The big news, coming into the 75th edition of the Badminton Horse Trials, is the withdrawal of the world no. 1 Oliver Townend (GBR) and his sole entry, Ballaghmor Class.

Townend was the live contender for the Rolex Grand Slam of Eventing, having won Burghley last year with Ballaghmor Class and Kentucky a fortnight ago on Cooley Rosalent.

“I’m absolutely gutted,” said the Brit. “He had an abscess earlier in the season and missed a couple of runs. After his final gallop, and with the possible soft ground, we don’t feel he’s at his normal 5* fitness.”

It’s all systems go for the remaining 82 competitors. After a long, wet winter and spring, sunshine greeted those competing the first day of dressage.

Taking the lead on a score of 27.3 is Britain’s two-time Under 25 champion, Bubby Upton riding Cola.

That Upton got to Badminton this year at all is a fairytale onto itself. The 25-year-old finished eighth in her Badminton debut last year, but suffered severe spinal injuries after a fall on the flat last August. Initially paralyzed on her right side and told that she was unlikely to walk again, Upton’s recovery has been nothing short of miraculous.

“I was thrilled with him,” said Upton of her round on Cola.

“He was absolutely amazing. I was kicking myself about our last flying change because that is normally his really secure one and I just took him a bit for granted. Riding under the [entrance] arch again was a feeling like no other, it just feels so special to be here.”

The event has begun well for the American contingent, with all four riders finishing in the top 15.

Boyd Martin and Tsetserleg TSF became the first combination to crack the sub-30 mark, riding in the day’s first session. Their 29 score slots them into second on the overnight leaderboard. According to Equiratings data, eight of the past 11 Badminton winners finished in the top 5 after dressage.

Martin attributed the result down time for the 17-year-old Trakehner. Tsetserleg (AKA Thomas) travelled with Martin to Kentucky, then flew from Indianapolis to England, where he stabled with the American Olympian’s good friend Kevin McNab.

“Being a slightly older horse, and a seasoned campaigner, he probably benefitted from having a slight break,” said Martin. “I travelled over on Saturday and have had a couple of days being screamed at by Bettina Hoy—pretty scary but very constructive.”

The final sub 30 score of the day, 29.8, came from USA’s Tiana Coudray and Cancaras Girl.

“She is not a natural dressage horse and just before we went into the arena she had a bit of a meltdown and as I came under the arch, I thought, ’This is going to be a LONG six minutes!’ explained a tearful Coudray, who last competed at Badminton 10 years ago.

“I still don’t know how it happened but once she entered the arena she just tried so hard. It’s been a long time coming, with a massive team behind me, adding a fraction of a mark here and a fraction of a mark there but it all paid off today.”

Cosby Green (USA) and Copper Beach are lying ninth overnight, with Meghan O’Donoghue (USA) in equal 13th on her ex-racer, Palm Crescent.

The general feeling was that the Ground Jury were quite ungenerous with their marks today, with very few 8s being rewarded. The only 9 of the day went to Martin, for his medium walk.

Friday sees the world no. 2 take to the stage as Ros Canter brings her Pau winner, Izilot DHI to the arena. As defending champion, Canter is the Equiratings favorite with a 21% win chance on Izilot DHI.

Other five-star winning horses in the field include Jonelle Price’s Grappa Nera (Pau 2022) and Gemma Stevens’s Chilli Knight (Bicton 2021), which will also compete in the second half of dressage (Equiratings).