By Wendy Nix
It was drama all the way to the finish line at this year’s Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials (September 5 – 8 ) as Pippa Funnell regained the trophy she last won in 2003 by the tightest of margins, 0.1 penalties.
Hot on her heels was Piggy French on her 2019 Badminton winner, Vanir Kamira, who finished 0.4 of a penalty ahead of third-placed Oliver Townend riding his 2017 Burghley winner, Ballaghmor Class.
Show jumping in reverse order, with literally nothing in hand, Oliver toppled the second fence to add four penalties to his score. Piggy also had a fence down which was just as well for Pippa as MGH Grafton Street – at his first 5* event – took out fence 8, an upright of rails, by the roots. He was clearly unsettled after that, and it took all of Pippa’s horsemanship to bring him home clear over the rest of the course to a tumultuous cheer from the crowds.
Thursday and Friday saw the dressage taking place with Pippa, Piggy and Oliver all coming near the end although Pippa also rode Billy Walk On on Thursday.
Overnight on Friday, Pippa was in the lead on MGH Grafton Street with 22.8, Oliver lay second with a score of 25.3 with Piggy close at hand in equal fifth (26.9). Gemma Tattersall’s test on Arctic Soul gave her 32.7 while her second ride, Santiago Bay, fared better for 29.9.
Also from West Sussex were Nana Dalton on Absolut Opposition (35.4), Francis Whittington on Evento (35.3), Australian Isabel English, based at Billingshurst, with Feldale Mouse (34.0) and American Elisabeth Halliday-Sharp, based in North Chailey, riding Deniro Z. Elisabeth lay in equal seventh place after dressage on 28.4.
With 22 first timers taking part at Burghley, including Isobel and Elisabeth, it was clear that the cross-country course would take some riding. As ever, course designer Capt. Mark Phillips had offered several options for the not so brave but not even he anticipated the problems caused, particularly at the Rolex Triple Brush (Fence 6) and Joules at the Maltings (Fence 13).
This latter, with three elements for the short route or five for the longer, accounted for no less than 10 retirements or eliminations and three lots of added penalties. The crash team were kept busy replacing rails that had dropped thanks to frangible pins – causing Mark Phillips to comment later that the course had probably set a world record for frangible pins in action.
The scene was set early in the day at the Maltings when the usually very reliable Arctic Soul tipped Gemma out the plate. Isobel knocked a frangible pin to add 11 penalties to her score before also being tipped out the saddle for elimination. Nana retired here after a run-out while Francis, having got through the Maltings unscathed, was eliminated at Fence 20, Clarence Court at the Dairy Mound.
Those who rode forward on committed strides made it all look easy, which it was not, and determination was etched across the faces of Elisabeth who jumped within her limits to go clear, adding 34.4 time penalties to her dressage,
Gemma, who was very pleased to put the Maltings behind her on Santiago Bay, and Pippa who had faith in her ‘lucky number 77’ which she was wearing. Unfortunately, at some stage on the course she lost her much-loved 30-year-old blue hat silk.
“I hate the nerves on Friday night and Saturday morning,” she said afterwards. “I had to stay focused, be brave and committed on ‘Squirrel’ who’s not very experienced. It was a fair course and rode every bit as big as it walked.”
Piggy agreed, “The course felt enormous when walked, the oxers rode as big as they looked and the gates [Fence 16, Land Rover at the Lake, a double on a bending line of two strides or straight on one] were hideous. But I have faith in [Mark Phillips]. The course was as hard as its ever felt and I’ve never made the time before, my horse is a real trier.” Piggy was the sole clear across country inside the time; Pippa added four time penalties while Oliver added just two.
At the end of Saturday, Pippa was in the lead on 26.8, Piggy lay second on 26.9 with Oliver in third on 27.3. Gemma was in sixth on 41.1 and Elisabeth was in fifteenth with 62.8.
The Trot Up on Sunday morning saw four horses sent to the holding box for further inspection, including Santiago Bay. Thankfully, he and two of the others passed on representation to go forward to the show jumping phase. Clear rounds were quite hard to come by, Elisabeth dropping one pole to retain her place while Gemma also had one down which left her in seventh.
And so the weekend ended with thrills to the last second and it was perhaps appropriate that the first three, along with West Sussex’s Tina Cook, had returned from Germany just the week before as European Team Silver Medallists.