April 23, South Gloucestershire, England
Day 2 at the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton CCI**** and the intense pressure of expectations and being viewed by a mammoth world wide audience was more than some riders could handle. I’ve never been to a championship without someone making errors of course in the dressage, and these types of mistakes will be magnified tomorrow on the cross-country.
Successful competitors share one main quality—the ability to maximize their potential even under pressure and in competitive situations. Some find their inner tiger and thrive in this environment, while others shrivel. Some thrive for several years and then find their competence or confidence begins to wane, quickly followed by the courage required to put themselves in the spotlight.
The exceptions have names like Andrew Nicholson, who has completed Badminton a record 29 times, and Mark Todd who began his Badminton career at 24 by winning on Southern Comfort in his debut in 1980. And some trivia: His groom that year was Andrew Nicholson!
However, there is one other rider competing this year with a longer Badminton record than even Mark Todd, yet still with the expertise and reserves of courage to compete with the best. A long-standing member of the U.S. team, Karen O’Connor first rode at Badminton 32 years ago in 1979, coming 10th on the Irish gelding March Brown. It was the year Lucinda Green won her fourth Badminton with Killaire.
When Bruce Davidson won in 1995 with Eagle Lion, Karen was a close third with the giant Biko, and now she is back again with Mandiba, who was sixth after the cross-country at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games last year only to have a hugely expensive misunderstanding and stop in the show jumping.
Of course my objectivity may be questioned here, as I coached Karen as a teenager, found Biko with my brother John and bred Mandiba…so I would say this wouldn’t I! But her record speaks for itself. However, Karen is often given less credit than is her due, as it is easy to underestimate achievement just because we are familiar with the participants and the level of success. Her longevity, courage and work ethic are inspirational. My all time favorite quote is from Irish writer John Millington Synge: “I wouldn’t give a thraneen for a lad that hadn’t a mighty spirit in him and a gamey heart.” Karen is the embodiment of these words.
Her dressage today was solid with beautiful flying changes, although it was a case of “what might have been.” The impressive level of impulsion Mandiba was showing in the warm-up arena ring was not repeated in the ring itself. She still finished on 44.5, which leaves her in the top 15 and very much in touch of the leaders, and Karen should be proud of a rare three 8s from the judges for her riding.
After a less than successful WEG, it’s easy to forget that Buck Davidson was 11th at the Burghley CCI**** (England) last year on Ballynoe Castle RM. It was an outstanding performance, and Buck has every reason to have a positive strategy here at Badminton. His dressage today was close to being very good indeed. Unfortunately, a little lack of impulsion combined with tiny mistakes throughout the test—a small jog in the medium walk after an excellent extended walk, a crooked halt, a hurried rein back, two small stutters and loss of connection in the canter—kept him from the top group. However his score of 47.3 will look very good if he could finish on it! All U.S. supporters should crowd around the first three fences tomorrow and infuse Buck with the fire to have a really good crack at the time. Go USA!
Jennifer Wooten did a steady test on her diminutive firecracker The Good Witch, not throwing away any marks and suggesting further improvement possible in the future even though her wonderful partner is now 15. They are bidding to become the first combination to complete five different CCI**** events, having finished 11th at Pau (France) in 2007, seventh at Rolex Kentucky in 2008, 31st at Burghley in 2009 and 18th at Luhmuhlen (Germany) last year!
The Canadian team had a mixed day with Selena O’Hanlon smiling her way through her test and producing good extensions and fluency for a competitive 43.3 and joint 10th place. However Stephanie Rhodes-Bosch with Port Authority was a little disappointing after their good showing at WEG. Possibly he didn’t like the ground, but he showed a lack of impulsion throughout for a mark of 62.7.
“It feels surreal to be here,” said O’Hanlon. “Colombo is 17, but he was the fastest across country at the World Games and was as sound as anything afterwards, which is a sure sign that we can keep going forward. The footing here is incredible, and once I get past fences 7-8, which are super upright and make my stomach turn, I shall be attacking.”
