April 24, South Gloucestershire, England
Cross-country day at the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton CCI****, and it was a truly great day for Mark Todd. His comeback aim of gold in London next year is now looking like a very real possibility. But possibly not a great day for the sport, and sadly not a good day for North American eventing.
Thirty-one years after making his winning Badminton debut on Southern Comfort, Mark Todd will go into show jumping with a lead of 0.2 of a mark, riding the 10-year-old NZB Land Vision (43.6) in his first CCI****. An unprecedented achievement and yet another extraordinary chapter to be added to both the inspiring heritage of our sport and the career of a rider who many thought was past his best.
"Land Vision is a good horse but he’s relatively young, and he did feel green,” said Todd, whose last appearance in a CCI**** press conference was 12 years ago when he finished second on Word Perfect. “He definitely felt tired after Huntsmans Close, and I had to nurse him home, but he felt really genuine. I had to give him a bit of a shake-up in the Quarry, but he picked up, and that’s the sign of a good horse.”
The show jumping tomorrow is going to be a test without mercy, as the top 12 are all within one fence and only two fences between the next 12. Anything less than clean rounds will lead to heartache, but equally there are 12 riders who can realistically dream tonight of victory in the greatest three-day event in the world. There will be 20,000 spectators in the stands and an expected television audience of more than two million involved in this climax.
However, there is no doubt whom the majority want to win. Mark Todd is a modern equestrian superman, and we all love a superhero who can do the impossible.
In second place is the German Marina Kohncke. She briefly stood in first place with her 12-year-old mare Calma Schelly (43.8) before her time penalties were cruelly recalculated after being held on course. To their credit, both Marina and Chris Bartle, the German chef d’equipe, accepted the decision with good grace.
In third and fourth are two of the seven clear within the time, Nicola Wilson with Opposition Buzz (44.0) and Andrew Nicholson with Nereo (44.3). If I was a betting man, I would put my money on Opposition Buzz, who must have a good sprinkling of kangaroo genes, to go clear and win tomorrow.
But Andrew Nicholson, who was also clear inside the time on his other horse Avebury (47.2) to finish 11th, showed why he is possibly the finest cross-country rider of all time with foot-perfect rounds on two very different horses. He looks likely to finish Badminton for a record 31st time tomorrow.
Three British riders follow in hot pursuit: Piggy French on Jakata (45.2), the competition’s youngest rider Laura Collett on Rayef (45.3), and veteran Mary King on Imperial Cavalier (45.8). Both French and Collett had the possibility of finishing in front of Mark Todd, but like Land Vision their horses visibly tired towards the end of the course, and all three can count themselves lucky to avoid falling at the quarry combination, fences 25-27, 1½ minutes from the finish.
The quarry proved to be the end of the road for Oliver Townend and Ashdale Cruise Master, whose front end technique left much to be desired here and at the lake, and for Canadian Stephanie Rhodes-Bosch with Port Authority, who similarly ran out of steam.
There was also a high profile elimination at the previous fence, the Huntsman’s Close, where Ingrid Klimke fell when going well on Butts Abraxxas. The dressage leader, Two Thyme with Britain’s very talented Ruth Edge, infuriatingly threw in the sponge at the same complex. We may not see him again at this level.
The riders who sit eighth, ninth and 10th, Australian Sam Griffiths on Happy Times (46.3), Swedish rider Niklas Lindback on the mysteriously named Mister Pooh (46.7), and New Zealand’s Caroline Powell on Lenamore (47.2), all finished clear inside the time.
The top nine riders found the right balance between forwardness and control over Hugh Thomas’ technical track that probably caused more problems than expected. In particular the Sunken Lane, at 16, was often the cause of gasps and gave a heavy fall to Ireland’s Elizabeth Power on Kilpatrick River. She was taken to hospital but thankfully the latest reports say all is well. This same fence was also the undoing of Canadian Selena O’Hanlon on Colombo, who stopped twice here. Selena said he was slipping and not happy on the ground from the beginning.
The bad day for the Canadian team was completed when Hawley Bennett-Awad and the brilliant mare Gin & Juice ran out at the skinny after the drop at fence 6. It was either a controlled five or longer four strides before the skinny, and the mare did not make up enough ground for the four, and that was that. The rest of the round was superb, and the mare finished full of running, so they will come back to this level with great confidence. Ireland’s Aoife Clark made the same mistake with Master Crusoe before completing an equally good round.
Buck Davidson was delighted with Ballynoe Castle RM (57.3) who finished clear with just 10 time penalties in 24th. “Reggie” continues to be strong across country and not entirely happy with his bitting. As a result he loses time and lacks fluency in the closely related groups of fences, but they can both hold their heads high again after this performance. However the other two runners from the USA, Jennifer Wooten-DaFoe on The Good Witch and Karen O’Connor on Mandiba, had their worst cross-country days on these horses.
The Good Witch never appeared her normal self and jumped without any real fire until coming to a halt halfway round the course when failing to jump into the lake.
Mandiba appeared to suffer another communication problem with Karen when struggling with the distance and stopping twice at the Shogun Hollow complex, fence 10. He then went without enthusiasm to the next fence, the Outlander Bank, and stopped on the top, depositing Karen, before falling off the bank sideways and hurting his ribs.
William Fox-Pitt was lucky not to fall at the same fence on his second ride Cool Mountain (53.5) but finished clear on him and Navigator (50.7), but just over the time in each case for 15th and 13th places respectively.
Hugh Thomas will be looking at it as a job well done with just seven clear within the time and 49 out of 77 runners clear without jumping faults. But a compendium of the film footage of all the horses over the last four fences would not inspire confidence in the ability of our riders and trainers to produce horses fit enough for this test. Certainly tiredness was the major cause of falls.
Other possibilities are that the course was too difficult, the weather too hot, the ground too hard, or we are using the wrong type of horses. Only the latter stands up to analysis, so surely we all have to look again to see how we can have more horses finishing the course with the enthusiasm and energy of the 18-year-old Irish bred 15.2 Lenamore. This winner of Burghley CCI**** (England) last year once again produced the round of the day with Caroline Powell in his seventh consecutive Badminton.
Lenamore is another one to watch in the show jumping, not only because he is probably the best jumper in eventing, but also because it may well be his last appearance in competition. With William Fox-Pitt also officially parading and retiring Tamarillo tomorrow our heartstrings will be pulled to the limit.
Results After Cross-Country
1. Mark Todd/NZB Land Vision (NZL) 36.8 + 6.8 = 43.6
2. Marina Köhncke/Calma Schelly (GER) 39.8 + 4 = 43.8
3. Nicola Wilson/Opposition Buzz (GBR) 44.0 + 0 = 44.0
4. Andrew Nicholson/Nereo (NZL) 44.3 + 0 = 44.3
5. Piggy French/Jakata (GBR) 36.0 + 9.2 = 45.2
6. Laura Collett/Rayef (GBR) 36.5 + 8.8 = 45.3
7. Mary King/Imperial Cavalier (GBR) 44.2 + 1.6 = 45.8
8. Sam Griffiths/Happy Times (AUS) 46.3 + 0 = 46.3
9. Niklas Lindback/Mister Pooh (SWE) 46.7 + 0 = 46.7
10. Caroline Powell/Lenamore (NZL) 47.2 + 0 = 47.2
11. Andrew Nicholson/Avebury (NZL) 47.2 + 0 = 47.2
12. Kai Rüder/Le Prince des Bois (GER) 44.8 + 2.4 = 47.2