classy clark sets high bar for irish
Olympic ace Aoife finishes in Badminton top ten
Ireland's Aoife Clark proved she is still on song after the Olympics last year by taking eighth place overall in one of the strongest ever fields for the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials.
The 31-year-old from Naas, who finished in individual seventh place at London last year riding the diminutive Master Crusoe (15.3hh), recorded a dressage score of 45.8 on the first day. She then stormed round the cross-country, finishing clear with 0.8 time penalties, and went on to show jump clear with just one time penalty.
Speaking to the Farming Independent afterwards, Aoife said she was thrilled with Master Crusoe's performance over the three-day event.
"The judges were marking the dressage really hard on the first day," she said. "To me, it was the best test Master Crusoe has ever done and I would have expected it to score nearer the lower 40s, maybe into the 30s.
"He did a brilliant test, it was just a shame about the marking because the judges scored a bit higher on the second day. He scored a 42 in Badminton two years ago and I thought this test was much better," she added.
"I was aiming for a top three finish at Badminton because after the Olympics you want to consolidate your performance. Then the entries for Badminton came out and it was the strongest field ever for Badminton, as good as at any world championships. But a top -10 finish in that field was just amazing for me."
Hugh Thomas's cross- country challenge certainly did not intimidate Master Crusoe, who is owned by the Lily-White Syndicate, a group of Aoife's friends from Co Kildare.
"This little horse is just so special," remarked Aoife. "He's only 15.3hh and he just wants to attack every fence, it's almost like he knows he's small and wants to prove he can do it. He just loves it and gets really feisty for cross-country, although he never gets really strong."
Having walked the course and decided to take all the direct options, Aoife's cross-country plan proved extremely successful.
"Everything went the way I wanted it to, you can really ride a line with this horse," she recalled.
"The ground was quick and he got tired towards the end of the course but he's such a trier that you know he will always give you everything he's got."
The Master Imp gelding was bred by Michael Doyle from Ballinaslaney, Oylegate, Enniscorthy, Co Wexford out of Slaney Cruise Diamond (ISH), by Cruising (ISH).
"I have had him since he was a five-year-old and people have asked me if I always knew he would be this good and the honest answer is no. You can't ever know until you push the horse up the levels," said Aoife.
"They have to learn to love it and this little guy really does love it. He's so special in his attitude and he's so gutsy and tries his heart out."
In a nail-biting show jumping finale, New Zealander Jonathan ("Jock") Paget turned in the performance of his career so far to lift the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials trophy.
Lying second overnight, the 29-year-old Badminton first-timer rode an immaculate clear aboard Francis Stead's Clifton Promise to pile the pressure on the overnight leader Michael Jung with La Biosthetique Sam.
The reigning Olympic, World and European Champion looked to have victory in the bag, but a late-falling rail at the final fence saw his chance of winning on his Badminton debut evaporate.
"I used to watch videos of Badminton, thinking it would be cool to be there one day – and now I am!" said Jock. "[Clifton Promise] is quite tricky – it's like riding two different horses. But I've asked him a lot of questions over the past week and he's answered every one."
His win also put paid to the much-hyped competition between Britain's William Fox-Pitt and New Zealand's Andrew Nicholson for the Rolex Grand Slam, worth £350,000 (€413,000).
Nicholson's clear round on Deborah Sellar's Nereo was enough to secure him third spot when William Fox-Pitt and Catherine Witt's Parklane Hawk lowered a rail and slipped to fifth.
This means that Pippa Funnell's Rolex Grand Slam achievement of being the only rider ever to have won Kentucky, Badminton and Burghley consecutively still stands.
Meanwhile, Ireland's seven other Badminton competitors put in creditable performances against the world's best event riders.
Carlow's Sam Watson finished just outside the top 20 with the Irish Sport Horse Horseware Bushman, four faults in show jumping leaving him in 22nd overall.
Elizabeth Power also put in a strong show jumping performance, one fence down with the Irish Sport Horse September Bliss giving her a 26th place.
Other Irish places included first-timer Sarah Ennis in 38th, Joseph Murphy in 52nd, Jim Newsam in 55th and Michael Ryan in 63rd. Peter Hannigan was eliminated during the cross-country phase.
Speaking from his Carlow base after the competition, Sam Watson said Horseware Bushman (ISH) had never put a foot wrong throughout the three days.
