Long gone are the days of easing into Badminton week with a batch of mid-30s marks on Thursday morning: today’s first batch of competitors was so flush with major names and heavy-hitters that the gauntlet was thrown down almost from the word go. We hadn’t yet seen ten o’clock before Tom McEwen and Toledo de Kerser B (Diamant de Semilly x Ariane du Prieure II), British individual silver and team gold medallists at last year’s Tokyo Olympics, delivered a very nearly flawless test to put a 23.4 on the scoreboard.
But while the ground jury presented a nearly unified front throughout many of the day’s subsequent tests, there was actually a fairly significant discrepancy in Tom’s marks, which precluded the 2019 Pau CCI5* victors from creeping even lower towards the 20 cusp. While Christian Landolt, judging from C, and Seppo Laine, in situ at H, both rewarded Tom and Toledo with a percentage score in the high 70s, Anne-Marie Taylor at B proved harder to impress: she gave them a 73.7, putting them lower in her estimations than several other combinations.
“I’m not sure where she’s coming from,” laughs Tom. “He was amazing. It’s a shame he didn’t do that test in Tokyo, because that would have made our life a lot easier!”
Tom earned the first 10 of the day after delivering an extended canter transition that was bold, balanced, and showed the full scope of the rangy Selle Français gelding’s stride. For the packed stands full of keen eventing fans, the performance will have come as little surprise; the pair come into this week’s competition as one of the odds-on favourites to take the win here. But even Olympic medallists have weak points, and Toledo’s has often been the walk. Today’s test, which is the same we saw in action last week at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event, features a lengthy and influential walk section, throughout which the pair’s scores dipped to between 5.5 and 6.5.
There are a few things that you can generally count on with Tom and Toledo, though: first, that they’re reliably excellent in the other two gaits, which makes them consistently competitive on the flat, and second, that they’re not likely to be ruffled by the scores as they happen, whether they’re very high or trending lower.
“I couldn’t see the screen [during the extended canter], which was probably no bad thing,” he says. “I had no idea where [the marks] were going; I was just going through my process.”
That process has been influenced in large part by dressage supremo Ferdi Eilberg, with whom Tom has long trained: “Ferdi’s been brilliant with him this week, and so he’s super relaxed and super keen – and he’s got a bit fresh with all the people [around] again, so that’s been really lovely to see.”
A number of the competitors in this week’s field are fresh — well, relatively speaking, anyway — off the plane from Kentucky last week, which can be both a blessing and a curse: those competitors have the undeniable advantage of having gotten their eye in over five-star fences already, but on the flip side, the hop from country to country means that those all-important final few rides have been completed with another rider aboard. California’s Tamie Smith is one such rider: she was able to keep Mai Baum (Loredano 2 x Ramira, by Rike) at Kentucky with her through last Wednesday, giving them a valuable chance to train together in a competition setting, but since he landed on UK soil, it’s been up to fellow US rider Avery Klunick to keep the 16-year-old gelding ticking over. That’s no small amount of pressure for either rider to contend with – both Tamie and Avery alike are achingly aware of the gelding’s ability to throw down a leading test in this field, and equally aware of how little it takes to tip the balance and put a chink the armour.
“That’s a little nerve-wracking for me, but luckily she did a great job and didn’t ruin him or anything,” jokes Tamie, who sits second at the lunch break on a respectable score of 25.3. “I actually think it’s good, because the pressure is kind of let off of them.”
Just one minor blip stopped them making a serious bid for the lead – ‘Lexus’ broke into a canter in the first trot half-pass, and though the mistake was infinitesimally brief, it was enough to see them earn 4s for that movement. Elsewhere, though, the black gelding delivered his characteristic flowing, correct work and Tamie, who spent her teenage years learning aboard Grand Prix dressage schoolmasters while riding with Martina Stimmel, left nothing to chance in the ring. For Lexus, whose only other test on grass was his Aachen test of last season, Badminton’s capacious turf arena provided an unfamiliar challenge in a phase that comes very naturally to him.
“On grass you don’t get the same kind of pushing power you’d get in the arena, and he wouldn’t be experienced with that,” Tamie says. “He’s never made me nervous going into dressage before, and I yesterday I was slightly like, ‘oooh — this isn’t what I’m used to!’ But he’s never been this fit and ready to go, and I was really pleased with everything. He could have maybe gone a little bit more forward, but when I went to ask for that he broke to canter, so I just played it a little bit safe there.”
His high level of fitness played a part in that — but equally influential was the huge, buzzy atmosphere in the arena, which is famously spooky when filled to capacity.
“He’s been on fire all week, and he was really with me; he did get a little bit overwhelmed by the crowd, but he held it together. It’s quite an atmosphere in there, even though it’s Thursday, which is normally a bit quieter,” she says. But that buzz is all part of the Badminton experience, which Tamie is relishing with her horse of a lifetime: “He did Kentucky last year and I feel like he’s the best horse in the world. He’s just an unbelievable creature, and I want to be at the best event in the world with him. It’s not every day you have a horse to take to Badminton and I feel like I do. I could have played it safe and gone to Kentucky, but neither one of us has thirty years ahead of us, so I feel like we’re ready!”
