spot at Pau last year, handing the win to Jonelle Price?

We wouldn’t, as it turns out: the Wiltshire-based part-time ice-cream maker and his extraordinary horse, with whom he’s logged three top tens in a row at the level prior to this week, delivered the round of the day. It was smooth, classy, clean, and ensured they’d be the only pair in the competition to finish on their dressage score — but would it be enough? All they could do was wait — “and I’m not very good at watching,” admitted David.

Next up to bat was Oliver Townend, with a rail-and-change in hand aboard the 2017 winner of this event. They’ve lost as many five-stars as they’ve won off the back of a rail down — or, in the case of Badminton 2019, a stride and thus a second that they couldn’t afford — but today, it looked as though they’d avoid that curse. Until, of course, they came to the final fence, established take-off — and took the top rail with them. But without having lost any time around the track, it could still be enough — provided that dressage-record-setters Tim Price and Vitali stuck to prior form and tipped three rails, as they’ve done in each of the horse’s three prior five-stars.

They did. Three rails later, they’d dropped themselves into a final fourth place — and Oliver Townend was named the winner of the 2023 Defender Burghley Horse Trials, by just seven tenths of a penalty over David Doel.

Oliver Townend and Ballaghmor Class add another five-star win to their record. Photo by Libby Law.

There are few horses, whether in the modern era of the sport or in its century-and-a-bit long history, that have established the sort of consistency that we’ve seen from 16-year-old Irish Sport Horse Ballaghmor Class (Courage II – Kilderry Place, by an unrecorded sire). In nine five-star runs, he’s never finished lower than fifth; today, he added a third win at the level to his roster, completing a full circle that began with his debut — and first win — as a ten-year-old here.

It’s a sea change for Oliver, whose 2022 season brought with it a lack of top-level wins, and the loss of the FEI World Number One spot, after numerous seasons at the top of his game — and one that he’s been working his way towards ever since.

“Last year, we didn’t win a five star, which was the first year for a while that we hadn’t; we’d been on a good roll, but it was the same year that I joined Caunton Stud,” says Oliver, referring to the high-powered competition and breeding base of Victoria Wright, daughter of Sir John Peace, who had begun a professional partnership with Townend following the tragic passing of her late husband, fellow event rider Matthew Wright, in 2021. That new system, which sees him ride a string of exciting horses for Caunton from their own base, while maintaining his own string at his Gadlas Farm in Shropshire, represented a huge, but exciting, demand on his time — and one he needed to ensure he balanced properly.

‘We were trying to figure out if we were making sure everything was still being done the way we want it done, with two yards two and a half hours apart,” he says. “But this just cements that the teams at both yards are still doing all the right things with the horses, and now we can kick on and hopefully breathe into it and relax and and keep producing these results.”

Oliver Townend: your 2023 Defender Burghley champion. Photo by Libby Law.

For Oliver, who names Burghley as “the best five-star in the world; my favourite five-star”, winning again is undeniably special — but winning aboard ‘Thomas’, who was originally produced as a young horse in Ireland by Katherine Charlton, is even better, despite his occasional penchant for poles.

“I think his other two phases are strong enough to forgive him the occasional fence down, and when he doesn’t have a fence down, he wins. I think he’s jumping as good as he’s ever jumped,” says Oliver. “I got to the second to last and thought, ‘Christ, we’re still clear, go on!’ — and then, BANG! But what can I say about him — he’s a freak of nature ,and the people behind him in terms of the staff at home are just incredible. They’ve all been with me between seven and fourteen years; they’ve known all the horses since they were four years old — and horses don’t lie. If there’s a five-star on in the world, generally we’re there and near the top. So, the important thing is that he’s as sound as he’s ever been. He feels better than he’s ever felt and he’s performed amazingly.”

And what is it that makes Ballaghmor Class so special?

“He’s a true event horse,” says Oliver. “He’s brave. You know, at a couple of fences yesterday I thought, ‘oh, good distance!’ and then he absolutely walloped them and I was like, ‘oh my god. What are you doing?!’ But he still has his ears pricked and a smile on his face. And I think it’s that bravery that makes him perhaps not the most careful event horse, but at the same time, as long as I keep doing my job and he keeps doing his job, the form says the rest — and I love his form. If we went back to the long format tomorrow he’d still come out on top; he’s a fighter. Whatever era you put this horse in, he will win.”

 

David Doel and Galileo Nieuwmoed. Photo by Libby Law.

