William Fox-Pitt, one of the best riders never to have earned the coveted Mitsubishi Motors Trophy at the Badminton Horse Trials, Gloucestershire, England, fulfilled a lifelong ambition on April 29-May 2. Riding Irish-American owner Mary Guinness’ Tamarillo, he took the win.
Fox-Pitt, 35, finished fourth the weekend before Badminton at the Rolex Kentucky CCI****, riding Ballincoola. The British Olympic Association considers him one of their half-dozen gold-medal hopes in Athens, but the 12-year-old Anglo-Arab Tamarillo, was not, prior to Badminton, actually qualified for the Olympics.
As torrential rain flooded the Duke of Beaufort’s beautiful Badminton Park and half the first 20 horses failed to complete the cross-country, Fox-Pitt became increasingly reluctant to saddle up. He had already retired his first ride, Moon Man, the horse he rode into third place at Rolex Kentucky in 2003.
“As I was wandering home on Moon Man, I wasn’t even going to start Tamarillo. But I talked it through with Yogi Breisner [team manager] and Lucinda Green [chairman of selectors], and I realized that there was no other qualifying opportunity [before Athens].
“I owe Lucinda a lot; she told me to crack on and not just pootle around for a qualification,” he added. “Thank God I did. I had a perfect ride; Tamarillo jumped every fence exactly as I had dreamt it the night before.”
Fox-Pitt could only afford 36 cross-country time penalties for the Olympic qualification, and riders were easily averaging 40 in the mudbath, the result of four days’ ceaseless downpour. But he managed to finish with just 21.6 penalties.
Riders threw out their watches and concentrated on conserving horses’ energy. New Zealander Andrew Nicholson, normally the most accurate timekeeper, had to be sanguine about losing the four-point dressage lead he held over Fox-Pitt. Riding the firm ground specialist Lord Killinghurst, the horse he brought to Rolex Kentucky in 2001, Nicholson showed all the cross-country skills for which he is famous to nurse his weary mount home clear with 28.4 time penalties.
“He gave me 110 percent,” Nicholson said. “But my first horse Flush Banker normally gallops through mud, and I realized after about one minute on him that it would be a slog.”
Highs And Lows
Britain’s Bumble (Marie-Louise) Thomas enhanced her selection chances when she rose to third place with a polished all-round performance on The Psephologist and scored a career best. She ran across country when conditions were at their worst but scored one of the fastest times.
“Like everyone, it’s my dream to get to the Olympics, and I hope that this will have impressed the selectors,” she said.
Longlisted Brit Sarah Cutteridge, who placed 12th at Kentucky this year on Future Perfect, enjoyed a dream debut with eighth and 10th places on The Wexford Lady and Exclusive Imp, but her colleagues on the British longlist fared less well.
Only a brave man would have bet on defending champion and 2003 Rolex Grand Slam of Eventing victor Pippa Funnell falling off both her horses at the same fence, an upright gate into Huntsman’s Close in the closing stages of Hugh Thomas’ track.
After her first ride, where the stallion Viceroy trod on her wrist, Funnell was flown to the hospital for a check-up but came back keenly competitive to ride her dressage runner-up Cornerman. Unbelievably, though, he made a carbon-copy mistake at the same obstacle and eradicated Funnell’s dream of a hat-trick.
Leslie Law, a silver medalist in the 2000 Sydney Olympics (Australia), was decanted in the famous Badminton Lake by Shear H20; Tina Cook, whose Irish-bred Captain Christy is a mudlark, fell off when he slipped and jinked between the A and B elements of the penultimate Rolex Turn fence. And Caroline Pratt’s ride on her new mount Call Again Cavalier ended with a fall in Huntsman’s Close.
Polly Stockton’s run of bad luck–she lost one Olympic horse, Eye Spy, from injury recently and fell off Word For Word at Rolex Kentucky the previous weekend–continued unabated at Badminton. Tangleman, her 2003 Kentucky runner-up, shuffled an extra stride in between two angled logs and tipped over. With many of the world’s best saving their horses for Athens and all the top Brits hitting the deck, the competition was thrown wide open.
A huge contingent had arrived from Australia and New Zealand, and, by close of the first phase, six of the seven Aussies, all clamouring for Athens selection, lay menacingly in the top 13, their spirits not remotely dampened by two soaking wet days of dressage.
American commentator and FEI judge Sally O’Connor explained the Australian superiority. “They rode in as if they owned the arena; they weren’t going to be apologetic about the weather. They’ve all been well trained, and the difference between the Australians and many of the rest was that they each put up a performance. They were very professional.”
