The Frenchman delivered a remarkable score of 30.8 on the first day of the competition. This was enough to beat the former ERM record of 32.5, set at this leg last year by Marcio Jorge and Lissy Mac Weyer. The score, a personal best at this level, also equalled the dressage record at the Wiltshire fixture, set in 2008 by Lucinda Fredericks and Headley Britannia.
“He’s got that little spark that he delivers, that little extra flick of the tail, that flick of the head just to seduce the judges,” said Carlile of the Holsteiner/Anglo-Arab stallion.
As one of the hot favourites to post a competitive score in this class, Thomas capitalised on the audience’s expectations.
“I like the pressure – I’m not someone who tries to avoid a problem – instead, I try to make the most of one. If you want to be a winner, you’ve got to be able to use that to your advantage. I like to play that game – sometimes I lose, sometimes I win.”
Andrew Nicholson’s 17-year-old Nereo showed great form at his first competition since his Badminton victory, earning a 34.9 and second place with a workmanlike, correct test on a day that saw many succumb to costly errors.
“I’m lucky to have a horse like Nereo in the class,” said Nicholson of his longtime partner. “I have 100% faith in him, and I know that to get the result I need to work him in gently and go in when the crowd is still clapping for the horse before, and then he picks himself up, and off he goes and does it. He’s been ridden the same his entire career – I don’t see why, at this point, we should alter it.”
An easy clear round in the second phase saw Carlile and the showjumping-bred Upsilon go into the cross-country with ten time penalties in hand over Nicholson.
A spate of withdrawals before the final phase saw the ERM field thinned to only 26 contenders, with several riders citing concerns over ground conditions. The highest placed of those withdrawn was Oliver Townend and Cooley Masterclass, placed seventh after showjumping. European long-listed pairs Nicola Wilson and One Two Many, Tina Cook and Calvino II and Alexander Bragg and Zagreb also withdrew from the competition, making it a fast and furious final phase.
Time proved the most influential factor in Sunday afternoon’s cross-country, with just one pair making the optimum time – France’s Sidney Dufresne, riding the Jaguar Mail stallion Tresor Mail. They climbed eight places to finish in fourth on their dressage score of 43.3.
Two riders in the top ten saw their hopes of a podium finish slip away with expensive mistakes on course. Ireland’s Austin O’Connor and Kilpatrick Knight, sixth after the showjumping, had a run out at the arrowhead at fence 16b, the arrowhead coming out of the St James’s Place water combination. ERM debutante Emily King dropped from fifth place to 20th after a mistake at Stonehenge, after which she gave the young horse a steady, confidence-building run and amassed 22 time penalties.
New Zealand’s Tim Price set a fast pace and took economical options to earn just 1.6 time penalties and move up to sixth place aboard Cekatinka, a ride he has borrowed from wife Jonelle.
“Man, that time was tight – I thought I did everything I could!” he laughed.
Fellow countryman Mark Todd was relieved to break what had been referred to as his ERM curse, when he and Leonidas II topped off a 39.5 dressage score and a clear showjumping round with just 2.8 time penalties across the country. His ERM record prior to Barbury saw him scoring no lower than a 90.3 in four runs – a remarkable reversal of fortune for a man who so often flirts with the top five.
In the heady final minutes of the competition, Nicholson and Nereo delivered a true-to-form classy clear, adding 5.6 time penalties to finish on a 41.5.
“I thought that there was no point scorching him around – Thomas is a very good rider on a very good horse, and he’d have been listening to the commentary and know what speed he had to do. I thought that as long as I could keep second place, it would be good!”
The chestnut stalwart may not have jumped a cross-country fence since Badminton, but Nicholson knows the horse inside out after 13 years in the irons.
“He goes down to the warm-up and jumps a few and that’s when I realise why I’m so proud of him,” he said.
A fast, clear cross-country round added just 1.6 time penalties to Carlile’s score, clinching him the victory and making him the first person to lead an ERM leg throughout.
“It was about time someone did that, wasn’t it!” he quipped from atop the podium. “All my words go to my horse – he’s so special. I just try to sit on him and not bother him, and let him get on with his business. He’s a class act.”
Carlile joins last year’s series winner Oliver Townend as the only rider to have occupied the top spot of the podium twice. His win puts him at the top of the ERM leaderboard, just five points ahead of Sarah ‘Cutty’ Cohen and Treason, who will be aiming to upset the order at next week’s Haras de Jardy leg.
The St James’s Place CIC3* was claimed by William Fox-Pitt aboard new ride Clifton Signature. The win marks William’s first major victory since the fall in 2015 that saw him spend two weeks in an induced coma. Clifton Signature, owned by Russell Hall and Frances Stead and formerly ridden by Jock Paget, has only been in William’s yard for two months.
“It was not what I expected – it was quite a nice surprise, I thought I’d be far too slow!” said Fox-Pitt. “I was here just to try to get my 3* qualification on him so that we can do the ERM classes, but he was very good to me and now we’re able to enter the Blenheim leg.”
Second again in this class was Barbury maestro Andrew Nicholson, this time riding the nine-year-old Cult Hero grandson Swallow Springs. Andrew has won the CIC3* at his local international for the last five years, but was vocal in his criticism of Captain Mark Phillips’ course.
“I was disappointed in the course this year,” he said. “For me, it’s far too soft. But then, I had a good ride – perhaps some would disagree. To me, it needs more jumping.”
Fox-Pitt also thought some tweaks to the course were called for:
“It wasn’t a bad course – I would say it was a little bit twisty and perhaps didn’t have the normal Barbury flow, and I think it could do with some changes. ”
The leader after both the dressage and showjumping, Tina Cook, withdrew Billy the Red before cross-country. Laura Collett also withdrew Mr Bass. Both horses have been longlisted for the European Championships in Strzegom next month.
British-based American Tiana Coudray posted the fastest round of the day, finishing 12 seconds under the optimum time of 6:25. This was enough to keep her in the lead for over two and a half hours, but it wasn’t enough to beat the leaders, and she went on to finish seventh.
ERM winner Thomas Carlile rode Vinci de la Vigne to sixth place. The Selle Francais gelding is usually ridden by fellow countryman Astier Nicolas, but a knee injury has put the rider out of action for the summer.
The top ten was rounded out by a veritable who’s who of eventing talent, with Oliver Townend taking third place, Tim Price in fourth, Ben Hobday in fifth, and Zara Tindall in tenth. Among them, however, was a fresh new face.
“I never expected the weekend to end like this at all – I’m over the moon!” said a thrilled Chuffy Clarke, who finished 9th in her first competition at the level, riding the experienced Second Supreme. The Clarkes have been longstanding owners for Pippa Funnell, with whom the horse competed to CCI****, and who finished just ahead of her protégée on Majas Hope. 22-year-old Chuffy has taken on the ride on Second Supreme to gain experience as she produces her string of horses.
“I couldn’t have asked for anything more from the horse. He’s incredible; he just gives everything he can. He felt like a masterclass – it’s his fifth year in a row being here, but that didn’t mean I could just sit there! I walked the course with Pip this morning and I felt like I got the lines that I wanted. I was really happy with the round – it wasn’t perfect, and so I felt like I’ve learned a lot from it.”
With such a confident three-star debut under her belt, the old guard should be feeling the pressure from the up-and-coming rider.
And so the sun – and blazing sun it was – set on another year at the St James’s Place Barbury International Horse Trials, a fixture that we hope to see in the calendar for many seasons to come.