For David Doel, who got the most colossal cheers of the week for his exceptional clear today, this career-best second-place finish is something extraordinarily special — and if any part of him is thinking about what could have been, it’d be very hard to spot that through his palpable, hugely well-earned delight.

“Our luck was here this week,” says David, his characteristic broad smile etched across his face. “We didn’t have the luck at Pau, when we lost the lead, and I had a couple of lucky rubs, for sure, but he’s such a special horse — he’s magic.”

Galileo Nieuwmoed has been proving himself a horse of a lifetime for David over the last couple of years, with a fourth-place finish at Pau last year, a sixth-place finish at Badminton last spring, an eighth-place finish at Kentucky this spring, and two four-star wins to his name already in just his twelve-year-old season. He came into this afternoon’s showjumping as the only horse at the upper end of the leaderboard with a statistical chance of a clear — and cool-headed David rode the round of his life to make sure that happened.

“He’s an absolutely mega horse to ride,” he says. “We had our plan for the morning, for the trot up, and we had our plan for the jumping in the afternoon — and it’s not very often the plan goes right, but this weekend, we’ve ticked all those boxes and the plan has gone well.”

Now, the obvious question on everyone’s mind is this: where next for Galileo, who, but for a first-phase that’s still not quite consistent — he earned a 33.7 this week — could be the sort of British team anchor that could be counted on on the biggest of stages?

“I’ve not really thought past this weekend, honestly,” admits David. “But I was obviously a little bit disappointed to miss out on the Europeans, and so it was a great thing to be able to come here and show the form he has. I guess, now that he has a second, a fourth, a sixth, and an eighth at five-star, we’ve got to win one!”

Harry Meade and Cavalier Crystal. Photo by Libby Law.

After delivering the only clear of the morning session with first ride Away Cruising, Harry Meade returned for the afternoon to pilot his debutant mare Cavalier Crystal around the influential track in pursuit of their overnight sixth — or better. And though she’s one of the least experienced horses in the field, she delivered a clear as classy as her much more seasoned stablemates, which allowed her to sit pretty on the leaderboard and climb thereafter, up to an eventual third place.

“She’s such a fun jumper,” enthuses Harry. “She’s obviously a totally different ride from Away Cruising, but for both of them to have come out today and jumped clear rounds, it’s really just so exciting for the whole team. It’s nice — on a good jumper you can really enjoy it and just go in and have fun.”

Harry came to Burghley this week with three horses: hugely experienced pathfinder Away Cruising, debutant Crystal in the middle of the pack, and former stallion Tenareze as his third ride yesterday, but before coming, he tells us that he really wasn’t sure what to expect from the up-and-coming mare in her step up. While she’s obviously relished the experience, it’s also provided an immense learning opportunity, both for her to discover the upper echelon of her sport, and for Harry to discover more about her, too.

“The biggest question for me was how she coped with the atmosphere,” he says. “Not so much in the final jumping phase, but just generally — and also the speed and endurance on the cross country. Even before I went to get on her yesterday I was questioning it; I hoped it would be the right decision for her. But I think she thoroughly proved that she’s a five-star horse through and through. Today, if I could choose a horse to be sitting on, I was delighted it was her. Away Cruising has very different characteristics, and he was a good warm-up horse for me to jump a clear round with — and then I was able to get on and just really enjoy her.”

Tim Price and Vitali. Photo by Libby Law.

Though those three rails were achingly disappointing, and cost him another Burghley win to add to his 2018 victory, Tim Price didn’t have too far to fall with his two-phase leader, Vitali. They wound up in fourth place at the close of the competition — a respectable finish for a pair who began their week by setting a dressage record of 18.7.

“It’s super disappointing, and the gravity of that will come on in a few hours,” says Tim. “Showjumping is his Achilles’ heel, and we know that — I was just desperate to turn that around and get our first great result in the showjumping department. It’s disappointing, and it’s back to the drawing board. He’s a funny little fish, and we’ve just got to figure him out. I’ve never been very good at Rubik’s cubes, but I’ll get there in the end, I’m sure.”

Wills Oakden and Oughterard Cooley. Photo by Libby Law.

Scotland’s Wills Oakden isn’t the kind of man to come to a five-star aiming to be an also-ran, but despite his exceptional ability as a cross-country jockey, he’s never quite snuck into the business end of the leaderboard — before this week. And if you’d told him before he arrived that he’d end up with two horses in the top ten, having executed a twenty-plus place climb over cross-country and tipping just a rail apiece to stay well in the mix?

