It was all action at the Land Rover Blair Castle International Horse Trials as the cross country and show jumping got underway.
Britain’s Tom McEwen is in contention to take two titles, whilst the inform Oliver Townend took the first of the weekend’s international victories, whilst the final leg of the Event Rider Masters got underway.
Oliver Townend’s dominance of the short format three star continued but it was all change after the show jumping.
This was as a result of his decision to withdraw Cooley Master Class, Cooley SRS, Ballaghmor Class and MHS King Joules as planned following the second phase, with other competitions in their sights.
This left Piggy French, Bella Innes Ker and Ben Hobday as the leading riders heading out onto the cross country.
The optimum time proved influential. At first it looked as though Storm Straker would post the fastest time, coming home 10 seconds over the optimum for four penalties – a result which moved her up from 14th to fifth.
Arthur Duffort and Piggy French both collected 7.2 penalties, Arthur soaring up from 36th after dressage to eventual sixth, helped by a clear showjumping round, while Piggy looked certain to take the win.
However, as the penultimate combination on course, Townend and his remaining mount Tregilder, who was competing at this level for the first time, crossing the finish line six seconds inside the time to take victory.
Afterwards, the world number one commented: “He’s unbelievable – he’s in a different league gallop wise. I absolutely didn’t expect to win, but he’s so professional. He lets me help him when he needs it, but knows exactly where his legs are. I couldn’t believe it when I crossed the line and saw the time. I’m delighted for his owners the Hazeldines, and it’s also a great advert for Preci Spark who bred him.”
Piggy was also delighted with Brookfield Inocent’s second place saying: “He’s a cool horse and Kevin McNab has done a great job of producing him – but I think always ran him quite slowly. I feel that running him fast makes him braver.”
Ben Hobday and Shadow Man II also put in a great performance to take third place, ahead of Bella Innes Ker riding Carolyn.
Ben admitted: “I went as fast as I could; I said go, and he did. I’m really hungry to win one of these three-stars and I think he’s got it in him.”
The optimum time proved influential in the CCI3* with just four combinations coming home inside the time.
The top three remained unchanged after cross country, and they were the only three to finish cross-country day on their dressage scores. Tom McEwen, last out on track with Strike Smartly, remains at the head of the leader board on a two-phase score of 26.9.
“He was absolutely phenomenal,” said Tom after his round. “He was straight as a die and cruised round. There were a lot of questions out there and he really helped me out at the road bridge going into the Lochan as I was a bit off there.”
Tom also sits in fourth with Figaro Van Het Broekxhof.
Izzy Taylor posted a trademark swift round with Director General, a horse having its first run at this level, and sits less than a penalty behind the leaders, leaving them no room for error in tomorrow’s final phase. New Zealand’s Tim Price posted a well timed clear round to come home bang on optimum time with Pats Jester to lie third.
McEwen also remains in contention in the CCI2*. His clear round inside the time with CHF Cooliser keeps the pressure on overnight leaders Piggy French and Cooley Monsoon going into Sunday’s final show jumping phase.
The pair go forward on a two-phase score of 28.7, less than a show jump behind Piggy and ‘Eddie’ on 25.1.
“She was super,” admitted Tom. “I was a bit worried that Gatcombe a couple of weeks ago would have taken it out of her a bit as she’s still young and needs to strengthen up, but not at all. This was a very different test for her – she hasn’t seen water as big as this before or as many crowds around water, but she coped really well.”
Piggy and Eddie also added nothing to their dressage score, coming home six seconds inside the optimum time.
“He covers the ground well but I have to work hard to keep his adrenalin up,” admitted Piggy. “He’d be quite happy to cruise around in second or third gear having a lovely time.”
Piggy also sits third with Castletown Clover on 30.7.
Matthew Heath and Lockroy retain the fourth place they held after dressage, with Emilie Chandler occupying fifth and sixth places with Jemilla and Gortfadden Diamond respectively.
The business end of the leader board after cross-country remained largely unchanged from how it looked after dressage.
New Zealand’s James Avery and the Scottish-bred Seaflower retained the lead they have held since Thursday, coming home clear inside the time. They go forward to tomorrow’s final show jumping phase on 25.2.
“She was just super,” enthused James. “She’s still pretty inexperienced and that was certainly the biggest track she’s seen so she had a good look at everything – particularly the ditches. She’s never run across country for nine minutes before but she just kept on coming. She’s usually a reliable show jumper so I’m quietly confident but we’ll see how tired she is.”
Aimee Penny and Serenade III retain second place on their dressage score of 28.3. “She came out of the start box like a rocket and answered all the questions,” said Aimee. “I was most worried about her stamina but she’ll have come on a hell of a lot here and learnt to have dug deep.”
Nicola Wilson is sitting in third, fourth and sixth with the young trio of Elite Jaguar, JL Dublin and All We Need.
Event Rider Masters
Oliver Townend rode into the top spot after dressage with short format specialist Cillnabradden Evo, on whom he won at Blair two years ago, with a score of 26.4.
“It felt pretty disasterous to be honest,” Oliver admitted, “but it’s good to still come out on top. Cillnabradden Evo is feeling very well and ‘bright’, which is good for some bits of the competition but not necessarily the dressage! There are a couple of fences out there, such as the hanging log to double of angles hedges that are more championship than CIC3* fences. It will be interesting to see how the horses read the questions.”
Series leader Christopher Burton and Graf Liberty are just half a penalty off the pace. Delighted with their test, Chris admitted that that his ride is not the best showjumper but: “the cross country phase should be OK, despite the promised rain. The course is a bit different this year. The designer has gone for slightly short distances in places – last year they were slightly long. I think he is trying to slow us all down a bit. There are definitely a few fences that could cause a problem.”
Emily King and Dargun complete the top three with a score of 27.1.
Images courtesy of Hannah Cole Photography