As usual, Britain’s Ruth Edge stole the show to finish in first place with a truly lovely test on the 17-year-old Thoroughbred Two Tyme for 33.3, but he has yet to prove he has the enthusiasm for cross-country at this level.
“There’s always a lot of pressure on me here, and I’m anxious not to let anyone down because it’s a lot of work to get this horse here,” she said. “But he was awesome today and belied his age. As he’s older, I hadn’t done much work with him this week and, as a result, he felt physically fresh.”
Most of the British team riders also faired well: Piggy French on Jakata was delighted with a personal best of 36.0 for second place, which included a 10 from President of the Ground Jury Anne-Mette Binder for her final halt and 9s from all three judges for her riding.
“I can’t stop crying,” exclaimed French, who said she was shaking with excitement. “I’m so proud of the horse, and I couldn’t believe how much the crowd was behind me. I knew Jakata was capable of that sort of mark, but I was only realistically expecting something around 41.”
Despite breaking in the first medium trot, Oliver Townend rode Ashdale Cruise Master to be otherwise mistake free to score 40.5 and looking good in seventh place. Nicola Wilson on the cross-country legend Opposition Buzz was also delighted with a new personal best of 44.0, but WEG teammates William Fox Pitt and Mary King did not have such happy rides.
Both yesterday in practice and today in the ring William found Cool Mountain getting excited for the first time in his life. He got progressively more tense in the canter after a good beginning so his mark of 48.5 was probably fair. While Mary was brilliant on an effervescent and difficult Imperial Cavalier to somehow squeeze out a 44.3 from the judges and finish joint 15th with Mandiba.
Fellow Brit Emily Baldwin on the big moving Drivetime, reserves for the British WEG team last year, showed their class with a 39.7 for fifth place. They now have a real chance of giving all comers a run for their money. So there are five Brits in the top six going into the cross country, with Mark Todd showing why NZB Land Vision is his favorite horse joining them in fourth place with 36.8. The New Zealand team is looking like real medal contenders again with Andrew Nicholson showing progress with the flying changes since WEG and scoring 44.2 with Nereo.
Master Crusoe, by the same sire as Mandiba, Master Imp, produced a superb test to finish eighth with Ireland’s Aoife Clark for 42.2. With all the basic ingredients to be even better next year, this combination could be a dark horse medal contender for next year, and without doubt the Irish are very close to having a good team, although they have few to choose from.
The withdrawal of the two British team members, Tina Cook with Miner’s Frolic and Pippa Funnell with Redesigned would suggest that the British team are thinking ahead to 2012 and worried about the ground. However Capt. Mark Phillips is confident that the ground will still ride well despite the unusual heat. He confirms the general feeling that the riders will have to use all the gears to make the time with several groups of fences requiring precision riding and tight turns, so the horses must be both fit enough for the changes of speed and also remain sufficiently obedient.
For the riders, just one night separates them from game on, adrenalin time! The top combinations will make it look easy tomorrow, but for some it will be a case of life begins at the end of your comfort zone and trust in the fifth leg training.
1. Ruth Edge/Two Thyme (GBR) 33.3
2. Piggy French/Jakata (GBR) 36.0
3. Laura Collett/Rayef (GBR) 36.5
4. Mark Todd/NZB Land Vision (NZL) 36.8
5. Emily Baldwin/Drivetime (GBR) 39.7
6. Marina Köhncke/Calma Schelly (GER) 39.8
7. Oliver Townend/Ashdale Cruise Master (GBR) 40.5
8. Aoife Clark/Master Crusoe (IRL) 42.2
9. Susanna Bordone/Carrera (ITA) 43.0
10T. Ingrid Klimke/Butts Abraxxas (GER) 43.3
10T. Selena O’Hanlon/Colombo (CAN) 43.3