Laura Collett and London 52 just keep getting better and better, breaking the elusive 20 barrier to take the lead at Pratoni. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Just a matter of hours after British individual rider Yasmin Ingham soared into the lead at Pratoni — and into the top five tests ever produced at a World Championships — another high-flying Brit came along to go one better. And was anyone surprised, really, to see Badminton winners Laura Collett and London 52 deliver the goods in this phase? The 13-year-old Holsteiner, who’s owned by Karen Bartlett and Keith Scott alongside Laura herself, has firmly established himself as one of the sport’s outliers in dressage, consistently delivering leading scores in the hottest of company. Today, he excelled even his own lofty standards, dancing his way to an exceptional 19.3 – Laura’s best-ever international result and the third best-ever test at a World Championships. That also boosted the British team, who are the reigning champions, into gold medal position.

Though plenty of horses have been starstruck by Pratoni’s atmospheric arena — and the strong winds that plagued the afternoon session — ‘Dan’ is a consummate showman, and thrives in front of his adoring fans. And boy, were they vocal in their adoration.

“He definitely loves the crowd,” laughs Laura. “He went in that arena and he was like, ‘Yeah, everyone’s here to see me,’ and he was just a pleasure to work with.”

It’s hard to imagine, sometimes, that a horse as consistent as Dan can find any way to eke out further marginal gains — but Laura has been hard at work with British dressage supremo Carl Hester, who has helped them to go from great to, perhaps, greatest.

“Obviously he was pretty good at Badminton, but there were bits that weren’t quite good enough and we’ve just been really working on those,” says Laura. “Once I got the first centerline out of the way, I thought, ‘Oh, Carl will be happy now!’ From then on, it just felt like he just got better and better, and I could just have a lovely time, basically.”

For Laura, who also won Boekelo in 2019, Pau CCI5* in 2020, and contributed to Great Britain’s team gold at last year’s Olympics, there’s a serious weight of expectation where this phase is concerned — but does icy-veined Laura still feel the pressure?

“Oh god, yeah,” she says. “I’m well aware that I’m sat on one of the very best horses in the world and people expect you to deliver — but luckily he delivered. I’m just the luckiest person to be sat on him, and he really does just keep getting better and better. He’s amazing.”

“I’m just the luckiest person to be sat on him”: Laura Collett and London 52. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Ahead of Laura and Dan, who’s become a seriously consistent cross-country performer after an educational first couple of years at the upper levels, is a serious cross-country course — and one that Laura’s going to spend her ‘day off’ tomorrow analysing.

“Sadly, it’s not going to be a dressage competition! From start to finish, it’s full-on. There was a lot of head-scratching when we first walked it about what the direct route was in different places. There’s so many options, so that takes a lot of thought to figure out. But he’s done a lot of different types of tracks — we’re very lucky in the UK to have so many different venues to go to. It sort of reminds me of Chatsworth, with the hills, and he’s won that before, so hopefully it will suit him. He’s been on amazing form for the last two years, so I have no reason to think it won’t suit him.”

Mum’s the word: Laura celebrates with mum Tracey after her leading test. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Although last year’s Olympic trip was ostensibly an excellent one, for Laura, it was an educational experience — and everything she learned about her horse along the way has helped to define her approach to competitions with him since.

“Trusting him [made the difference], really,” she explains. “We got that wrong in Tokyo last year, and we learned a lot from that. So the main thing with him is keeping him happy and not stressing him out. If you do too much and ask too much, then he worries because he wants to try — he is a trier and he wants to do it right. And if he thinks he’s not doing it right, he gets a bit nervous. So it’s just about telling him he’s amazing, which he is!”

Tom Carlile and Darmagnac de Beliard get the better of tricky conditions to sit equal fifth overnight. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Yasmin Ingham and Banzai du Loir now sit in second place overnight on their career-best score of 22, while early morning leaders Monica Spencer and Artist, who’ve travelled 18,000km to make their Championship debut, move to third place on 25.6, followed by reigning World Champion Ros Canter and Lordships Graffalo on 26.2. (Missed their stories? Head to our lunch break report for all the details!)