“I’d have said you’re insane,” he laughs. “But it’s worked out, and it’s full credit to the two horses and all their connections for obviously supporting me and give me the rides. I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to try and get the best out of them.”

Oughterard Cooley, who joined Galileo Nieuwmoed as one of two horses inside the time yesterday, slipped from fourth to fifth with one rail, while former Oliver Townend ride Arklow Puissance, also by the late Irish sire Puissance, climbed from ninth to eighth with his own rail.

“It’s surprising but absolutely brilliant,” says Wills of his banner week at Burghley. “They’re two out-and-out jumping horses and cross country horses, and to have the rides that I’ve had is unbelievable, really.”

Wills Oakden and Arklow Puissance. Photo by Libby Law.

Wills came to Burghley off the back of a major win in the CCI4*-L at his local international, Scotland’s Blair Castle, where he also took a three-star section — but, he says, he didn’t let the buzz of that win influence him as he came to the biggest event of his season.

“It’s a completely different week, so when you drive out of one event, you just start thinking about the next one,” he says, with no shortage of pragmatism. “Coming down here we just had to trust the work we’ve done at home; we knew we’d got them properly fit and well, and we just came to have a go, really, but it’s worked out.”

Pippa Funnell and Majas Hope. Photo by Libby Law.

Pippa Funnell, too, tipped a pole with her stalwart campaigner Majas Hope, and though she was still able to climb from eighth to sixth, she had one thing to say as she rode out of the ring: “Bugger!” she laughs. “Because actually, he jumped well. I was very pleased with how he’s jumping.”

Her husband, British team showjumper William Funnell, helped her with her preparation for this phase — a dynamic she might be rethinking going forward.

“I didn’t jump him so much in the warm-up, and William said, ‘whatever you do, don’t start pulling and hooking, because then he inverts’,” says Pippa. “I came out of the ring and he says, ‘You were too free there’. So maybe I should have hooked and pulled a bit! But Hope’s been lovely this weekend. He’s been fabulous. And actually, he was unlucky to have one down as opposed to being lucky having one down. He did jump well, so I’m delighted.”

Every year, Pippa says, she considers starting to plan the end of her extraordinary top-level career — but weeks like this make her rethink the decision.

“I’ve gone right down to four horses thinking, ‘Okay, I’ll see these through,’” she says. “Now I’m thinking, ‘I’d really like another couple of nice six year olds!’ When you go around and have a ride like yesterday, you sort of think, ‘Oh my god, there’s a bit more juice in me left.’ But I don’t know. We’ll see. It might be a different story in two weeks!”

Alice Casburn and Topspin. Photo by Libby Law.

On the other end of a top-level career is 21-year-old Alice Casburn, who once again found herself in the top ten at the end of the week having delivered a clear showjumping round with her homebred, Topspin. This year, that round, and that finish, represented a weeklong climb from first-phase 37th to a final seventh — though she wasn’t always sure she’d get their characteristic perfect finale this time.

“He was quite quiet in the warm-up and I was like, ‘oh god, is he alright?’,” she laughs. “And then he goes in there and he just completely lights up. He goes all spooky and over-excitable, but he’s incredible. I couldn’t be more thrilled with him.”

That reactivity might, in a funny sort of way, actually be the lynchpin that pulls the whole thing together, because it forces a reaction: “The first three fences I’m still a little bit like, cold feet,” explains Alice. “But then, actually, I was so worried about that I started riding it like a jump-off at a showjumping show, and I actually really enjoyed myself. I think as soon as I get into it and I get going, I’m pretty calm but going in absolutely not. I don’t think I breathed! I’s incredible; even when you walk in and you haven’t even done anything yet, the crowds are cheering at you and you hear the gasps as you go around as well. I don’t think any other feeling would beat it.”

Of her six-time five-star partner, who still lives in the stable he was born in, she smiles, “He deserves it so much. I’m so young, so to have an experience like this with a horse like him — I feel incredibly lucky.”

Boyd Martin and Tsetserleg TSF. Photo by Libby Law.

Ninth and tenth place went the way of Boyd Martin riding Tsetserleg TSF and On Cue, respectively — but though it’s an incredibly exciting result, ultra-competitive Boyd is already thinking about how he could have engineered a better one, particularly with talented Tsetserleg, who tipped three rails today to drop from overnight seventh.

