Yasmin Ingham and Banzai du Loir lead the British charge after cross-country

Saturday, 17 September 2022

Cross-country day at a championship is always filled with drama and elation – and today proved to be no different. The British campaign quickly became a rollercoaster of emotions, with more ups and downs than the Pratoni hills, finishing with championship debutante Yasmin Ingham leading the medal hopes with Banzai du Loir.

This morning dawned with an air of excitement and anticipation. The early morning rain burned off before the first horse left the start box, and the hills of Pratoni were treated to breeze sunshine – perfect cross-country weather. Designed by Show Director Giuseppe Della Chiesa, who also devised the track here for the European Championships in 2007, today’s course promised to be a true championship test.

Ros Canter and Lordships Graffalo

Pathfinders for the British team were Ros Canter and her talented 10-year-old, Lordships Graffalo. The British-bred gelding, owned by Michele Saul, made the eventing world sit up and pay attention when he stormed round the Badminton cross-country course this spring on his CCI5* debut. He and Ros were the only combination to finish on their dressage score there, taking second place with 26.0. Their prep run for the championship was the CCI4*-S at Hartpury, where they again took the runners-up slot, this time behind Piggy March and Vanir Kamira – who would go on to take the Burghley title just weeks later.

So far, the selectors’ faith in the inexperienced pair has been paying off. After travelling well – including a first time on an aeroplane for ‘Walter’ – and a strong dressage test on the first day, they started today on a score of 26.2. Setting out with great gusto, they were determined for a strong round and plenty of insight for the rest of the squad. Considering that it’s been scarcely a year since Walter did his first CCI4*-L, he and Ros made the track today look positively easy – while he may be young, Ros has partnered him from the earliest stages of his ridden career, so their partnership is well bedded in. The pair took every combination in their stride, never seeming to rush or fuss, and Walter’s ears stayed pricked throughout.

“Lordships Graffalo might only be 10 years old, but he’s a true legend already,” beamed Ros. “I’ve never had a horse who feels like he does cross-country – he’s fast, he’s quick through the air, but he’s so polite. To be honest, he makes my job quite easy.

“He really did give me a fantastic ride. I was maybe a little slow and hooky into the first, and he touched it, and I thought ‘that’ll wake us up a bit, we’d best get on with it’, and after that he was fantastic. It just feels like child’s play to him. He’s green and he’s inexperienced, but he just treats it like a big kid and plays with it, then focuses when he needs to focus.”

They crossed the finish line still full of running and seven seconds inside the optimum time of nine minutes and 50 seconds – the only combination so far to stay on their dressage score. While some horses were clearly finding the unique gradients and camber of the Pratoni hills to be an additional challenge, Walter didn’t seem at all phased by them. Ros credits this to the years he’s spent in the rolling Wolds of Lincolnshire, where her yard is based.

“I was pretty confident after Badminton that he’d be able to keep going,” she explained. “I haven’t done much galloping work at home because of the hard ground and we only go on grass. He experiences hills like that all the time at home, though, whether he’s hacking or cantering, so I knew he’d be able to keep his speed or accelerate up a hill – and I think that’s key, because once you’ve done the hills, it gets very twisty and, if they feel a bit tired, that’s when they’re going to be harder to steer. I was fortunate in that sense because he kept galloping right to the end. I couldn’t be prouder of him, he’s just a phenomenal horse.

“With a young horse and not a lot of experience, I did feel the pressure a little bit, coming here, just because I so wanted to do a good job and prove that Walter deserved his place on the team – and so far, I think he’s pulled out all the stops. It’s just so exciting for the coming years.”

This was exactly the start that the British team wanted – a strong score in the bank and confirmation that the plan worked.

Yasmin Ingham and Banzai du Loir

Before Ros and Walter has even crossed the finish line, however, it was time for Britain’s individual combination to set off. Yasmin Ingham and Banzai du Loir are the young guns of the squad, making their senior championship debut here in Pratoni – they’re another combination to impress the selectors with a runners-up placing at a spring CCI5*, this time at Kentucky.

With such a strong pool of experienced British talent fighting for World Championship selection, some might have questioned the decision to send such an inexperienced pairing. However, the Manx rider – who’s now based with Banzai’s owners, Sue Davies and Janette Chinn, in Cheshire – put any doubts firmly to rest on Thursday, when she piloted the rangy French-bred gelding to an impressive dressage score of 22.0, leaving them in bronze medal position after the first phase.

