Aintree Winter Classic, Merseyside, 14–18 October
James Smith has established a decent pool of horses at 1.40m grand prix, but it was his reliable grey Simply Splendid who proved once again that he was the most competitive of the bunch when he stormed the big class at the Aintree Winter Classic.
The 11-year-old gelding who “always tries” had already laid down some strong form in Aintree Equestrian Centre’s main arena, having collected a second place in Friday’s 1.40m, as well as finishing runner-up in the grand prix qualifier at the preceding week’s championship show. This time, he topped the £2,000 main event when he came away 0.88sec ahead of a field of more than 40 starters after producing one of three double clears.
William Whitaker and the classy 11-year-old mare Eribelle N had looked in strong contention when they delivered a very smooth and economical bid from second of six jump-off contenders. However, their lead was short-lived as next-in James and the ultra-consistent son of Ustinov found the extra ground speed to claw the advantage.
A save from Keith Shore, who narrowly avoided going out the side door on Mystic Hurricane, left him picking up third, a clear four seconds off the pace, while a superb bid from Robert Murphy and Elan V had to settle for fourth after they axed 0.84sec from the target time, but tipped the first part of the double.
“I watched William go as I was in straight after him and I saw the line he did back inside to the black oxer and I knew if I did the same I wouldn’t be far away,” James said. “I wasn’t quite as smooth but Simply Splendid is naturally fast.”
James has been riding the horse for two years, making it one of his longer and most successful partnerships.
“He is so competitive,” said James. “We haven’t done a lot this year but what we have done he has been very consistent. He won at Bolesworth and the grand prix at Scope, so he’s a great horse for these kind of classes.”
Strong entries for Aintree Winter Classic
Riders were full of praise for Aintree’s clockwork handling of the show, which ran almost straight off the back of the British Showjumping national championships. The scheduling meant the classic drew in some riders from further afield who remained north for both competitions.
Entries were strong in all qualifiers, with 51 coming forward for their chance at a Royal International ticket in the winter grade B&C. Seventeen progressed to the decider, where Rafael Suarez’s jump-off track posed sufficient questions to elicit just the two double clears.
Abbie Bevan rode her 10-year-old grey mare Fabiola Fairy V into an emphatic lead from midfield, with her time only pipped by Robert Murphy, who had another unlucky four faults on High Quality III to finish third. Mark Edwards and the powerful chestnut mare Ede Peasy were quick and clean to collect the runner-up spot.
North Wales-based Abbie has produced the mare since she was a four-year-old, jumping this final previously in 2017.
“We know each other inside out,” said Abbie, who was also fourth in the B&C final at the championship show. “I don’t usually get to keep them this long, but she has a lot of sentimental value as she was my first horse. Everyone else has come and gone and ‘Lucy’ is still there in the end stable. She always gives me 100%.”
Another mare known to her friends as “Lucy” headed the second of Saturday’s qualifers, the Blue Chip Karma, where entries were strong enough to have to switch the class to two phase. Ellie Fannon and eight year-old Diamond Cruise V topped the line-up, with the Billingham rider narrowly missing a one-two when she lowered the last with her second horse.
“There weren’t a lot of clears – people were going for the turns and taking the risk and having fences,” said Ellie. “I just used Lucy’s pace and kept her coming at everything as she’s the sort of horse who likes to keep moving. She enjoys a jump-off as she goes better when you ride her more positively and forward.”
“He has a lot to give”
Hickstead tickets were a draw again in the SEIB winter novice qualifier, where 15 clears led to a very competitive second phase.
Allan Birch looked determined to bag the spoils, pushing for an early lead from third draw on his first ride High Spirit I. His advantage was pipped by more than one second when Charlotte Horne and Celine Z II pulled off a bold flyer to the last, but he regained the top spot after galloping to a 0.46sec win with Willbrook Double Diamond.
“It was quite a fast class but I was definitely having it!” said Allan, who has made this qualifier a speciality, adding this ticket to four others he has collected in the past two years. “It was a challenging sort of track which kept you thinking and riding, and it rode very well for me.”
Both High Spirit and Willbrook Double Diamond are eight-year-olds owned by Lucy Greenwood, who more usually shows them in working hunters but has handed over the reins while she is pregnant.
“I rode High Spirit in some working hunters and did a bit with him last year but it’s my third show with Double Diamond,” Allan said. “Luckily for me he’s jumped a lot of working hunters, so he has experience in the ring without having money on his card. He’s a beautiful horse who has a lot to give.”
Nicole Lockhead Anderson, 18, who has been working for Holly Smith for the past year-and-a-half, had a strong show while her boss was away in Vilamoura, pocketing the winter grade C, a newcomers (Intense Royal Z) and a Foxhunter one-two (Akham Hero Z and MHM Laszlo).
It was nine-year-old Akham Hero Z, owned by Jason Nunn, who headed the BS spring championship qualifier.
“He’s a horse I really like; he went back to his owners during the lockdown and then has had one training show before coming here,” Nicole said. “We had a good show all round with lots of double clears for the younger horses.”
The Blue Chip winter 1.25m went to Adam Botham and the nine-year-old Je T’Aime Flamenco gelding Dewpoint Diamond, who had also picked up a win in the preceding 1.20m open. In an all-round excellent outing for the yard, Adam and his wife Jess collected seven top-three placings between them.
The remaining Blue Chip qualifier, the Blue Chip Dynamic B&C went to Christie Pritchard and the grade C Horse Victory’s Improver, who produced the quickest of two double clears.
Ref Horse & Hound; 22 October 2020