“I jumped fence one and he was jumping so well, and then I came through the turn and he lost his lead, and then he had trouble making the turn,” explains Boyd. “And then I ended up to an impossible distance at fence two and he went through it. So we plowed fence three and then we regained ourselves and finished jumping well. And Cue, she had two down so, obviously it’s always lovely to jump clear, but I really feel like we gave our best this weekend. It’s so tough at this level of the sport.”

Tsetserleg’s return to form after tricky runs at both Kentucky and Luhmühlen, and Cue’s return to the sport after nearly two years off after her win at the inaugural Maryland five-star, give Boyd plenty of hope for the future — and plenty of positives to take forward as he looks towards another couple of five-star runs with younger horses at the tail end of the year.

Boyd Martin and On Cue. Photo by Libby Law.

“I’ve got a good group now,” he says. “The thing I’m happy about is that Cue hasn’t done much since that Maryland, and I just wanted to get through this unscathed — and I feel like she’s got plenty left in the tank at the end. And same with Thomas; he’s had a bit of a shonky year at five-star, and there was a lot of whispering that he’s past his prime. To come out here and jump around this, I feel like his career’s still to continue, and I’m very, very pleased for the Turner family who backed me for so many years. The Yanks are on top of the world at the moment, but we’re still going to get better. We’ve got some awesome horses, and awesome riders, and we still need to make up just a bit to be the best in the world.”

At the end of the day, he says, these weeks — these enormous efforts, these results, these highs and lows — are all about the horses underneath you.

“I’m actually really in awe of both these horses’ characters,” says Boyd. “They fight for me, and I don’t know if they’re born like that, or it’s through the partnership or something in their DNA, but there’s so many moments, especially in this last third of a course, where I think, ‘you have every reason to pull up right now’. But they don’t. I feel them grit their teeth and pin their ears back, and I don’t call on them like that very often — it’s once or twice maybe a year — but when I do ask for that grit and determination, God, they want to do it. They do it for me. And I just love them for that.”

Jessica Phoenix and Wabbit. Photo by Libby Law.

Canada’s Jessica Phoenix and Wabbit came to Burghley this week knowing that everything — the long trip to the UK, the time spent based with Tim and Jonelle Price, the money and time and effort and faith put into the whole undertaking — would be worth it to give the off-the-track Thoroughbred the chance to run over a course that matched his big heart and huge stride. That’s all paid off remarkably well for them; though they began their week out of the hunt in 29th place, they climbed and climbed yesterday to move up to 15th on their 10.8 time penalties and today, after tipping one rail and adding 1.2 time penalties, they moved up again, to a hugely exciting eleventh place.

“It’s a very good day in the office for Wabbit,” says Olympian Jessica with a broad smile. “It’s a true achievement, absolutely. Just to have that horse come out and perform the way he did today is just a miracle. It’s beyond our expectations. It’s like a God-given day.”

Jennie Brannigan and FE Lifestyle. Photo by Libby Law.

Jennie Brannigan slots in right behind her in twelfth place, having knocked just one rail with the cross-country specialist FE Lifestyle, who has impressed throughout the week despite constantly playing catch-up after a flight delay meant he only arrived a week ago.

“It’s been a bit stressful, honestly, because the horse did not ship over here well,” explains Jennie. “And so we’ve been staying up late nights, shout out to my girls. So it’s been a lot of work but obviously totally worth it. He’s a great horse, and the rail was definitely my fault, but I’m excited to maybe come back here in the future.”

Will Faudree and Mama’s Magic Way. Photo by Libby Law.

Will Faudree and Mama’s Magic Way took a final sixteenth place, after a frustrating round for them saw them take three rails.

“For all that he’s done, he’s still quite green and affected by atmosphere, especially at combinations because he tends to stare through them,” explains Will. “So when I saw that the triple combination was coming at fence five, I think I just oversteadied a little bit and got a little bit quiet in, which was my plan, but then he didn’t quite cover the back rail. Then, I just think he got flustered at the next two but then he got his composure back and jumped the end of the course really great. So you know, it’s not the result you want, but you dream of coming to these events your whole life and then you get here and not all of us can produce it on the day. I’m happy to complete — I didn’t get that done in 2012.”

If there’s anything we’ve learned this week at Burghley — and, frankly, in any of our five-star reporting roles — it’s that getting to this stage of the week is an accomplishment almost beyond words, and managing to do so in the top twenty, or top ten? That’s something you can dine out on for a lifetime. That’s all from us for now from the 2023 Defender Burghley Horse Trials — thank you for joining us on this wild ride, and roll on the next one!

Go Eventing.

The top ten at the 2023 Defender Burghley Horse Trials.

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