Fox-Pitt Way Ahead At Punchestown
Photo: EPS/Camilla Walter
Fox-Pitt's predictions on Friday were realised to the letter as the strength of Tommy Brennan's cross-country track and the soft going resulting from over a week of very heavy rain combined to test horses and riders to the limit, but he himself proved more than equal to the task while so many others fell away. From a starting field of 29, only 16 completed the 3-Star course - four were eliminated and nine retired and the top of the order was radically altered.
Lying second after dressage, Pippa Funnell called it a day at fence four when Ensign put in a refusal and this fence claimed a lot of scalps. The wall on top of a mound with a very steep run down to two off-set fences at the bottom of the hillside required enormous accuracy, and unbalanced horses and riders found themselves in all sorts of trouble. Many horses were simply not ready for a challenge on this scale so early on the track and Ireland's big hope, Lt Geoff Curran, picked up 20 penalties with both of his rides here. Mary King, lying third overnight, called it a day after a stop at the Caymen Island water complex at fence 10 where the bounce into the lake proved tricky and with Eddie Stibbe's withdrawal, and eventual retirement for Ireland's Steven Smith following a series of stops, the leading pack began to disappear from the reckoning at a rapid rate.
The 3-Star drama began right from the start when pathfinder, British-based Irishman Austin O'Connor, retired at the Moate at fence three, a straight-forward solid spread on a downhill slope. Somehow spectators were oblivious to the fact that this competition was underway and as O'Connor rode towards the obstacle someone was sitting on it, while others were wandering happily across the approach line. Completely disgusted the rider pulled up and retired and his day didn't get any better either because he was eliminated with his second ride, Pocket Rocket, for going the wrong side of a flag at the enormous parallel at fence eight later in the afternoon. The man was not in a good mood this evening.
Two more Irish runners also got their walking papers - the promising partnership of Philippa Peters and Tir no Doone who demolished part of the farmyard complex at 21 leading to a significant delay in proceedings and Lt Geoff Curran whose first ride, Quick Thinking, first became entangled in the course-roping and then took a heavy fall at the landmark Newgrange complex. Britain's Clare Lewis and Park Pageboy fell foul of the bounce into water at 10 for a horrible fall and Fox-Pitt admitted that he was "a bit scared going out" with Idalgo. But he had said on Friday night that he reckoned he was about to find out exactly what his own horse was made of, and he did just that. There was never any chance of anyone getting home within the time but Fox-Pitt was the quickest of the day when adding just 14.8 time faults to maintain his lead while Sacha Pemble, a former British competitor who has taken out Irish nationality, rocketed up the leaderboard from 18th to 2nd place when the handsome I've Been Dun added only 20.8 time penalties to his dressage mark. This dun horse looks like a pony from a distance but is much bigger closer up and made surprisingly little fuss about the fences on his way tour of the track.
Tor Brewer and Highleadon were slower to slot into third ahead of fellow-Briton's Vicky Brake and Looks Like Fun while Ireland's Sarah Wardell (Kincluny) and Louise Lyons (Watership Down) fill the next two placings going into tomorrow's final phase. Austin O'Connor did manage to get one horse around - Swynnerton who slotted into seventh ahead of Funnell and her second ride Chamrock - but the starting field for show jumping may well be further reduced after the morning trot-up.
The statistics for the Failte Ireland 2-Star were only marginally better with two eliminations and six retirements, while 18 horses came home with fence penalties and only eight of the 48 starters got home inside the time. That man Wright is at it again however. Despite his retirement at the bounce at fence nine with Grove Joucas who was lying second after dressage, he snatched the lead with Singalong who had been lying in seventh spot when dressage leader Christian Landolt from Switzerland retired with MacIntyre early on the course. Again the early fences took a huge toll, many suffering refusals at the downhill steps at three and the offset hedge at four. Australian star Andrew Hoy, lying equal fifth, was probably wishing he hadn't even mentioned it when collecting 20 penalties at this one which he had warned, before the event began, would be a trouble-maker. His German wife Bettina Hoy however picked up just 2.8 time penalties to move up from overnight fourth to second spot with Witch Doctor while Mary King brought King's Fancy home within the time to slot into third ahead of Polly Stockton and Westwood Joker who did likewise, as Pippa Funnell Matter of Opinion dropped two places to fifth when accumulating 5.6 for time.
Wright has two horses through to tomorrow's final phase as the talented 23 year old from Nottinghamshire in England steered Another Cavalier home without incident to enjoy a meteoric rise from 35th to 11th and, despite looking more than a little battle-weary after his unscheduled dismount from Cermont at the Quarry bounce in the 3-Star, he looks set to claim some more Irish loot following on his runaway success at the World Cup Qualifying fixture in Cork last month. When riders look back at Punchestown 2006 they will probably recall a day of cross-country carnage but one of those who will wear the badge of survival with pride will be America's Julian Stiller. She may be lying last going into the show jumping ring tomorrow after a stop from Mr Ramsey at the bounce at nine and then a fall for herself at the water complex at 11 but she gritted her teeth and finished to prove that she's made of the right stuff.
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