As he watched the first few horses tackle his CCI5* cross country course at Burghley Horse Trials in the UK, Derek Di Grazia would’ve been forgiven for thinking that he had set the bar too low.
The first five horses made the course look easy and both Wills Oakden (GBR) on Oughterard Cooley and David Doel (GBR) aboard Galileo Nieuwmoed finished within the optimum time. Oakend’s round saw him leap from 27th place after dressage to fourth overnight on his dressage score of 34.9, while Doel jumped from 25th to third on 33.7.
“I’m not ashamed to admit I was probably out of control pretty much the whole way,” smiled Oaken. “But I think that was probably a good thing around here. He was so keen. He was so bold. He was so forward thinking. I was just really pleased with how he was feeling.
“Come nine or ten minutes he was still full of go and still ready to press the go button,” he continued, crediting Scottish steeplechase trainer Lucinda Russell, trainer of Grand National winners One For Arthur (2017) and Corach Rambler (2023), for the horse’s fitness.
If the Oaken and Doel’s rides lured anyone into thinking the track was easy, the illusion didn’t last long. No other combination would finish within the optimal time.
Naitonal teammate Oliver Townend didn’t finish at all with two of his three rides in the top 15.
Thirteen-year-old Tregilder, lying 13th after dressage, was giving a copybook ride until his rein broke half way around the course and the pair had to retire. Swallow Springs (15) got a little further, but after breaking a pin at the first part of the Dairy Mound, fence 20a, Townend opted to save him for another day.
“Both horses came back in one piece and had very nice trips to seven or eight minutes,” said Townend. “The rein was new this year so it was very unfortunate but just one of those things. I’ll chat with the owners but maybe [Tregilder] will re-route to Pau. Swallow Springs was a little bit all over the place in his brain, which he can be like at Burghley. I didn’t get the distance I wanted, we caught a back (frangible) pin and he was out of the running from that point on.”
The world no. 4 put these frustrations out of his mind as he set out on veteran partner, 16-year-old Ballaghmor Class and delivered a jumping-fault-free round. The pair notch up just 4.8 time penalties to nibble way at Tim Price’s lead.
“[Ballaghmor Class] is a freak of nature, definitely my hero and my horse of a lifetime. He didn’t give me the easiest of rides–he was keen, keen, keen–definitely not showing his age!” said Townend, who went on to praise his team.
“These horses don’t turn up, as old as they are, again and again and with their ears pricked without incredible management behind the scenes. We are all getting older but the girls are still as madly passionate about the horses as they have ever been.”
Price might well have expected to have beaten the time with Vitali but they picked up eight time faults. Their lead after dressage was so great they retained pole position heading into the final day, but with less than a rail in hand. Price sits on 26.7 penalties to Townend’s 29.
“We have had better rounds,” Price reflected. “Badminton, in the mud, was lovely and smooth and probably one of the most favorite rounds of my career, but horses are horses, and today, whether it was the warm weather or the side of the bed he got out of, he wasn’t taking me today like he can do.”
USA’s Boyd Martin had a nerve-racking moment when he was stopped before the largest fence on the course, the slate mine at Fence 23, because it was thought Tsetserleg was bleeding. After a thorough check by the vets, he was allowed to continue and lies seventh going into tomorrow’s show jumping.
On Cue gave him a less heart stopping ride and now lies 12th, behind Will Faudree (USA) and Mama’s Magic Way. Countrymen Grace Taylor (46.5) and Jennie Saville (46.7) fill 16th and 17th places respectively, while Wabbit and Jessica Phoenix (CAN) lie just ahead in 15th place (47.5).
USA’s Tiana Coudray and Cancaras Girl were eliminated after runouts at the Leafpit and the Maltings and finally parting company at the second element of the Irish Horse Board Bank. Seven more also met elimination, including reigning European Champion Ros Canter (GBR) and Pencos Crown Jewel.
Of the 58 starters, 37 completed, 26 without jumping penalties and two within the time, and there were no serious incidents.
Di Grazia should sleep easy tonight. But pressure’s on for Price.