Andrew Nicholson and Avebury are closing in on a fourth successive CIC3* title at the St James’s Place Wealth Management Barbury International Horse Trials following another immaculate display in the Wiltshire sunshine.
New Zealander Nicholson has an advantage of 3.4 penalties heading into Sunday’s cross-country finale after 15-year-old triple Barbury and Burghley champion Avebury delivered a foot-perfect showjumping performance to claim one of less than 30 clear rounds from 96 starters.
Nicholson’s two-phase score of 33.9 penalties suggests he has one hand on the trophy, especially given Avebury’s consistent cross-country excellence, but behind them, the chasing pack from second to sixth are separated by just 2.3 penalties.
Leading the other contenders is China’s Alex Hua Tian and Don Geniro, a horse making its three-star debut, on 37.3, while Nicholson holds third with his London 2012 Olympics ride Nereo on 38.3, just ahead of Mark Todd (Leonidas II) and leading British challenger Sarah Bullimore (Lilly Corinne).
Pippa Funnell and Billy Landretti were the last combination to win Barbury Horse Trials before Nicholson and Avebury set off on a stellar run of success, and it will now be a major surprise if they do not make another notable entry to a burgeoning career portfolio.
“Avebury is always a pleasure to ride,” said Nicholson, who has been commuting to Barbury each day from his home in nearby Marlborough. “When I got on him today, he actually squealed, because he knew he was about to go jumping, and hopefully he will remember what he has got to do tomorrow.
“Yes, there is pressure, but this format suits him. I enjoy riding him at speed, and that is really when he is at his best.
“It is a very good cross-country course, but there is a tricky new combination near the end this year, which is at a stage of the course when horses can potentially switch off. Mark (Phillips) hasn’t changed much on the cross-country, but it looks like it could be quite intense near the end of it.”
The CIC2* Section B leaderboard changed dramatically during cross-country on Saturday, with the top three riders after showjumping — Sophie How, Todd and Harry Meade — all disappearing from contention.
Former European Junior team and individual gold medallist How retired Bojangles HRS, while Todd (Brownsville Bertie) and Meade (Vrolijk) accrued jumping and time faults, which opened the door for other challengers.
And it was Nicholson, not for the first time in his glittering career, who seized the moment as he steered home a horse — Loughnatousa Joey — that he had never previously competed before, jumping clear inside the time to finish on a score of 42.7 and begin a day of New Zealand dominance.
Young Gloucestershire prospect Ella Hitchman ran Nicholson closest, collecting just 1.6 time faults aboard Rocky Rockstar to finish second, with Gemma Tattersall — who looks set to be named in the senior Great Britain team next Wednesday for September’s European Championships — third on Santiago Bay and Bella Innes Kerr fourth, riding Carolyn.
Only three combinations went clear inside the time, including George Coe and La Contadina, who were 98th after dressage, but climbed 47 places on the back of immaculate showjumping and cross-country rounds.
There was more success for New Zealand in two-star Section C as Tim Price comfortably preserved the lead he forged after dressage with The Court Jester. They finished on 36.1 penalties, with Australian Christopher Burton and Santano II second, Todd and Amacuzzi third and Franky Reid-Warrilow top British rider in fourth aboard Dolley Whisper.
And a Kiwi hat-trick was completed in Section D when Jesse Campbell, who has trained with Nicholson and is based in Marlborough, conjured showjumping and cross-country clears with Cleveland to finish on 39.5 penalties. Britain’s Oliver Townend, second after dressage, saw his victory hopes vanish through two showjumping fences down, while William Fox-Pitt and Randam De Mons were eliminated on cross-country.
Image: Andrew Nicholson and Avebury by Katy Vincent