It’s never a surprise to see World Number One Oliver Townend at the business end of the leaderboard here, but only the most committed of eventing fans will have recognised his first ride of the week, who sits equal third on 25.7 at this early stage. The fourteen-year-old Swallow Springs (Chillout x Kilila, by Cult Hero) was previously campaigned to this level by Oliver’s longtime friend Andrew Nicholson, who handed the reins to Oliver just before Blenheim in September before announcing his own retirement from upper-level competition. This is far from the first horse Oliver has inherited from the Kiwi, who won this event in 2017 with Nereo, but it’s arguably the most competitive — and the most experienced. That doesn’t always make for an easy transition from rider to rider, but in their short tenure together, Oliver and ‘Chill’ have finished tenth in their debut at Blenheim CCI4*-L and won on their Badminton prep run at Burnham Market CCI4*-S last month. Their joint debut in Badminton’s main arena belied the brevity of their partnership: their test was a true ‘clear round’, never dipping below a 6.5 (and even those were notable only by their scarcity).
“The boss is pleased; he said he couldn’t have done any better himself, so that was handy,” says Oliver with a laugh. “He’s a new horse, and we’re only just getting to know each other, but he’s an old professional. Sometimes it’s more difficult with the old professionals, but he went in and did his job. He’s basically a full Thoroughbred and not built for dressage, but he’s getting better and better.”
The gelding, who was fifth here in 2019 with Andrew aboard, has one particular quality that has ingratiated him to the Yorkshireman: his ineffable well of try. “He’s a professional, and he comes out and works every day, which I obviously love,” says Oliver. “I think that’s a trait that you get with most top horses — they know their job, and they come out and do their job for you, and it’s a pleasure working with professionals like that.”
This week has been a long time coming for Piggy March and Vanir Kamira (Camiro de Haar Z x Fair Caledonian, by Dixi), who have held the Badminton title since their win here back in 2019. ‘Tillybean’ was just coming into her prime then as a fourteen-year-old, and now returns as a seasoned, though relatively low-mileage, seventeen-year-old. It certainly didn’t look as though she’d gathered any moss through that wait, though, when she delivered a tidy test for equal third and 25.7 this morning.
“I’ll definitely take it — I don’t want to go in and try again,” laughs Piggy, who was pleasantly surprised to find that her test had looked, perhaps, better than it felt.
“She’s been pretty lively since she’s been here, and I’ve been slightly panicking that she remembers 2019 too well! The last time I went in the main arena I milked it for all I could, and went around 20 million times in the lap of honour, yelling like a crazy thing. And we obviously haven’t been anywhere for two years that has this sort of buzz, but she’s a good old girl and she’s pretty professional. I do forget that, when I’m scratching around warm-ups thinking ‘this isn’t good enough’. She’s just hard, and there’s definitely a couple of wobbles — she shuffled at the beginning of her extended trot and had a little bit of a loss of rhythm, but I head a gunshot go off at the same time so I don’t know whether she was thinking about the same thing. But I think we were accurate enough — a swear word never entered my mind!”
For a horse like this, the Big Bs — Badminton and Burghley — are the be-all and end-all, and waiting for them to return has been something of a prolonged heartbreak for Piggy. Now, though, it’s time to make up for all they’ve missed, and all that they’ve dealt with in the lead-up.
“We’ve been excited all year — it’s just good to be here. We’ve had a rubbish couple of weeks,” says Piggy, referring to her sister-in-law Caroline March’s recent accident at Burnham Market, and her own late withdrawal of Brookfield Inocent. “It’s felt like there’s lots of black clouds — that’s the sport; you’re up and down. It’s just felt like quite an emotional rollercoaster the last two weeks, and we sort of thought, ‘ugh, we need another month to regroup’. But the moment you drive in the gates, it’s just cool — it’s what we do it for. We’ve spent a lot of time at home regrouping and waiting for something to come along, and maybe sometimes you do just need the kick up the arse, like ‘come on then, you silly old cow’.”
The top five is rounded out by New Zealander Amanda Pottinger, daughter of Olympian Tinks Pottinger, who delivered an excellent 25.9 with her ex-racehorse Just Kidding. The two-time New Zealand open Champions have made two previous starts at five-star, both at the Adelaide in Australia, where they’ve finished second and fourth. Their scores in Southern Hemisphere events have also been formidable, including a 21.2 in a CCI4*-L at Puhinui — but Badminton is a whole ‘nother stage and a serious challenge for a sharp horse. In that enviably relaxed Kiwi way, though, they settled right in in the main arena, delivering far and away their best-ever five-star test.
“That was way above my expectations,” says Amanda, who has previously scored in the mid-30s as this level. “I was hoping for a sub-30, but nowhere near 25! But I knew he had this test in him, and we’ve been working on it, and I’m just stoked to finally be able to pull it off. We knew it was there, and to get it on the first day at Badminton is unbelievable.”
Amanda, who’s been basing in Wiltshire, England in the lead-up to Badminton, picked the gelding up as a bargain-basement racehorse reject, but he didn’t start out that way: he was sold for $100,000 as a yearling, and is a son of the 2000 Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus. That means that Saturday’s tough track should work in his favour – and Amanda, who had mentally prepared herself for a climb up the leaderboard, puts herself in a brilliant position to try to retain a spot at the upper end of the leaderboard.
“These guys are bred for Saturday, and not really bred for this phase. He’s always been a beautiful looking horse and a beautiful moving horse for a Thoroughbred, and he really does want to please, so we’ve always known he had it in him — it’s just been about working out the best way to get him where he’s happy and can do his job,” she says.
We’ll be back this afternoon with a full report from today’s proceedings — until then, Go Eventing!