New Zealander Jonelle Price has put herself in contention for a notable hat-trick at the Blenheim Palace International Horse Trials.
The Wiltshire-based rider is chasing a third successive Blenheim win after taking the lead in the CIC3* dressage phase for eight and nine-year-old horses with Ascona M on a score of 34.6 penalties.
Price has won the last two runnings of the prestigious class — in 2014 on Faerie Dianimo, her ride at the Rio Olympics, in 2015 on Cloud Dancer II.
Pippa Funnell, the most successful rider in Blenheim’s history, with four victories, is currently in second place on MGH Grafton Street — a horse previously ridden by New Zealander Andrew Nicholson before he broke his neck last year. And British number one Oliver Townend is in close contention on Cooley SRS with a dressage score of 36.1.
“I feel I’ve got a bit of a mountain to climb and quite a lot to live up to,” Price said.
“Ascona is relatively low on mileage and has been quite green. She’s a beautiful mare and very quality, but my real purpose was to set her up for next year as this is such a great competition for young horses. But I’m a competitor, so I will be giving it my best shot.”
Funnell added: “I saw this horse (Grafton Street) last year when Andrew Nicholson was riding him, and really liked him.
“I asked Andrew if he was for sale, and he said he wasn’t, but I kept a close eye on him all season, and after Andrew had his accident, he rang me and said the horse was coming on to the market. Jonathan and Jane Clarke bought him for me to ride.
“This is his first CIC3*, and he is one I am excited about for the future, and I brought him here with the future in mind.
“It’s such great education for him here. I won’t run him flat to the boards across country, but will ride how he feels. He’s a good jumper, and I was delighted with his dressage. He’s got a lovely brain and three good paces.”
Meanwhile, Price rides Cloud Dancer II in the Event Rider Masters final, which starts at Blenheim on Saturday. She is one of four riders — Townend, Gemma Tattersall and Australia’s Paul Tapner are the others — with a chance of scooping the bonus prize for earning the most points in the series.
A stellar field includes five Olympic gold medallists (Astier Nicolas, Cedric Lyard, Andrew Hoy, Blyth Tait and Mark Todd) plus former world champion Zara Tindall, who won a European title here at Blenheim in 2005.
The top of the CCI3* leaderboard remains unchanged. Germany’s Bettina Hoy and Seigneur Medicott head Harry Meade on new ride Orlando by nearly seven penalties, and USA rider Hannah Sue Burnett is third on Harbour Pilot. However, British rider Ibby Macpherson, running near the end of the class, has slotted into fourth place on Ballingowan Diamond.
Assessing Eric Winter’s cross-country course, Hoy said: “It’s a big challenge with plenty of big questions out there. The water, which we cross twice, is always a good test. Blenheim is such a good stepping stone for four-star level — it’s a must before you move up.”
Image: Jonelle Price and Ascona M, by Adam Fanthorpe/Blenheim Palace International Horse Trials