Oliver Townend made a strong start in pursuit of a title that has previously eluded him as two busy days of dressage drew to a close at the Equi-Trek Bramham International Horse Trials.
Yorkshireman Townend, who is now based in Shropshire, took an overnight lead in the CCI 3* competition aboard MHS King Joules.
The horse, an 11-year-old gelding previously ridden by Andrew Nicholson and Mary King, had showed glimpses of star quality with Townend by claiming eighth-placed three-star finishes at Ballindenisk in Ireland last year and Houghton earlier this season.
And Townend drew a superb test out of his ride, posting a dressage score of 37.9 penalties to overtake long-time leaders — British-based Australian Sammi Birch and Hunter Valley II — while Townend’s fellow Rio Olympics hopeful Nicola Wilson moved into equal-third place on Bulana, joining Birch and The Court Jester.
Saturday’s cross-country phase promises to be a thrilling affair, with Nicholson lying fifth on Jet Set IV, while Townend’s second ride Sandiman II is eighth, just behind his fellow former Badminton winner Sam Griffiths, riding Angelo IV.
Assessing her weekend prospects, Birch said: “I know he (Hunter Valley II) is very capable in the dressage, but I’ve really been looking forward to jumping the cross-country.
“I came here for that reason, so I was relaxed, and so was he, so that makes it better. Competition pressure is a massive issue, but if you take that aside, it becomes so much easier.
“It’s a serious track. You need a fit, good cross-country horse. The course is scary, but beautiful and very clever. If you jump around here, the horse is definitely ready for four-star.”
The CIC 3* class also reaches its cross-country stage on Saturday, with Holly Woodhead and DHI Lupison currently leading the British challenge in second place, with the likes of Kitty King, Gemma Tattersall, Tina Cook and Pippa Funnell not far behind her.
“I’m overwhelmed with him,” said Woodhead, following Lupison’s outstanding dressage work. “He was brilliant — he tried his heart out and really looked after me in there. He was really rideable, which helped, so I’m extremely happy. He clearly likes this place, and it’s my favourite event.”
Bramham is also the second event of this year’s inaugural Event Rider Masters Series, which carries a £16,000 winner’s purse at each of six venues — Chatsworth, Bramham, Barbury, Gatcombe, Blair Castle and Blenheim — with an additional £30,000 prize for the overall series winner.
French riders took all three podium places at Chatsworth, whereas Bramham feels more like a cosmopolitan affair thus far, with the top six places filled by competitors from six different nations.
American Clark Montgomery (pictured above) and renowned dressage exponent Loughan Glen leads the way on a dressage score of 36.5, followed by Australian Bill Levett (Shannondale Titan), China’s Alex Hua Tian (Don Geniro), Frenchman Maxime Livio (Pica D’Or), New Zealander Mark Todd (NZB Campino) and Britain’s Pippa Funnell (Mirage D’Elle).