After a day of thrills and spills across the country today at the Badminton Horse Trials presented by Mars Equestrian, Ros Canter remains in pole position with Lordships Gruffalo whilst the rest of the leader board shuffles around beneath her. Amy Powell reports on the cross country action.
With the heavy rain yesterday, the soft ground combined with the longest Badminton track we’ve seen in a number of years, it was always going to be influential, and boy did today’s results reflect that. Only 30 horse and rider combinations made it through to the next phase of the event. From the start of the day it was evident that Eric Winter’s meaty course was going to have an impact on the overnight standings, as we saw Oliver Townend Eliminated at fence 24 on his first ride (and second placed after dressage) Swallow Springs. Described by Oliver as the fastest horse he has ever ridden cross country, the 15-year-old gelding didn’t seem to enjoy the deep going and tired toward the end of the 6700m track.
Sixth to leave the start box was New Zealand’s Tim Price on board Vitali who sat in third place after dressage. With a text book round, the combination stopped the clock exactly a minute over the 11 minute 35 second optimum time. Not looking like they were hanging around, the pair set the marker for the rest of the field as to how attainable the time looked to be. “I couldn’t be more pleased with him in very testing conditions – more so than I anticipated, but he’s just a class horse and when you get him out on course, the athleticism comes to the fore and that’s when it’s quite good fun!” Tim said of his classy clear round on the 13-year-old Holsteiner gelding.
Sitting equal 34th after dressage was Irish rider Austin O’Connor on Colorado Blue, his speedy Tokyo Olympics mount who is rated as one of the strongest cross country horses in the field. Blazing a trail across the country, the Irishman took economical lines to every fence, shaving off valuable seconds to clock up the fastest round of the day – 37 seconds over the optimum time and adding just 10.8 cross country time penalties to his dressage score of 31.9, propelling them into an early lead to finish on 42.7. “He really is one of the best horses in the world and it is such a privilege to ride him,” Austin said of the 14-year-old gelding, “I started out on the course thinking “what will be, will be”, but he relished the conditions and was loving it, I’m one of the luckiest riders in the world.” Ending the day in second place ahead of tomorrow’s show jumping, Austin gives himself a solid chance of being the first Irish winner in 58 years, since Eddie Boylan in 1965.
Maintaining their fifth place after dressage, Britain’s Tom McEwen and Toledo de Kerser gave a cross country masterclass, but with a steady clear which added 30.8 time penalties to their overnight score to sit on 54.4 – unlikely to challenge the top three, Toledo de Kerser’s impeccable show jumping record might just come in handy if the four combinations ahead of them struggle with tired legs after the sapping ground conditions today. “I have messed up here beyond belief too many times with the most amazing horse, and to be fair we almost had a perfect round from a jumping performance. But the ground is horrific, it’s tough on them and it was hard, hard work. Also, you’ve got to have the mindset that we’ve got rain all night tonight and tomorrow, so leaving some in the tank might not be the worst thing in the world.” Tom said of his tactics for his round with the 16-year-old Selle Français gelding.
On a mission to make up for his disappointing round in the morning, Oliver set out with a point to prove with his Tokyo Olympic mount and second ride of the day, Ballaghmor Class. The combination tackled the course with gusto and the Brit was full of praise for his mount, “there’s no reason for him at this stage of his life to go out there and do what he’s just done but he loves his job. I’m not eloquent enough to tell everyone how much he means to me.” Oliver said of the 16-year-old Irish Sports Horse. “We’ve been together since he was four and we know each other inside out – we’re the best of mates and life would be a lot more boring without him around. He’s one of those special horses you can just rely on.”
Ultimately, the only rider that managed to overtake Austin was overnight dressage leader and last year’s runner up here at Badminton, GBR’s Ros Canter and the 11-year-old Lordships Gruffalo. Having had a brilliant trip around the course in the morning on her first horse, Pencos Crown Jewel, who is also within the top 10, sitting in 7th position ahead of the show jumping, Ros then set out in the most testing ground conditions of the day as one of the last to go and tore up the track to post a finishing time just two seconds slower than Austin’s. “He’s just such an amazing horse, he had to dig a bit deeper today than he ever has before and I think he had a nice day out again,” she said of ‘Walter’, as he is known at home. “It felt harder work in terms of galloping as the ground is drying, but he’s so honest and he’s a fantastic and economical jumper, so you couldn’t get much better than that”.
Ros now sits comfortably with a 9 point lead going into the final phase tomorrow afternoon, allowing her a two fence and one time fault cushion to take the title. Having been in the top three here twice, is it third time lucky for the 2018 world champion? We still have a vet inspection to get through tomorrow morning, but you can be sure she will be giving it her best shot to finally be crowned Badminton champion on the coronation bank holiday.