The young Frenchman enjoys an emotional win aboard Hidalgo de L’ile.
It wasn’t hard to know how Nicolas Touzaint felt about winning the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials CCI****. As he galloped through the finish flags and realization dawned, he embarked on a madcap gallop around and around the arena on Hidalgo de L’ile, whooping and waving, before collapsing outside in a flood of tears.
They were unprecedented scenes, but the huge Badminton crowd took this outstanding young horseman—at 27, he is the youngest winner since Lucinda Green in 1979—to their hearts and gave him a standing ovation. Touzaint is the first French rider to win the prestigious event, held May 1-4 in Badminton, England, and perhaps the most emotional.
“It has always been my dream to ride at Badminton—it’s the most important event in the world—but I never thought I would win. I just hoped to finish in the top five,” he gulped. “Best of all, many people have doubted Hildago de L’ile but now he has proved that he is a champion.”
It was the most exciting, suspenseful Badminton for years and a complete contrast to the disaster of 2007 when 25 percent of the field pulled out due to hard ground and the event received a slating.
Director Hugh Thomas, whose newly upgraded cross-country track was praised for its influence, said: “Last year was undoubtedly traumatic for many people. But I think we have drawn strength and renewed vigor from it, and I am proud of the many people who have helped put Badminton back where it should be.”
The cross-country provided one form upset after another, and Olympic selectors, who were out in force from all nations, were left scratching their heads. Favorites like Mary King, Pippa Funnell, Clayton Fredericks and Andrew Hoy all ended up on the ground; William Fox-Pitt’s winning chance evaporated with an error three fences from home, and Andrew Nicholson failed to complete with either of his two horses.
Instead, it was the unsung Lucy Wiegersma, 31, the only rider to have won all Britain’s national titles (senior, young rider and junior), who stepped into Hong Kong Olympic reckoning with second place on the British Thoroughbred Shaabrak. She finished 1.4 penalties behind Touzaint and would have won if she hadn’t wasted time with a long route across country. “But at least I’ve been beaten by a genius,” she said generously.
Not A Dressage Show
Eighty horses started the dressage, and a quarter of those scored within the 40s, with six in the 30s. Andrew Hoy, riding the elegant 2006 winner, Moon Fleet, led after dressage with a score of 35.4.
“We [the ground jury] have agreed that this is the highest standard of eventing dressage we’ve ever judged,” said ground jury president David Lee of Ireland. “The level of preparation, riding and ringcraft has improved massively. It was a pleasure to judge.”
He also awarded Touzaint a 10 for his extended walk, and Marilyn Payne of the United States, who will be judging in Hong Kong, gave Clayton Fredericks and Nullabor a 10 for their halt.
But, next day, Fredericks was the first high-profile victim when Nullabor backed off fence 15, a tall, narrow brush angled over the Vicarage Ditch, and sent his jockey tumbling over his head.
Ruth Edge and her Trakehner, Muschamp Impala, who had produced a beautiful dressage test for second place, were spectacularly submerged in Badminton’s iconic Lake. They caught a leg over the willow woven fence in and tipped over.
Daisy Dick, a European team gold medalist for Great Britain on Spring Along, came in too fast to the Lake and failed to make the turn to the second, narrow, element in the water and ran past. The same thing happened to Emily Baldwin on Drivetime, who were tied for seventh after dressage.
Hoy—who won the 2004 Burghley CCI**** on Moon Fleet—went for a long three strides between the table and wide brush corner in Huntsman’s Close (Fence 5), and Moon Fleet caught a leg and nose-dived. Hoy hit the deck, suffering ligament damage in his shoulder.
Two horses later, Funnell, tied for seventh after dressage and bidding for an Olympic comeback, made a similar mistake. Her horse, Ensign, was having none of it and ducked out, sending Funnell shooting over his shoulder. “To be honest, we were never really going,” confessed Funnell. “He lost a shoe at the first fence and we didn’t seem to be in a rhythm.”
Nicholson also ran out on Armada, at 9, the youngest horse in the field. He later pulled up when Silbury Hill, his 2007 Punchestown CCI*** (Ireland) winner, came up lame.
