Winter Regional Championships: Merrist Wood
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Some exciting combinations scoring in the mid-70s laid down a strong challenge for success at the NAF Five Star Winter Championships. Organisers had moved quickly after storms rendered the Merrist Wood campus unviable for the original dates. With one day’s competition run separately, the final three days were held over the weekend of 11 - 13 March. The postponement meant some classes were smaller than usual but the talent wasn’t in short supply.
New Zealander Sarah Wilkinson and her Desperado x Johnson mare, Koko II (pictured above), set the bar high with the competition’s highest score of 75.81% in the HorseLight Medium Gold Regional Championship. “I bought her when she was rising four and originally planned to sell but have kept her as she has an amazing work ethic and temperament,” said Sarah who has a yard near Cirencester. “Her trot work is her strongest point. She has a big canter and her medium and extended canters are highlights.”
Koko was elementary silver winner at the Winter Championships in 2021 and elementary gold champion and medium gold champion at the National Championships in that year. Sarah spent four years in Germany before moving to the UK in 2020. She trains with Gareth Hughes.
Headmore Stud horses have a great track record at Merrist Wood regionals and this year was no exception. Alice Oppenheimer left with one championship title, two reserves and a total of three qualifying tickets. She won the Baileys Novice Freestyle Gold title on seven-year-old Headmore Flintstone (Flawless x Rubinstein). “He is huge – at least 17.3hh,” said Alice who rides him for Richard and Marnie Lovejoy. “He threw a splint at the end of January and missed a lot of work. I’m actually grateful to Storm Eunice for delaying the regionals! It wasn’t a perfect test but it was a credit to his temperament as he hasn’t done a lot.”
One reserve win came in the same class with Headmore Valentina despite the mare having pulled off a shoe in the warm-up for the Prestige Italia Novice Gold class. “We padded her foot to warm up for the freestyle. She was amazing to cope with all that and still score 71.85%.” Her other reserve title was Headmore Dionysys, second in the Magic Prix St Georges.
Nicky Morris bought her Baileys Novice Freestyle Silver regional champion, Headmore Bugatti, (Bellissimo M x Damon Hill) two years ago from Headmore’s Sarah Oppenheimer. “I’d always liked him, he’s a super little horse,” she explained. “This is my first regional championship – it’s only taken me 54 years!” The pair will also be contesting the novice silver at the Winters after qualifying at Wellington.
“Sara Green did my music and the judges gave it really high marks,” said Nicky who scored over 75%. “I chose cartoon themes as he’s such a fun horse. He’s got rhythmical correct paces which makes my job easy as I can concentrate on riding the test.”
Loxley’s Optimism (Lord Loxley x Sheepcote Wurlitzer) had only done a handful of PSG tests and two inter Is when he and Dannie Morgan scooped up the regional championship title (PSG) and reserve regional championship (inter I). The 11-year-old is owned by Claire Speer and Dannie took over the ride from her last year. “Although he’s not been out since December he was settled in the arena and I was able to reproduce the work I get at home,” commented Dannie. “His pirouettes were much better in the test and it all came together.”
His half-sibling, also by Lord Loxley, Casino-Royale (pictured above), bested him in the Superflex Inter I, under Sarah Dwyer-Coles. The gelding is only low mileage with Sarah only campaigning him for the last two-and-half years. “He’s a great character with lots of energy and gave me a great ride. He let me control him in the pirouettes – he’s quite strong-minded and likes to take control! Hopefully we’ll move up to grand prix after the Winters.”
Both advanced medium gold championships were won by Sara-Jane Lanning and Nicola Seale’s Hawtins Lirica (Lemony’s Nicket x Dimaggio). Sara and ‘Lyra’ have contested eight regional championships in the 18 months they have been together and won them all. Lyra also gave Sara the fifth 10 of her career for her medium trot. “The straight advanced medium was one of the best we’ve done,” said Sara who benefited from lessons the week before with Rafael Soto, the Spanish Olympic rider and trainer. “She’s one of the brightest horses I’ve ever ridden.”
Sam Holland’s Equitex Advanced Medium Silver regional champion, Double Check was bought seven years ago as a problem horse but has come good under Sam’s guidance. “He’s a lazy/sharp horse and at one Nationals waved his front legs at the judges! I’m an eventer at heart so it doesn’t faze me,” said Sam. “We’ve had an amazing journey up the grades – our goal is Prix St Georges. In the test he really looked after me, despite only having 15 minutes warmup because we had to detour because of a low bridge on the way to the show. I had no expectations and planned to see what mark I’d got and then go home. I was second to go so we had a long wait!”
“I train with Sharon Edwards and she’s had faith in us from the moment I got him. She said if I broke through with him, he’d take me further than I ever intended. He’s now training at the higher levels.”
The Nupafeed Advanced Medium Freestyle Silver title went to Charlie Sawyer and his 10-year-old Irish gelding, Private Number. “He was being sold 20 minutes down the road so we went for a look and he turned out to be really nice,” said Charlie who trains with Spencer Wilton and Matt Hicks. “He’s still fairly new to advanced medium so I made a floor plan which placed the flying changes where he finds them easier. He was on good form in the test. A couple of the changes were a bit green but the rest of the work is so good he picks up the marks there.”
