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The Final Day At Punchestown
Naas, Ireland
Photo: Camilla Walter/EPS
Sacha Pemble receiving her prize from Irish Horse Board Chairman Joe Walshe
The drama continued on the final day of the Punchestown International Three-Day-Event when Ireland claimed the 3-Star title for the first time in 20 years as Sacha Pemble scooped the Irish Horse Board's €16,000 winner's purse ahead of Britain's Vickyy Brake.  Riding I've Been Dun, Pemble rocketed up from 18th after dressage to hold runner-up spot after a day of cross-country mayhem, and came out on top today despite having two fences down in the show jumping phase.

So what happened to dressage and cross-country leader William Fox-Pitt who had more than seven show jumping fences in hand after a near-copybook cross-country run?  Well, just like Australia's Andrew Hoy who said earlier in the week that the third 2-Star cross-country fence would cause problems, Fox-Pitt lived to rue HIS prediction that the 3-Star would not end up as "a dressage competition" when his horse was withdrawn before today's final veterinary inspection.  Idalgo hit the Glendalough wall just before the Quarry complex halfway round the course hard enough to remove stone yesterday afternoon, and this morning he had a big knee.  "He is sound on the soft but not on the hard" the British rider said philosophically.  It was clear however that he was not deeply disappointed.  He came to Punchestown to see what this horse could do and he found out just what he had been hoping for - he has a 4-Star horse in the making.

The only ones smiling as the deluge returned with a vengeance were the shopkeepers selling rain-gear. The downpour never relented and the Punchestown organisers were hard-punished for the effort they had put in to ensure that this fixture happened at all. Whatever chance they had of attracting the public on a weekend when an Irish team was vying for the European team rugby title (and they won!) and when a major golf tournament was happening just down the road, the inclement conditions ensured that only the insane would venture out.

Insanity is not an issue for eventers however and thanks to the excellent Punchestown sand ring the jumping test was very fair indeed.  Surprisingly, despite all the carnage of the previous afternoon, Fox-Pitt's horse turned out to be the only casualty from the finishing group of 16 and the home side had plenty to celebrate.  Pemble is one of a number of former British riders who have opted to compete for Ireland over the past few years and while the 29 year old from Kent took pole position another British defector, Louise Lyons from Retford near Doncaster who is also 29, slotted into third with Watership Down.  Both girls have strong Irish connections, Pemble's late grandmother hailing from Galway and Lyons' father coming from County Tyrone, and each held dual citizenship so the transfer was fairly seamless.

In fact Irish riders filled seven of the top 10 placings and this is a huge boost for the sports governing body Eventing Ireland which had not enjoyed a Punchestown 3-Star winner since Jessica Harrington, now one of Ireland's leading National Hunt race-horse trainers, claimed the Freeman Jackson Trophy back in 1986.

The cross-country track designed by Tommy Brennan and influenced by Assistant Designer Hugh Lochore from Britain came in for some serious criticism but, despite his absence from the closing stages, Fox-Pitt was having none of it today and Pemble was in complete agreement.  "Most courses these days have no character left at all. Punchestown is unusual and unique - its got a character all its own and yesterday the going played a huge part in the way things turned out" Fox-Pitt insisted.  "Horses that might be struggling at three-star level will always be found out by a track like this and nobody says its supposed to be easy. You had to use your head to get around here yesterday and it shouldn't be easy - it's an international sport and the standards should be high" he pointed out.  Pemble, who could only describe herself as "shocked" when finding herself with the winning rosette in her hand praised her handsome dun mare.  The 11 year old I've Been Dun won Hartpury 2-Star and was in Saumur and Boekolo last season so Punchestown was the next move in the learning curve.  "She's a great cross-country horse - when all the rest begin to fail she really rises to the occasion and yesterday took very little out of her - she didn't have a scratch on her at the end of the day.  The only long route I took was at the last water because I thought she was just beginning to tire."  Britain's Tor Brewer had been lying second as the show jumping began but dropped to eighth when Highleadon hit four fences and picked up time faults while Brake's single error with Looks Like Fun saw her slot into second, with Lyons's moving into third with just one show jumping time fault.

And Matthew Wright did just what the Irish feared when staying clear to claim the Failte Ireland 2-Star honours with Singalong.  There was a British rout here when Mary King finished second with King's Fancy, Polly Stockton was third with Westwood Joker and Pippa Funnell was fourth with Matter of Opinion.  Best of the Irish was Elizabeth Power riding Kilpatrick River who headed Germany's Bettina Hoy and Witch Doctor in sixth.

Wright is acutely aware that Ireland has become a very happy hunting ground for him after his major success in Cork last month and this weekend's victory which he sealed with a clear show jumping round - "I have the feeling there'll be a protest at the docks when I drive my lorry over next time!" he said with a laugh.  He seems more mature than his 23 years and the young man from Retford near Doncaster is a significant asset to British eventing. Like Fox-Pitt and Pemble he was dismissive of any criticism of the cross-country challenge - "it sorted out the horses - look at mine - some went well and some went badly, that's the way it goes" he said.  He is planning a return trip to Ireland in two weeks time for the 2-Star in Tattersalls and despite all the jokes he is guaranteed a warm welcome to the Emerald Isle, particularly after his valiant rescue of a staunch Irish eventing supporter on Friday night.  Eric Williams, who celebrated his 92nd birthday today, found himself locked in the bathroom beside the Punchestown restaurant so Wright, with assistance from Irishman Austin O'Connor, jumped into action.  In the course of their rescue attempt however the British rider fell through the bathroom roof so the bumps and bruises he was wearing today were not all a consequence of his unscheduled dismount during yesterday's 3-Star cross-country trip. And this time he's going to be more careful of his winnings after his dog chewed up the cheques he won at Ballindenisk in April.  "I learned one thing about the banks after that happened" he pointed out today "they WILL accept cheques as long as you have all the bits, but its easier if you don't have to stick them all together again".

One of the great things about horse people is that the best ones are very good at laughing at themselves.  Wright is one of these, and so is Punchestown General Manager Dick O'Sullivan, a man of considerable grace and charm.  He was caught offside recently however when, in the lead-up to the hugely popular and successful Punchestown Racing Festival, he took a phone-call because there was no-one else around to pick it up. "Hello, Punchestown Racecourse" he said politely.  "Oh hello" said the voice at the other end of the phone "I'm working with Yasmin Le Bon and we are wondering if it would be possible to organise extra security for her when during your race-meeting please?".  Always the gentleman, Mr O'Sullivan wanted to sort this out as smoothly as he could -  "well now which race is she running in?" he asked as the manager for the British super-model gulped with disbelief at the other end of the telephone.  "Sure I thought she was some French filly" Dick explained afterwards with only a hint of embarrassment, "but anyhow she didn't need any security at all and when I met her she was really nice".  Yes, that's horse people for you.

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