O’Connor commented that she had seen a better standard of dressage at Kentucky the previous weekend but conceded that, “The definition of misery is a fit Thoroughbred in a high, cold wind.”
Andrew Hoy finished the competition best of the Aussies, in fifth with two show jumping rails down on Mr Pracatan, ahead of Sam Griffiths, who scored a career best on the in-form Private Colin, sixth. The latter, a former working pupil with Matt Ryan, hopes the Australian selectors might now look at him.
But Bill Levett finished on neither of his two horses (Muddy Chuddy and Minuto); Paul Tapner was too slow and had too many show jumps down on Highpoint; Chris Burton took a spectacular sliding fall from Woodmount Spry at the Sunken Road, where first-day dressage leader Megan Jones tipped off the huge Kirby Park Irish Hallmark.
Matt Ryan on his Olympic hope Bonza Puzzle and Sammi McLeod on Enchanted-hird at Adelaide CCI**** (Australia) in 2003–had frustrating run-outs at the influential double of corners, the Hunt Kennels at fence 14. The latter, though, may yet get her Athens place. Selector Gill Rolton was impressed that McLeod didn’t “spit the dummy” when she made her error but continued fast and strong.
“I’m gutted,” said McLeod. “This is one of the best horses in the world, and I could have been sixth.”
Overall, the Kiwis fared far better across country. Rookie Kate Wood had the fastest time of the day on her neat little ex-race horse Witch Doctor, 23rd; Kate Hewlett finished 15th on the youngest horse in the field, the stallion Internet; Caroline Powell was 14th on Softly Softly; Jonelle Richards, 17th on the huge Mazetto, and Kate Lambie, 18th on Nufarm Alibi.
Catering To The Conditions
Hugh Thomas had shortened his track, as is traditional, in deference to the Olympics. The famously awe-inspiring Vicarage Vee corner fence was omitted and a new route put in at the Lake. Here riders approached over a pair of Mitsubishi trucks, followed by a brush, after which they looped sharply back left for a straight passage through the water. They had to jump in over an imposing brush drop, splash to a jetty in the water, and then to a step and bounce out over a narrow brush. Spectators got their money’s worth with a few spectacular dunkings, most notably for Karen Dixon and Uptotrix.
A delegation of competitors, headed by rider representative Eric Smiley, requested that the landing at the Elephant Trap be built up to prevent horses that landed short from slipping back into the ditch. They also requested that a logpile in Huntsman’s Close be shored up with stone.
Midway through the competition, hurdles were placed on the steeplechase course to force the second 40 competitors to pick fresh ground. An additional 4 seconds was added to the chase time to allow for the extra ground covered.
Amazingly, given the conditions, 75 of the 80 entries started across country. As the ground dried, so the rate of attrition lessened; there were 34 clear rounds and 55 finishers, with no injuries to horse or rider. The stalwart crowd stayed to the bitter end, cheering enthusiastically for every rider.
The day ended with three of the world’s leading horsemen–Fox-Pitt, Nicholson and Hoy–all vying to capture their first Badminton crown.
Five horses withdrew overnight, and, while a few merited a second look at the final inspection, only one, Becky George’s Wee Hot Toddy, was eliminated. Sadly, this had been Ireland’s only clear cross-country round.
At last the sun shone on Sunday, but the sticky going was not conducive to clear jumping rounds. There were only six in all and only one in the top 20–Sarah Cutteridge, who rose eight places to 10th on the 9-year-old Exclusive Imp.
Thirty-two horses, including four of the top five, hit fence 3, an innocuous little upright that, Capt. Mark Phillips suggested, needed to be ridden on a more forceful stride.
Hoy was expected to apply pressure to the top two, as Mr Pracatan had been ridden conservatively on the previous day and is nor-mally a clean jumper. However, Hoy was shocked to boot out three fences.
This gave Nicholson leeway, but Lord Killinghurst gave him an awkward ride, and two rails came down for him, leaving the New Zealander little hope of catching his rival Fox-Pitt.
With three rails in hand, a composed Fox-Pitt should have walked it on the careful jumper Tamarillo. But the horse was unsettled and hit two fences, then caused another to bounce in its cups and pecked on landing at another.
“I started to wonder if it was ever meant to be,” confessed a shell-shocked Fox-Pitt. “At one point I even started grinning because it was going so ridiculously wrong. We were anything but foot-perfect, but, thankfully, it was obviously meant to be our day.”