"On paper it may not stand out, but to anyone who has followed this horse, it was a great achievement. The dressage was well off his personal best but he was so comfortable over the cross-country and leaving all the coloured poles up was a great performance," said Sam.
"To go clear on the last day was something he really deserved, we have worked hard on this phase in the last year."
Owned by Sam's parents John and Julia Watson and Tom MacGuinness, Horseware Bushman is by Puissance (ISH) out of Clear Conscience (ISH), by Horos (TB).
The bay gelding is now taking a break, but Watson's aim is to break back into the Irish team for the World Equestrian Games next year.
"I was gutted not to be at London last year and I really want to get back into the team," said Sam. "I'll talk to Nick (Turner, Horse Sport Ireland high performance manager) and see what his plans are but I would be hoping to go to the European Championships in Malmo, Sweden, in August."
Elizabeth Power, who finished in 26th place, did not return home empty-handed. She picked up the Silver Jubilee Plate for the best owner/rider on September Bliss. The 2000 bay gelding by Norwich (TB) out of Down The Garden (TB) by Good Thyne (TB) was bred by Cecil McCracken and is owned by Margaret, Robert and Elizabeth Power.
Fellow Irish rider Sarah Ennis also took home a prize by winning a HSBC FEI special prize of a training bursary by becoming the best placed rider who has not competed at a CCI4* prior to January 2012.
"It was an amazing event," said Sarah on her return. "I'm delighted I went and finished the competition. The support is incredible, you don't believe until you get there."
The Dunboyne rider is now aiming for the eventing Nations' Cup and a spot at the European Championships in Sweden. Her 2002 mare, Sugar Brown Babe (ISH) is by Porsch (BWP) out of Sugar Cube (ISH), by Renkum Englishman (KWPN) and was bred by Miriam Cunning of Piggottstown House, Crossakiel, Kells, Co Meath.
Meanwhile, fellow Irish rider Jim Newsam described his Badminton debut as "quite nerve-racking" on his family-owned mount Magennis (by Limmerick (HOLST) out of Inishkea (ISH), by Zero Watt (TB).
He had jumped out of his skin cross-country and in the main arena on show jumping day. The bay gelding joined world champion Michael Jung in having the last fence down in the show jumping phase.
"I was delighted with how well he coped with the size and strength of the cross-country and the dressage was a learning experience for us both," said the Co Down man.
"Magennis is at the fittest he's ever been in his life and he got a bit hot for a few seconds in the middle of the test.
"The movements come up so quickly at this level that his marks toppled for that part of the test. It was disappointing because his marks for the trot work in the first half of the test were good."
Meanwhile, Irish Olympic rider Joseph Murphy and Electric Cruise had an unfortunate 20 penalties at the final corner of the HSBC Farmyard complex.
"I'll hold my hands up and say it was absolutely rider error," said the Down-based Mullingar native.
However, he said he was very pleased with his dressage work.
"As the year goes on, I think we will continue to improve. It's something we have worked a lot on because he's not naturally built for dressage. Pammy Hutton comes over once a month to help us with this phase and it's now coming together for us," he said.
"I enjoyed Badminton more than any other event and it was nice to ride for myself this time.
"For the last few competitions, I've been riding with the team in mind and that means you have to be that bit more cautious."
But he hopes teamwork will be back in the frame again with the Nation's Cup in Aachen and the European Championships this summer.
Electric Cruise (ISH) is owned by Noel Good, Annette O'Callaghan and Joseph's wife Jill, and was bred by James Ryan.
Known at home as Sparky, Electric Cruise is by Cruising (ISH) out of Kilnamac Sally (ISH).
Meanwhile, Cork's Michael Ryan and Ballylynch Skyport fell victim to the Savills Staircase, which sapped the energy of many a top horse towards the end of the cross-country track.
"He jumped up the first step but hit the second step and that knocked the wind out of him and we had a run out at the brush on top," said Michael. "It's a learning curve for this horse but we took away more positives than negatives."
Finally, Ireland's youngest competitor, Peter Hannigan, and his mount First Mate are reported to be recovering following their heavy fall at the daunting footbridge fence on the cross-country day. A spokesman for Horse Sport Ireland said both horse and rider escaped serious injury.
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