In 10 years in this job, I’ve never failed to be surprised by something in an eventing championship squad announcement.
With six riders normally at a championship, there are usually one or two names I don’t expect on the list.
With 12 named yesterday for Britain as host nation at the Longines FEI European Eventing Championships at Blair (10-13 September), I guess it was inevitable the surprises would be multiplied.
I put my neck on the line in 9 July issue of H&H by naming my squad — it was a straight prediction of both horses and riders, with no space to list reserves, explain my reasons, others who could have been in the running and so on. And it was a pre-Barbury prediction.
My hit rate? Six pairs spot on, three correct riders with different horses (in two cases the horse I picked is a direct reserve), three totally different. Not bad, not brilliant.
So, what were the surprises for me in yesterday’s announcement?
Firstly, I searched the list and reserves in vain for Nicky Roncoroni and Stonedge, who were in my 12. When I couldn’t find them, I instantly wondered about injury and Nicky soon announced on facebook that the horse has a small injury — “localised fibre disruption” spotted during routine scans. How gutting after their great performance at Luhmühlen. I wish Nicky all the best for a speedy recovery for this talented grey.
The three riders I didn’t expect to see on the list were Francis Whittington, Holly Woodhead and Pippa Funnell. Don’t get me wrong — I like all three as people and riders, I’m thrilled for all of them and I’ll be supporting them and reporting on them at Blair. I just didn’t expect them to get the call-up in the final crunch.
I admit that despite his Blenheim win last year, I had written off Francis’s Easy Target after his problems in both the dressage and cross-country at Kentucky. If anything, I expected to see Francis named with the younger Fernhill Highlight, who languishes on the list of extra reserves, so far down the press release I didn’t even see it until someone helpfully pointed it out to me.
As well as Easy Target’s less than stellar form this year — yes, he impressed in the dressage at Barbury, but didn’t run cross-country so he has only run in one open intermediate since Kentucky — there have occasionally been questions over his stamina. Staying power will be vital on the hills of Blair; there is no place to hide. Francis and Smokey have something to prove and I really hope now they can do it.
Holly Woodhead, 21, is the youngest rider to grace the British senior squad since Polly Lyon (now Williamson) rode at the Burghley Europeans in 1989 aged 20. Holly is still eligible for young riders, but FEI rules these days prevent riders contesting seniors and young riders in one year. I’d love to have been a fly on the wall in that conversation between sets of selectors.
Personally, I expected Holly to see out her time in young riders this year before a future senior call-up — she was sensational at Bramham, but it was her first CCI3*. DHI Lupison was green at times across country and I hope he’s up for another big Ian Stark track. But the pair do a brilliant dressage test and that’s what we need to beat the Germans. Maybe the selectors see Holly as a Rio prospect and wanted to test her mettle? Sometimes you have to try things to see if they work.
And why didn’t I pick Pippa? This is probably the hardest one to explain. There’s no doubt Sandman 7 (pictured) is a rising star or that Second Supreme — named as her direct reserve horse — is brilliant across country. He also improved his dressage test by more than seven marks from Badminton to Barbury.
I guess I just thought that both horses were a little way off being potential individual medalists this year and the selectors would be more keen to see younger riders — that they didn’t need to test Pippa under pressure to know she’ll be a suitable candidate for Rio if those horses are in the right place for that come 2016.
And who’s been left out who I expected to see in? Apart from Nicky Roncoroni, Tina Cook — third on the reserve list with De Novo News — and Emilie Chandler, sixth reserve with Coopers Law.
Despite her Badminton fall, I thought Tina would make it on the strength of her World Equestrian Games performance. She is a proven championship rider, on this horse and others, and I thought the selectors would want her reliability in the team. Clearly I read that wrong.
Emilie is a Nations Cup rider — supposedly a pointer to future championship selection — and had a strong Bramham, with a dressage score finish. But I wonder if leaving her out is about the first phase. Coopers Law has not broken the 50-barier in his three CCI3*s, and these days, is a reliable 50/51 good enough?
Of course, we’re still two months off from Blair and I expect to see between two and four pairs drop off the original list due to injury. That means first and second reserves Tom Jackson (Waltham Fiddlers Find) and Wills Oakden (Greystone Midnight Melody) are virtually guaranteed a run, while Tina is likely to get one and it could go further.
Reserves can take team as well as individual spots — Harry Meade was in the WEG team after a call-up from the bench last year — and reserves can win individual medals (Tina’s bronze at the 2008 Olympics, Piggy French’s silver at the 2009 Europeans). A lot can happen between now and the medal ceremonies on 13 September.
I’m booking my flights for Blair today and I can’t wait to cheer on our fabulous 12. See you there?