Australia’s Paul Tapner produced the test of the day with Kilronan to lead the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials after the first day of dressage, and three New Zealanders are in the top 10.
Tapner’s was among three brilliant dressage tests scoring under 40 to brighten up a wet and blustery afternoon at the event, the fourth leg of the FEI Classics 2013/2014.
Ignoring the relentless dampening drizzle, Tapner’s elegant grey performed a faultless, soft and flowing test to finish on a score of 36 – just 0.2 of a penalty ahead of Francis Whittington on another grey, Easy Target, with Lucinda Fredericks and Flying Finish third with 39.0.
Kilronan, who was bred in Ireland, is owned by Frederick and Penny Barker. The combination finished 20th last year.
Tapner said: “I have a tendency to over-think my tests sometimes, but today was the most relaxed I’ve ever been – I think partly because I know that come Saturday the competition will probably be turned on its head.
“Kilronan had been turning in tests in the 30s at 3* level, but for a couple of seasons I’d been scratching my head about why we couldn’t replicate this at 4*. I spent time analysing every step and working out where we were losing marks, and I was really pleased with my test today.”
Easy Target’s test with Whittington was expressive, rhythmical and accurate, earning them 36.2.
Whittington, who was 31st at Badminton on Easy Target last year, has achieved a 15-mark improvement in 12 months. “We knew ‘Smokey’ had the movement and could do it.
“I was hoping for a 34, but I’ll accept a 36,” Whittington joked.
The last British rider to win Badminton was Oliver Townend in 2009. Whittington’s best Badminton result to date is 15th in 2009 with Sir Percival lll and he was careful not to get too carried away. “I’ve been in this position twice before and then ended up doing the ‘walk of shame’ home from cross-country,” he joked.
“I’ve been working really hard over the winter developing the team around me. They’ve really helped me raise my game, particularly my trainers James Burtwell and Ian Woodhead, who have given my confidence a big boost,” Whittington said.
“What’s the secret apart from that? Well they’ve taught me how to ride!”
Fredericks, who won in 2007 on Headley Britannia, and is third on Richard Ames’ and Angus Murray’s Flying Finish.
New Zealander Mark Todd’s 40.5 penalty ride aboard NZB Campino put him in fourth spot, just 4.5 points behind Tapner. Neil Spratt and Upleadon put up 44.2 to be in sixth spot, with Andrew Nicholson and Quimbo close behind on 44.7.
Todd said Campino “felt amazing out there”.
The 12-year-old Hanoverian by Contendro has not done a three-day event since the London 2012 Olympic Games, where he was third after dressage and part of the bronze medal New Zealand team, because he suffered a minor injury at the start of the 2013 season.
The German-bred gelding made a couple of mistakes with a missed strike-off in the canter work, but otherwise scored highly throughout. “He felt amazing,” said 58-year-old Todd.
“It was nearly very well done,” he said. “I was a bit scared to look up at the scoreboard to see what marks I was getting…
“He has come back much more strongly and feels more mature. Normally the canter work is the best part of his test, but he perhaps got a little tense. I can’t repeat what was going through my mind when he made the mistake, but it’s still a very good mark.”
Nicholson too was happy with his horse.
“He’s a very calm horse and went into the arena just like he does at a small one day event,” he said. “The problem with him being very laid-back is that the atmosphere doesn’t really lift him. The trot work perhaps could have had a little bit more sparkle, but overall I’m very pleased.”
Both Todd and Nicholson have high hopes for both their mounts. Nicholson, who holds a record 33 completions at Badminton, is hoping this year to capture the title that has eluded him for so long.
Another former winner, Pippa Funnell, pulled off a soft and responsive test with the home-bred first-timer Billy Beware to lie fifth on 42.3.
“I was really chuffed with him. It’s the first time he’s done this test, but he coped brilliantly. He’s always been a very easy horse to produce. The only thing that’s gone against him is his size [17hh] – keeping him balanced is the main thing I have to think about.
“He’ll be an unknown quantity across country because he hasn’t been further than 10 minutes, but he is a very scopey jumper. When he was only six, I jumped 1.85m in a charity competition on him.
“Billy Beware has upgraded quite quickly, but gut instinct made me bring him here because he has always stepped up to the mark before,” Funnell said.
William Fox-Pitt had an uncharacteristically poor test on Cool Mountain, to end with 53.8 penalties in 28th place. “It could have been a lot better. I’m a bit lost for words,” he said afterwards. His next ride, Parklane Hawk, is fifth last to go on Friday, at about 4.30pm local time.
There were three other Kiwis in action overnight. Tim Price sits just outside of the top 10, on 50 penalty points aboard Ringwood Sky Boy, with Caroline Powell also in the top 20 on Onwards and Upwards.
Annabel Wigley was the only other Kiwi in the first day of competition, and she and Badminton débutante Frog Rock are in 34th of the 40-strong field.
All talk at Badminton is of the challenges facing riders on Saturday when they test the cross-country track produced by Giuseppe Della Chiesa, the first new course designer there for 25 years. Nicholson, who has more Badminton completions (33) to his name than any other rider, was full of praise: “Giuseppe has done a great job,” he said. “He’s changed the style without going overboard.”
The complex that is most perplexing riders is the Swindon Designer Outlet Mound at 18abc, where a log on top of a bank is followed by a sharp right-hand turn to another log followed by a curving line to a third.
“This will be something different, because you’ll have to slow up and sit on your backside and that’s hard when you’ve been jumping big fences on a forward stride, but that’s what cross-country riding is all about,” said Nicholson, who is in seventh place on his 2013 Kentucky winner Quimbo.
“I think it’s great,” was Todd’s view. “Giuseppe has breathed new life into the course. It’s a proper four-star test which makes you concentrate all the way.”
Lucinda Fredericks said: “I’ve walked the course twice now and it’s most definitely a true 4* test – and the ground conditions are going to make it tougher. The last time I rode in the real wet at Badminton was probably in 1992 aboard Arctic Goose. Flying Finish has had a good lead-up to Badminton. His last run was at Bicton, which – luckily – was in the wet.”
The second day of dressage will see the rest of the Kiwis complete their dressage phase, including Todd with Leonidas II, Nicholson with Nereo, Tim Price and Wesko, Jonelle Price on The Deputy, Megan Heath and St Daniel, and Lucy Jackson aboard Willy Do.
Riders from 15 countries are competing, including eight former Badminton winners.
Images below: © Mike Bain
Reporting: Kate Green, Diana Dobson, Badminton Horse Trials