The Writing's on the Wall as Lucy Jackson and Superstition Take Millstreet
When the going gets tough, the tough get going, creating a ferocious, fast-paced fight for the finish. But there was no stopping the Kiwi, who climbed from outside the podium to take her first-ever Event Rider Masters win.
"I've never been on the top spot of a podium, and I can't tell you how good it feels - it's absolutely fantastic," said a celebrating Lucy Jackson, who made her first podium appearance when finishing third at the ERM opening leg at Chatsworth with Superstition this spring.
Lucy's exceptional 26.4 dressage had put her into equal fourth place overnight and a clear round this morning bumped her up into third - but it was a lightning-fast clear round across the country that allowed her to take the win, aided by the withdrawal of two-phase leader Oliver Townend.
Though she didn't deliver one of the three clear rounds inside the time, Lucy added a tiny two seconds to the 6:05 optimum time, allowing her to take the win by a 0.3 penalty margin.
"It's huge pressure having a point-to-point rider as an other half," she said with a laugh. "The whole way around I was thinking, 'don't be slow - don't be slow!' I'm not known for being fast, but the little horse is a superstar. There'll be a lot of drinking in the pub this afternoon!"
The enormous influence of the tight time allowed Sam Watson and Imperial Sky to take second place for the home nation. They delivered a 27.5 first-phase mark and were one of only two combinations to finish on their dressage score, catapulting them from seventh place to the podium after Sam romped home exactly on the optimum time.
"I'm happy because I didn't leave anything behind out there, and the horse didn't either - so I was beaten, I didn't lose [the win]," he said. "It's great to be here, on home soil and with an Irish crowd and everything."
But Sam, who juggles running a busy yard with spearheading equestrian statistics company EquiRatings, was quick to pass the baton to wife Hannah, better known as Sparks. Formerly Pippa Funnell's competition groom, Sparks now accompanies Sam and his horses around the world, providing top-notch care, impeccable turnout, and an inimitable sunniness to the Watson team effort.
"There's one person, and she's about half a mile away right now, looking after the horse - Sparks is amazing. She leaves tonight to go to the European Championships and she doesn't get to see our kids; she's on the road for ten days," he explained, smiling through his tears. "She just loves the horses, and they always come first - except when we're home, then it's kids and horses. She's incredible - so thank you so much to her."
Alex Bragg and Zagreb raced away from a tough week as the only other combination to finish on their dressage score to climb from ninth to third. They were only the second combination of the day to make the time, after a masterclass from Chris Burton - ostensibly the fastest man in the world - saw him sail home comfortably within the optimum cross-country time.
"I'm thrilled to bits to be on the podium," said Alex with a broad smile. "I have a smiley face on today! I keep saying that [Zagreb] is a good horse, and this doesn't come as a surprise to me at all. He's so consistent, he has the heart of a lion, and he just keeps on giving - as long as I do my job, this is where he should always be."
Ireland's Sarah Ennis slipped from the leading spot after showjumping down to fourth place after she and Horseware Stellor Rebound added 2.8 time penalties across the country. Normally exceptionally fast, the pair added an extra stride in the water complex - and Millstreet's tough, quick track didn't allow any room to catch up on the clock. But for Sarah, who piloted the experienced gelding as part of Ireland's silver medal-winning team at the World Equestrian Games last year, it's a promising return to competition with her long-term partner.
With just one leg left in the Event Rider Masters series, the race for the 2019 title has reached fever pitch. With leader Jonelle Price sitting the Millstreet leg out, second-placed Bill Levett and third-placed Chris Burton were both in the hunt for valuable points - and with Bill finishing fourteenth with Shannondale Titan and Burto finishing eighth with Graf Liberty, they both got them. To be precise, they each picked up enough series points that they both now sit on a tally of 73 - just six points ahead of Jonelle and five ahead of Gireg le Coz, and with no margin for error as we look ahead to Lignieres. The stage has been set for an epic showdown in France.