As is often pointed out, though, this isn’t a solely a dressage competition – Yaz and Banzai needed to prove their calibre out on the cross-country track. While their round might not looked quite as easy as that of their pathfinder compatriots, with Banzai’s enthusiasm for the job leaving Yaz working hard to keep him contained, it was certainly impressive to watch. They made short work of the combinations and were still galloping as they crossed the finish line, just three seconds over the optimum.

“I’m incredibly happy,” said a slightly breathless Yaz afterwards. “It was such hard work, but I said from the beginning that I didn’t want to be sat on any other horse, and he just made it feel amazing. At a couple of the combinations, we had to work quite hard to get here, but we’re at the top of the sport now – it’s definitely not easy and I’m just delighted he’s come back well and we’ve had a super round.”

When asked where she might have lost those three seconds, “It was very intense. I think it was the terrain more than anything – it was just constantly on the camber, up and down, but I’m just so glad I’m sat on Banzai. He just took it all in his stride and just felt like he was really at home up in the hills. All the combinations, I rode to my plan A, apart from the last water, where he jumped quite steep in so I didn’t land quite as far out as I’d have liked. We just picked up the five strides instead of the four, so I think if I’d maybe been a bit quicker there, we might have been inside the time. I’m just delighted with him, he was incredible the whole way, grew in confidence the whole way and was just looking for the flags.”

Now sitting on a two-phase of 23.2, Yaz and Banzai would showjump tomorrow from no lower than bronze medal position – a huge achievement for their first senior-call up.

“Honestly, I could never have even dreamed of being in this position,” said Yaz. “I know the horse is more than capable – I think so much of him, and he just deserves it so much, he’s such an incredible all-round horse in the dressage and showjumping. Touch wood, tomorrow he’ll show everyone he’s the ultimate event horse.”

Laura Collett and London 52

Thursday’s dressage leaders, Laura Collett and London 52, were next out for the team. The pair has had a fantastic two years, which have included two CCI5* wins and an Olympic team gold medal, and hopes were riding high that they could continue that success in Italy – a venue where Laura picked up team gold and individual bronze at the Pony Europeans in 2005.

Unfortunately, hopes of an individual medal fell apart at the infamous KEP Italia Slide at fence seven. Comprising of a drop over a log onto an incredibly steep bank – Italy’s answer to the Hickstead Derby Bank – with a pair of brush skinnies on a three-stride bending line at the base, the combination is one that’s been making riders nervous all week. A bold leap down the drop left them struggling to shorten up for the three strides between the skinnies – despite their best efforts, Dan ran out of room and just couldn’t get his legs over the second brush, leaving him no option but to leap out to the side.

Laura piloted her special – and still very feisty – boy, who she owns alongside Karen Bartlett and Keith Scott, around the rest of the course without chasing the clock. They crossed the finish line safe and well, with ‘Dan’ still full of energy.

“Obviously, I’m absolutely gutted to have had the 20 penalties,” said an emotional Laura. “He just saw the first skinny from the top of the hill and off he went, and just ran out of room. He wasn’t naughty, it was just one of those things where he overjumped and was too bold – he didn’t understand that there was going to be a second one there, and wanted to get down there as quickly as possible and launch over the first one.

“I’m still super-proud of him to have jumped round that track,” she added. “I didn’t know what he’d be like with those hills and he finished really well – he's in the wash-down thinking that he’d like to have another go!”

While the result may have put a dent in the British team medal campaign, Laura could be safe in the knowledge that the two combinations still to come would continue to fight for a podium placing.

“Obviously, I feel really bad to have put the pressure on the two guys, but Tom and Oliver are unbelievable under pressure and they’ll probably ride even better now. I’ll take full credit when they do,” she laughed.

Tom McEwen and Toledo de Kerser

The only World Championship gold medal-winning combination in the Pratoni field, Tom McEwen and Toledo de Kerser were the penultimate combination to head out on course for the British team. Watching him, it’s easy to see just how much enjoyment Toledo, owned by Fred and Penny Barker, Jane Coppell and Alison McEwen, finds in the cross-country phase. For Tom, on the other hand, it’s a matter of channelling that energy between the flags to producing the goods, which is something that the Gloucestershire-based rider managed to achieve.

“I could probably sum it up with one word – enthusiastic!” chuckled Tom. “He absolutely loved every second of it, and he was just wanting to run and jump. For a horse like him, who’s got multiple five-stars under his belt, it was probably on the small side and, being him, he was rather keen and wanting to jump absolutely everything. He was brilliant, foot-perfect, but it wouldn’t have been the smoothest round we’ve had as a combination.”

