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Wet And Windy, But Never Mind - It's Punchestown!
Naas, Ireland
Photo: EPS/Camilla Walter
L to R - Serious stuff - Ground Jury members Peter Herrick (NZL), Jane Tolley (GBR) and Lord Carew (Irl) at the first horse inspection Thursday afternoon
Not even the gale force winds and torrential rain that led to the transfer of the site for the first veterinary inspection could curtail the enthusiasm of the riders who have arrived in Ireland for the Punchestown International Three Day Event this week.  The Irish fixture was missing from the calendar in 2005 due to organisational problems, but once the announcement of its revival was made, entries poured in from Britain and further afield and as tomorrow's 2-Star dressage begins there are lots of big stars in town.

Britain's Polly Stockton had not yet walked the course when the Welcome Reception was staged this evening because she had endured a four-hour delay when the gear-box on her lorry began to give trouble after arriving in Dublin Port.   But she wasn't in a bad mood - "I'm just delighted to be here because Punchestown is one of the greatest places in the world to run an event horse" she said.  And the camaraderie in this sport is refreshing.  Ireland's top rider, Susan Shortt, abandoned the trot-up and drove all the way from the County Kildare race-track into the grid-locked city to help her English friend. Stockton has all day tomorrow to recover from the ordeal and walk that track ahead of her dressage test on Friday when the 3-Star competitors will be also strutting their stuff.

Punchestown looks a lot different than it did when the first three-day event was staged there back in 1966 but, 40 years on, it is still hallowed ground for event riders.  The modernisation of the infrastructure may have altered its appearance but that old Kildare turf is still the same, providing the perfect going for horses even when the weather is inclement.  "I remember coming here two years ago when the event was run a little later in the season and the ground was bordering on hard then, but this early its always just right - horses just love to gallop on it" Stockton said, laughing at the fact that on her side of the Irish Sea there is much talk about water-rationing while waders would not have been out of place at Punchestown this afternoon.

The Brits are certainly out in force and some of them have a score to settle.  Pippa Funnell has two runners in the 3-Star and will be keen to make amends for her spectacular "miss" on the Badminton cross-country course two weeks ago with her own Ensign who took a crashing fall when, by her own admission, she was distracted by TV cameras and took her eye off the fence.  She was furious with herself afterwards but nobody actually DID think that she NEVER makes a mistake and her obvious embarrassment when interviewed afterwards was all the more endearing.  This, after all, is the lady who won the first Rolex Grand Slam and no-one doubts her incredible talent.  

Riders from six nations are amongst the 33 starters in the 3-Star for which Ireland's Lord Carew is Ground Jury President assisted by Jury members Peter Herrick from new Zealand and Jane Tolley from Britain.  William Fox-Pitt will also be flying the Union Jack along with Mary King and Matthew Wright but Irish eyes will be on young army rider Lieut. Geoff Curran who is showing great promise and has two starters, the aptly-named Quick Thinking and Kilkishen.  It was with the latter that he finished second to Matthew Wright in the World Cup Qualifier in Ballindenisk in Cork last month and although the Irish partnership may be low on mileage they look big on talent.

The home runners will be determined to put Wright back in his box because he really spoiled the Ballindenisk party by cleaning up with victory in the World Cup class with Park Pilot and first and second placings in the accompanying 2-Star competition when Grove Joucas headed Another Cavalier.  The only consolation was that all three horses are Irish-bred, but there will be plenty amongst the 50 Two-Star starters who would enjoy wiping his eye this time around as he lines out with both Another Cavalier and Grove Joucas once again.  The USA's Julian Stiller was nowhere to be found this evening but will be second-last into the dressage ring tomorrow with Mr. Ramsey, the sole American contender, and on Friday. Australian star Andrew Hoy and his Germany wife Bettina will, no doubt, attract the attention of 2-Star Ground Jury members Les Smyth and Sue Shortt from Great Britain and Ireland's James Rooney.

Hoy is still glowing from his incredible Badminton victory with Moonfleet, the horse owned by Mrs Sue Magnier from Coolmore Stud in Ireland that made one of the most challenging cross-country courses in the world look like a walk in the park but he was being cautious about his chances with his nine year old Punchestown ride Peaceful Consort.  "He tries very hard but this will be a learning curve for him" Hoy pointed out.  And anyway they don't know each other too well yet.  "I only got him in February and we competed at Intermediate level for the first time last Thursday" he said with a broad grin.  That sounds like a learning curve alright.  The Irish-bred horse, by Able Albert, was formerly competed by Britain's Chris King "and this is really about finding out what he can do - he's a long-term horse, I'm not expecting a huge amount from him this weekend" he explained.

Hoy has been showered with praise for his exceptional horsemanship during his Badminton victory but he's not going to let it go to his head.  "I've been in this business for 27 years and I know only too well that horses are great levellers.  You never stay on a high for long.  The day after I won Badminton I was riding horses back at home and they only treat you the way you treat them - they don't know you just won Badminton the day before!" he pointed out.  He is still unsure which horse he will take to the World Equestrian Games in Aachen.  He's a bit spoiled for choice.  "I have four horses that could go and I'm taking a fifth one to Luhmuhlen so we'll see what happens there" he says casually, but he's not hiding the fact that the Rolex Grand Slam may well be within his reach at Burghley in September. $250,000 is a lot of money in any man's language.  "The selectors and my owners are happy to work with me on planning the next few months, so I'm very lucky" he adds. Indeed.

Before all that however he has to take on the Punchestown challenge this weekend and this evening he was mulling over the cross-country test.  "It's a true Tommy Brennan course - lots of good questions that put it up to the riders to sort them out.  He's asking a strong question at fence three and that's very early on - down steps to a narrow bush on the left - we'll have to see how it goes, but it's not going to be that straightforward" he pointed out but whether the Australian champion brings home the Failte Ireland CCI 2-Star trophy or not he will, no doubt, be a joy to watch.

Meanwhile Event Director, Gillian Kyle, and the support team led by her son John Jr. have other things to think about.  Like how to explain to the marquee man that the mangled mess lying near the dressage arena was created by a force of nature, not human error, and please, could he dig it out of the mud and put it up again?  Pretty please? Really sorry about that............yes, the joys of three-day eventing are indeed limitless.......

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