France’s Tom Carlile joins the top five, tying for the spot with the USA’s Will Coleman and Off The Record. His nine-year-old Darmagnac de Beliard had, perhaps, the worst conditions of the day to contend with: strong winds meant that one of the arena’s flowerpots went into orbit just as the gelding approached it in extended trot, but although his rhythm was slightly disrupted and he raised his head in shock at the sudden disturbance, he didn’t spook or break into canter, and was able to secure a 26.4 to start his week.

“The most difficult part of our sport is the dressage — but I was very, very pleased with Darmagnac,” says Tom, who finished fourth at Bramham’s CCI4*-L on the horse’s level debut in June. “He’s a real genuine, very honest, shy little horse, and he comes into an atmosphere and he gets fazed. I think the worst thing you can do is just go a bit soft on him and a bit quiet — that doesn’t reassure him. He’s just so serious, and so with me, that you can really ride him into the confidence and then he just performs.”

When the flower pot went, and its contents began their tour around the outside of the ring, Tom remained calm and rode forward into the issue and put his faith in the long relationship he has with the young talent.

“Everything was sort of shaking his emotions, but I just kept his concentration and because he has that trust in me, that kept him occupied,” says Tom. “He’s a horse that I’ve been lucky enough to have since the start — my good owners bred him, and we used to feed him in the field as a yearling. We know him inside out, and we’ve built him into the animal he is today, so he has total trust in us. He has a very shy nature, and he does get a bit tense and emotional, but he’s a lovely horse to work with and there’s so much to come. Give him two years and this test will be five marks better.”

Although the gelding is one of the most inexperienced horses in the field, with just nine FEI runs under his belt, he’s also one of the most impressive: he’s finished outside the top ten in just one of those runs, and Tom has long suspected that he might have what it takes to go all the way.

“We knew his class, but he showed it to everyone in Bramham — and now we need to keep polishing the diamond,” he says. “He’s a horse that if you leave him alone to himself, he worries — so it’s just about keeping him confident. If you have his trust, it reassures him.”

Lauren Nicholson and Vermiculus take provisional seventh place, securing a podium place for the USA overnight. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Team USA sits in bronze medal position overnight after both its day one riders strode into the top ten: after an excellent test by Will and Off the Record this morning, second rotation rider Lauren Nicholson slotted in just behind him with an excellent 27.1 aboard a focused, expressive Vermiculus. The diminutive Anglo Arab shelved any of the intermittent naughtiness that has previously crept into some of his tests and — bar a petulant little stamp of a hind foot in the final halt — looked every inch the professional in his tour of the arena.

“I’m thrilled with him. I think everyone kind of knows that the Arab can throw in some moments — but I didn’t aggravate the Arab, and he did quite well in front of the crowd,” says Lauren. “He does love a big moment, and he’s always at his best at these big competitions, so I was happy to put down a good score for the team. That was our job: not to go in there and do anything amazing, just to try not to mess it up.”

For Lauren, simply getting it right is often enough with ‘Bug’, who is naturally compact but has plenty of movement, which is ordinarily generously rewarded.

“The judges want to like him. They always have, even when he’s been naughty — but when he’s not naughty, he just goes in very workmanlike and the changes are super easy. It’s fun once it’s done,” she laughs.

Part of the key to getting the right stuff out of Bug in the right moment is understanding that he doesn’t have any latent desire to be held hostage by a lengthy workload — and Lauren was hyper aware of that as she planned her warm-up.

“My motto with him is that it doesn’t get better after the first ten minutes, so I came down to the final warm-up as the rider before Clarke [Johnstone, who was ahead of her] was starting. A little less than two tests’ warm-up was right for him,” she says.

Clarke Johnstone and Menlo Park power to a 27.4 and overnight eighth. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Kiwi team rider Clarke Johnstone, for his part, ended up just three tenths of a penalty behind Lauren and Bug, posting a 27.4 with the relatively inexperienced Menlo Park, a former ride of Kevin McNab and Oliver Townend, who he bought from Tim Boland in Australia just a year ago. That also helped propel the New Zealand team to overnight second place.

“It was the test I was hoping for,” says Clarke, “but he’s very inexperienced for this level. I keep saying, ‘he’s light on experience, but he’s big on quality!’ So I knew he was capable of doing a really good test, but he’s pretty green with some of the movements. It all came together as well as I could have hoped today, though.”