Managing the gelding’s power and stride cost Tom valuable, and the lack of long, galloping stretches like those you might find at one the UK five-star courses meant it was hard to make up the time. The pair finished 12 seconds over the optimum time, adding 4.8 time penalties to their dressage score of 25.6.

“For me, personally, it was a little bit on the smaller side – I’d prefer to be at Burghley! I needed some bigger fences, he was absolutely on one,” he explained. “The course rode well, but I thought the distances were quite short compared to what we’re used to. Obviously, I’m on a rangy horse with a great jump, so it slightly hinders me in my pace because sometimes I make up quite a bit of time actually being able to keep quite smooth in these big strides. The ground is phenomenal and the way they’ve presented the course is great, so I’ve really enjoyed it.”

As they came home, it became apparent that they’d been awarded 15 penalties for missing a flag on the B element of fence seven – the first skinny at the base of the Slide.

“We came down the Slide, just balancing – he was absolutely paying me no attention, and I just clipped the flag with my foot,” explained Tom.

There was an anxious wait while this decision was reviewed, but eventually it was overturned and the final score was announced at 30.4.

Oliver Townend and Ballaghmor Class

A decision on Tom’s score still hadn’t been reached when Oliver Townend and Ballaghmor Class headed to the start box. Nothing less than a clear round inside the time would keep Britain’s hunt for a team medal alive, but there was no more reliable pair to secure it. Owned by Karyn Shuter, Angela Hislop and Val Ryan, Ballaghmor Class is a phenomenal cross-country horse – he’s gone clear inside the time on all seven of his CCI5* starts. Oliver himself is world number one, and the pair were part of the gold medal-winning team from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

The pair shot out of the start box and didn’t let up the pace the whole way round. While this track might be different to the challenges they’ve faced before, they didn’t let that stop them. It was smooth, attacking and – most importantly – quick. They stopped the clock four seconds inside the optimum, giving the British team a late boost at the end of the day.

“It’s a tough test out there, but for different reasons to normal,” explained Oliver. “I think it was a very fair and cleverly designed one, but I don’t think it particularly suited some of the older horses who’ve been round lots of those big five-stars like Badminton and Burghley. This is definitely smaller dimension-wise, and you’re up and down the hills and the terrain’s tough – they want big, open courses that they can attack.

“The distances didn’t suit my horse, but he’s so genuine that even when he didn’t want to listen, he eventually did. The one thing he loves is jumping between the flags, which makes my job a lot, lot more relaxing. If he sees the fences, then he’s going to jump it. He loves his job, he loves attacking fences and, when he sees them, he says ‘go’ – even when sometimes I need to say ‘woah’! He couldn’t be more genuine and he battled to the end.”

The anchor role is the opposite to the pathfinder one that Oliver and ‘Thomas’ held at the Olympic Games, but they’ve proved that it’s one that they can carry out with aplomb.

“It’s good that I can do it when it matter for the team,” said Oliver. “I hopefully did my job very well from the other end last year, and I hope that it’s just proving to the management that they can rely on me at either end of the day. The team’s the most important bit – we’re here because of a huge of people, Lottery Funding, UK Sport, and the whole British Equestrian team, so it’s wonderful to deliver on the biggest stage.”

Their brilliant round kept Oliver and Thomas on their dressage score of 24.3, and they now sit just off the podium in fourth.

The final standings after cross-country

As predicted, the cross-country phase gave a real shake-up to the team and individual leaderboards. Three clear rounds inside the time apiece from the Germans and the Americans sees them take gold and silver position respectively, while Great Britain is in bronze. Only 4.8 penalties separate the podium placings, so there’s still plenty to play for in tomorrow’s showjumping.

Individually, Yasmin Ingham and Banzai du Loir are best of the Brits, sitting in silver medal position with 23.2 behind Germany’s Michael Jung and fischerChipmunk FRH on their score of 18.8. Tamra Smith and Mai Baum from the USA complete the podium on 24.0.

Oliver Townend and Ballaghmor Class are less than a pole from the podium with 24.3 in fourth, while Ros Canter and Lordships Graffalo are eighth with 26.2 – they sit on the same score as Tim Price and Falco from New Zealand, but the Kiwis were closer to the optimum time. Tom McEwen and Toledo de Kerser are 13th on 30.4.

Laura Collett and London 52 are on 58.1 and lie in 48th place.

Tomorrow is a new day, starting with the horse inspection in the morning. The bulk of the pack will showjump in the morning, with the top-25 placed combinations fighting it out for medals in the afternoon. You can catch all the action on the BBC Sport website and BBC iPlayer, or on ClipMyHorse.TV with a subscription.

Full results: