So here we are. After months of waiting and dreaming, four amazing days of experiencing the best eventing on the planet, and over a week of trying to drag it all out so I don't have to admit it's really over, I'm at my last installment of Badminton 2011. Words can't really describe how thankful I am for this amazing opportunity, to my parents for making this all happen for me, to the Stanford program for being totally supportive and understanding of my random and extended absence right during the crucial first days of term, to all the amazing people I met at the event who made me feel welcome (not least the kind lady who lent me her blanket and officially kept me from freezing!!), to John from Eventing Nation for letting me make a guest appearance on his awesome site, and of course to Emily Daily from the USEA who got me my press pass and officially transformed an awesome weekend into an unbelievable one. I'm writing a recap article for the USEA magazine's next issue, so if you subscribe be sure to check it out!
(Hawley and Ginny looking sprightly as always)
We got cleared out of the ring from the press course walk by the first horse literally cantering into the ring to start their round, and because I had to use the facilities I unfortunately missed the first few rounds, including Selena's. D'oh! Fortunately I managed to hike around to my seats by the third or fourth horse in, and from there had a very good view given the £6 nature of my tickets. They did also let photographers into the main arena for the first session, but since I knew I was going to be in the ring for the conclusion and had already bought grandstand tickets, I decided to take advantage of being able to sit while shooting for a little while.
(Emily Llewellyn, who's another one of those incredible 21 year olds who have already been Badminton two or three times - how do the Brits produce so much great young talent??)
My first impression of the course was that it wasn't going to be super influential. With very few exceptions, everyone was making time, and there were a pretty big number of double clears right from the start. It was pretty darn inspirational to watch so many horses ping around like they'd just come off holiday and not an 11 minute cross country course the day before, and even the ones who did look tired just turned themselves inside out to get over the fences - a reminder of how wonderful horses truly are.
(MARRY ME HARRY)
Having ridden both a very tired horse and a very fit horse in the show jumping at a three day, I can say from personal experience how much easier it is sitting on the latter. That being said, it was a great learning experience to watch some of the riders on wearier horses adjusting their ride and making as easy as possible for their horse to jump a good round. Being fluid and able to adjust my ride, even forgetting the obstacles of having a tired horse and dealing with the pressure of jumping in the main arena at Badminton, is something that I'm always working on improving, so it was a good opportunity to make some good mental videos of the best of the best!
(Buck did a great job guiding a somewhat tired Reggie to his first Badminton completion - though you'd never suspect he was tired from his jumping form in this photo!)
(Trying very hard!)
I was super impressed (slash head over heels in love with) Roma ML, ridden by Fiona Hobby, who was a tiny dapple grey mare (sound familiar??) that I'd watched attack the Colt Pond the day before. She jumped like she had a secret jet pack hidden under her saddle, and they had one of the more fluid clears of the morning set. I think I'm going to print out some photos for Kiki to tuck under her pillow for inspiration =)
(Kiki: take notes.)
After the morning set I rushed back to the press tent, scarfed down one last free lunch, chugged a last bottle of water, adjusted my panama hat and whipped off my jacket to reveal my dress beneath (in accordance with the main arena "fancy dress" regulations... really), and joined the lucky twenty or so photographers chosen from the ballot to stand in the main arena as we headed down en masse. When we arrived we were assigned to specific locations around the ring (I got a spot right near the first fence in the middleish) and were told in no uncertain terms that once we'd been posted we were NOT allowed to move under pain of getting our publication banned from the main arena for life. Yikes! In a classic Kate Erickson moment, of course, as soon as I got to my position, I realized I had to use the loo... really, really badly. Perfect.
(Poor silver fox! 31 Badminton completions and never a win!)
(LENAMORE!! 18 years young, finished on his dressage score - LEGEND)
I managed to push those thoughts to the back of my head as the horses came in (mostly... I think the other photographers I was stationed with must have thought me an odd bird what with all the walking in tiny circles and awkward shifting from foot to foot I was doing) and really got down to enjoying the drama unfolding literally right in front of me!!
(Mary giving the crowd a wave after they EXPLODE following her super clear round)
Interestingly, the course was much more influential for the top twenty than it had been for the morning group - definitely a case of nerves coming into play! I was rooting for Laura Collett and Rayef, who were one of the unfortunate 4-faulters, but was still blown away by her round (and her performance all week in general) - she'd had to come into the ring right after Mary King had jumped a clean round and made the crowd go INSANE. The level of concentration and poise she showed was incredible. And that horse can really jump!
(Rayef made the jumps look almost insultingly small)
(Nicola Wilson must have been a disappointed 4-faulter, as she's almost expected to finish on her dressage score these days, but it's safe to say that Opposition Buzz still had a healthy fan base at the end of the weekend, yours truly very much included!)
When Mark Todd came into the ring, it got so quiet you could literally hear a pin drop: however many thousand people there were in that arena were all absolutely silent, still, and on baited breath. I was most definitely one of them, and I don't think I took a breath through their entire round. This man is the eventing heros to end all eventing heros, I grew up with his memoir literally on my pillow beside me, and when he retired in 2000 I'd grudgingly accepted that I would never get to see him ride in person. When I got to watch him go from 20-deep in the crowd at WEG I thought I'd thought my wildest dreams had been answered, and was content that that was probably the closest to him that I'd ever get. Now here I was, literally cantering by a few paces away from me. If I'd been ballsy (and stupid, and armed with the wish to become the eventing version of this guy), I could have run out and touched him. When he got to the last few jumps, my heart was pounding so hard in my chest that I was fairly certain that a coronary episode was imminent, and I didn't care because if I had a heart attack I was going to have it WATCHING MARK TODD WIN BADMINTON!!
(NZB Land Vision certainly wasn't giving the jumps the sort of disdain that Rayef did, but he got it done)
(The MASTER, just one from home!)
When he cleared the last fence, it was like a bomb had gone off in arena. The sound was deafening, and I totally lost all last appearances of professionalism (let's face it, I probably wasn't fooling anyone) by leaping around, fist-pumping and giving my best rebel yell. He cantered right by us on the way out, and the look on his face was one I'll never forget: pure magic.
After that it was all a blur of awards, victory gallops (getting to watch Mark Todd literally cry with happiness), wrapping things up one more time in the press office, packing up, and heading home. Had that even happened? I was on such a high the entire way home that I was dazed, almost forgetting my things on the train and very nearly letting my (shoddily not-quite-packed) rainfly for my tent blow away on the walk home. I got back to my room and was so tired my entire body was buzzing, but I couldn't sleep for hours as the whole weekend washed over me one last time. Finally I drifted off (in a real bed for the first time in four days!), and Badminton 2011 came to an official close.
(Tears of joy! Todd, who is the FEI Horseman of the Century and a double Olympic gold medalist, said that this was his most special victory - what a fairytale ending to a fairytale weekend!)
Good news? I'm off to Tattersalls CCI*** in Ireland in just over three weeks - yay!! But how could anything possibly compete with Badminton?? Hopefully the Guinness and the cute Irish accents will be enough to make the trip worthwhile in its own right =D
(I also got Mary's autograph which, given her 1-2 finish at Rolex last weekend, is suddenly seeming a lot more valuable - win explosion!!)