Mark Todd believes it is all still to play for in the cross-country after taking the overall lead at the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials, toppling defending champion Oliver Townend.
The five-time winner put himself in prime position for his sixth title after posting a dressage score of 26.4 on Kiltubrid Rhapsody to storm into first at the prestigious four-star event.
In the process, the New Zealand Olympian dislodged Townend, who had been sitting pretty at the top having opened the competition on MHS King Joules on Thursday.
But having also led the way after the dressage stage last year before falling off in the cross-country, the 62-year-old is not taking anything for granted ahead of Saturday’s test.
“He was very good – I was very pleased with him and he’s getting better and better,” said the Wiltshire-based rider. “He’s got a wonderful temperament, he can just go out there and it doesn’t bother him.
“He was getting a little bit nervous out here, as there was a little bit of noise just before went out, but I think once they actually get out there, it’s a bit calmer, but he’s very good.
“Not everything went right, he had one little skip in the middle of his extended trot which he normally never does, but other than that, from where he is now and his training, it couldn’t have gone a lot better.
“He’s a very good jumper, he jumped around Badminton in the spring and he was very good. I wouldn’t ordinarily say Burghley is his ideal track – he’s not a lot of thoroughbred.
“This year, Mark Phillips has used the hills more than ever, especially with Winners’ Avenue coming around the seven-minute mark.
“That’s going to take its toll on him, but he’s a real trier, he keeps galloping, keeps jumping and we’ll just have to see how it plays out. There’s still a long way to go yet.”
Fellow Kiwi Tim Price has also leapfrogged Townend into second with Ringwood Sky Boy, who was fourth and fifth at Burghley in 2016 and 2017 respectively, scoring 26.9.
The pairing is just half a penalty behind Todd, with Townend rounding off the top three with 27.2 on MHS King Joules, going into the cross-country stage.
And while Price admitted he has had his troubles with the 15-year-old Irish Sport Horse gelding, the Rio 2016 Olympian fancies his chances after a strong dressage showing.
“I had high hopes for him – he’s been here a few times and seen the atmosphere, but that doesn’t mean we’ve had an upward curve to improve him,” he said.
“It’s been like snakes and ladders with him – sometimes it’s all gone wrong but maybe he’s maturing. I like to think this guy is a specialist Burghley horse, so we’ll see.
“The ground is almost bang on perfect isn’t it? And I can’t see it changing, so that’s one thing we don’t need to worry about, but there are a lot of jumps to worry about.
“I think the times are going to be really tight. It doesn’t mean you can go like a derby at any time around here – you must have rhythm, jump the fences well and bring home a healthy horse that’s still got some gas in the tank.
“He’s not a speed machine but he’s a very genuine horse that has the stamina and desire to keep going, and if I can ride him well enough, hopefully we’ll have a good shot.”
Despite losing his place at the top of the leader board, Townend remains the leading Brit ahead of Sarah Bullimore, who dropped down into fourth on Reve Du Rouet.
Townend also features twice more in the top ten after last year’s winner Ballaghmor Class moved into fifth (27.9), while Cooley SRS sits seventh with a score of 29.4.
Reflecting on the performance of Ballaghmor Class, who finished off the dressage competition, the Shropshire-based eventer said he was hoping for better.
“It didn’t quite come off what I was hoping would come off but at the same time, we’ve won big classes from worse positions,” said Townend.
“We’re one and a bit off the lead and it’s certainly not a dressage competition. I was thrilled with his performance and he’s been in some big atmospheres from very quickly recently.
“For him to go in there, keep level, look very cool and walk very nicely is a testament to him and how special he is. I’ve no complaints and I’m happy with where we are.”
Elsewhere, Germany’s sole representative Andreas Dibowski is sixth with FRH Butts Avedon, with Harry Meade, Piggy French and Bill Levett finishing off the top ten.
Five-time winner Andrew Nicholson is also in much better shape on his second horse, Swallow Springs, who sits in a tie for 16th, with Jet Set IV 29th after his dressage.
Thursday and Friday’s dressage are followed by cross-country on Saturday and show jumping on Sunday at family-friendly Burghley, which attracts 160,000 visitors each year and hosts the top equestrians on the planet.
The multi-award-winning Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials from August 30 – September 2 has been established as a major international equestrian and social event in the Autumn Sporting Calendar for over 50 years. For more information visit burghley-horse.co.uk