Though their partnership is a young one, it’s come together quickly, and Clarke and the twelve-year-old British-bred gelding have already picked up three top ten finishes in their four FEI runs together. Clarke is hoping that the confidence boost of each successful run will have laid a great foundation for the challenges to come this weekend.

“He’s a beautiful horse, and we’ve spent a year getting to know each other — so hopefully we’re ready to tackle the challenge on Saturday,” he says.

Part of what makes Menlo Park such an attractive partner for Clarke is his wealth of personality, which has also helped the horse to settle into his first championship experience without any teething problems.

“He’s so cheeky, and he’s actually really thrived on this trip because he’s both relaxed and loves attention, and he’s a bit of a monkey, so he quite likes having people around him all the time, giving him carrots and brushing him and leading him around and stuff. He loves all that,” he says.

Clarke, who spent several years in the UK a decade ago, has been back in England since February, basing himself at Zara Tindall’s yard.

“It’s a fantastic place to live and work out of — the horses are really happy there,” he says. Now, he plans to base himself in England through the Paris Olympics with his growing string of horses.

“I’m really enjoying it this year. I lived in England for three years from 2011 to 2013 and I found it pretty tough going, but I guess I’m a lot older and wiser now, and I’m really enjoying it.”

Japan’s Yoshi Oiwa lays his claim on the top ten with Calle 44. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Japanese Olympic partnership Yoshiaki Oiwa and the fifteen-year-old Holsteiner Calle 44 (Cristo 5 x Sara IV, by Quebec) will sit in ninth place overnight on a score of 28, which bests their Tokyo score of 31.5 and just slides ahead of their last World Championships dressage score, a 28.2 earned at Tryon in 2018. They ultimately finished 20th there, but more recently, we’ve seen them working to sort out some teething problems in this and the second phase. That’s meant that the majority of the international competitions they’ve contested recently — seven of their eight FEI runs this year, in fact — have been at the three-star level. But taking the horse back down a level in terms of intensity and technicality has proven a real boon for the experienced gelding.

“Actually, I was quite happy compared to my last few shows,” says Yoshi, who is based in Germany at Dirk Schrade’s yard. “I was struggling myself, but I could do very good preparation to come here, and I think it was our best that I can do now, so I’m happy. My horse is getting older and older, so the body is getting stiff — and I feel a bit soft myself to ask more and more! So probably, that’s more my problem. I was not asking so much. But now, he did very good.”

Evelina Bertoli is best of the home nation in overnight eleventh with Fidjy des Melezes. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

The home nation had plenty to celebrate today as well: not only do they sit eighth in the team standings, which would be good enough for a qualifying spot at Paris if they can maintain or better it, but their final rider of the day, Evelina Bertoli, was able to deliver an excellent test aboard her Fidjy des Melezes, earning her overnight eleventh place on 29.8. For Evelina, it’s particularly special: she’s lived in Rome her entire life, and while that presents some logistical challenges in terms of her sport, it’s home — and Pratoni is effectively her home venue.

“I’m nearly 2000km from any major competition,” she says with a laugh. “But I’ve competed here many times since I was very young, and I won a bronze medal in the Junior Europeans here in 2004. It’s a special place.”

 

Today’s first day of dressage saw 44 riders deliver their tests and, after the sad withdrawal this morning of Brazil’s Ruy Fonseca and Ballypatrick SRS due to a minor injury, we’ll duplicate that number tomorrow, with another spate of individual riders and the third and fourth rotations of the sixteen teams on the roster. We’ve seen just eleven tests break the 30 barrier today, and there’s plenty of heavy hitters to come tomorrow, including Michael Jung and fischerChipmunk FRH, Olympic gold medallists Julia Krajewski and Amande de b’Neville, US superstars Tamie Smith and Mai Baum and Boyd Martin and Tsetserleg, and Burghley and Kentucky winners Oliver Townend and Ballaghmor Class — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Keep it locked onto EN for all the updates and, as always, Go Eventing.

The top ten at the end of the first day of dressage at the 2022 FEI World Championships of Eventing.

The team standings at the halfway point of the first phase.

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