Although the ground was near perfect, thanks to a 12-month program of re-seeding and preventing any stock grazing on it, recent heavy rain rendered it holding and energy-sapping.
Zara Phillips gave early notice of this on her first ride, Glenbuck, who finished clear but very tired. And German Andreas Dibowski, last year’s runner-up on FRH Serve Well, dropped from sixth to 16th with several time penalties. Matthew Wright, fourth after dressage on the Fench-bred If You Want II, pulled him up tired at the Staircase, four from home. Here, Paul Tapner, one of the Australian Olympic hopefuls on Inonothing, came to a sticky halt with a refusal at the narrow fence at the top.
Touzaint was only ninth after dressage, but such was the attrition rate that his quick round (4.8 time penalties) propelled him to the top. He is a masterful horseman, quiet and strong, and he was determined to prove that Hildago de L’ile’s problems in the Lake last year —after which they retired—were untypical.
However, this horse has had an erratic career until it won the four-star at Pau (France) last year and, as William Fox-Pitt remarked, “It’s a worrying day when Nicolas can beat us all at Badminton on his third string!”
Wiegersma, third after dressage, could have gone into the lead, but she opted for a long route at Huntsman’s Close and again at the Colt Pond (Fence 14), which had not caused any problems. However, there was a steep drop into the water over a hedge. “We didn’t land very well and my gut feeling said I should take the long route out,” Wiegersma said. “I’m now kicking myself because Shaabrak is so quality that he was making up 10 seconds per minute on the gallop home.”
The opportunity to take the lead was still up for grabs right at the very last minute. King was going well on her new ride, Imperial Cavalier, who was second to Hildago de L’ile at Pau last year, but at the penultimate fence of two angled logs, the horse caught the second with a foreleg and fired Mary from the saddle. She remounted to finish and, producing, her usual sporting smile, said: “He was getting a little tired and I was getting a little excited.”
Very last on course, Fox-Pitt was on time and on target to take the lead on Tamarillo. This uber-talented horse, though, has a sense of humor and can’t be relied upon not to take advantage.
Three from home was a complex of three houses—not big, but set on undulating ground—and Tamarillo missed and dived alarmingly over the first. Fox-Pitt threw the reins at him and he looked as if he could easily pop over the second, but he ducked out, to everyone’s disbelief.
Statistics at the end of the day showed 30 clear rounds from 78 starters and only two horse falls (Muschamp Impala and Moon Fleet, both of whom were unhurt). The only human casualty was Dee Kennedy, who was airlifted to hospital with suspected whiplash injuries after she landed heavily in the Quarry when her horse, Big El, pecked on landing down the steep slope and sent her over his head.
Crossed Fingers Help
The show jumping course—built by international designer Jon Doney with technical delegate Guiseppe della Chiesa—took its own toll.
Only four horses jumped clear, including the lovely gray Lenamore, under New Zealander Caroline Powell, and Tankers Town with Sharon Hunt for Great Britain. The former rose to fourth and the latter to fifth—their best four-star placings to date.
Hunt, eighth individually at the 2006 WEG, missed Badminton last year due to Tankers Town having a bruised foot. “If that isn’t enough to get Olympic selection, I don’t know what is! It’s been a phenomenal weekend,” she exclaimed.
Fox-Pitt’s rollercoaster weekend continued when he rose to third place with one fence down on Ballincoola, a former Burghley winner and a solid four-star horse whose consistent efforts often go unsung.
Stockton, who lay within a fence of the lead, dropped to sixth with three fences down. Wiegersma also eased Touzaint’s winning passage by hitting the second fence. “I thought, oh no, there are another 11 fences to go!” she said.
Hildago de L’ile had hit an embarrassing four fences on his last international outing, at Fontainebleau CIC***-W (France), but since then Touzaint has switched him from a double bridle to a pelham and “crossed my fingers,” he said.
They had a nasty moment, hitting the second part of the in-and-out for one rail down, but it was a superb piece of horsemanship that lifted this long-striding horse through the final triple combination, where he was flattening, and over the last to win the Mitsubishi Motors Trophy and $117,227, the largest single eventing prize in the world.