Jezz Palmer was one of the riders to break the 75% barrier, winning the Spillers Medium Freestyle Gold with Emily Ivins’ talented seven-year-old Negro stallion, Ketcher B. “Equidance made us the coolest music programme,” said Jezz. “He won the advanced medium freestyle at Prestige so he was expecting to do flying changes. He went a bit insecure so I had to hold his hand a bit. By the end of the test he felt much more confident.”
Jezz also bagged another sash with a win on Romanno Weltino in the PDS Saddles Elementary Freestyle Gold and secured a ticket to the Winters on Tiny Dancer in the HorseLight Medium Gold. British-bred Romanno Weltino (Dante Weltino x Donnerhall) is owned by Melanie Morris and Carol Hurst and has been with Jezz for three years since she was three. “Princess was on flying form despite having been out of work with a foot abscess so in the end we pulled out of the novice as she wasn’t fit enough to do two in one day,” explained Jezz.
Jezz seems to enjoy living dangerously as he decided in the warm-up to change the music programme he was going to use. “I don’t know why but I just felt the other floor plan would suit her better. I did know the music very well!” Jezz, living the meaning of the word freestyle!
Gareth Bulley had a sentimental reason for choosing the music which took him and Frouwke (pictured above) to the Spillers Medium Freestyle Silver title. It was made up of cello music, inspired by his late grandmother who used to play the cello and who had cello music at her recent funeral. “I think it’s important to have something emotive and personal for your programme,” commented Gareth who was also the reserve regional champion in the medium silver.
“She was at the summer championships at elementary and medium but was still a bit green. I’ve been working hard with Melissa Smith and it paid off as we got three 9s for the extended trot and 8s for her walk. She’s very soft and expressive and was very relaxed in the test.”
Michael Bates won the HorseLight Medium Silver regional championship on Julie Martin’s Fiorello, a Fidermark 14-year-old. “Julie has broken her arm so this was the first time I’ve ever ridden him in the ring,” said Michael, who has also got the ride for the Winter Championships now. “He’s got a super temperament and is a joy to ride. I’ve trained Julie for years and her hard work has paid off. He excels at the collected work and is just a natural dressage horse, built for the job. Hopefully we’ll get a good placing at the Championships.”
Blind rider Nicky Greenhill normally concentrates on para dressage so will be going to the NAF Five Star Winter Championships for the first time with her super-talented mare, Betty Boo (Benetton Dream x Londonderry) in the Equi-Trek Elementary Silver Championship. The pair won all their grade IV tests at Hartpury CPEDI last year as well as two out three of their classes at Keysoe CPEDI.
“It’s our first win at a Regional so I’m very, very chuffed,” said Nicky. “She picked up an injury and then I had Covid, so she’s not competed since October last year. It’s a massive achievement for us. She’s the kindest horse in the world. I always know she’s not going to let me down.”
Nicola Buchanan and St Giles Flamboyant (Franklin x Fürst Romancier) won the elementary gold and took reserve place in the novice gold. “She is such a lovely horse to work with,” enthused Nicola. “She was a bit nervous in the novice and I had to hold her hand but in the elementary she was more relaxed. She felt a bit green as she’s not had an audience before but she loves to go out. It’s wonderful to sit on something that’s been bred for the purpose.”
Sophia Marston had already qualified one horse, Solitaire II for the PDS Saddles Elementary Freestyle Silver class at the Winters and she will be joined by her new ride, E-mail, who will also be contesting the medium silver in the Area Festival Championships.
“I’ve got him on loan from event rider Imogen Murray,” said Sophia who used a Tom Hunt-produced programme featuring music from The Game Of Thrones and trains with Michael Eilberg. “He’s been teaching me loads. He’s by Jazz and full of character. I wasn’t expecting much as he hadn’t been to this arena before but as soon as he went in he felt amazing. Our score (75.51%) was a personal best. I loved his simple changes – they are his forte.”
Local trainer Tracey Lawson won the Prestge Italia Novice Silver with Q.T. (Quotenkonig x Florestan 1) and is hoping for a wild card for the elementary silver. She has owned the nine-year old for six years but for a while he took a back seat while she concentrated on her advanced horse, Alfero.
“He’d done nothing much until two years ago but he’s catching up quick!” said Tracey. “Conformationally he has a hollow back but having had gelderlanders previously it’s my speciality teaching horses to build their core and lift and use their backs. I trained with Charles De Kunffy for 20 years and he’s my absolute inspiration. I now train with Damian Hallam who teaches me to ride with my seat, back and bum like Charles. I do loads of in-hand work and never get on or off Q.T. unless he does a square halt.”
Lucyanna Westaway and Keystone Rocketman took the Prestige Italia Novice Gold title although Lucyanna credited owner Sarah-Jane Cox with having put in a lot of the work. ‘Elton’ is currently reserve national (summer) champion at novice silver so Lucyanna will be hoping to add the winter championship to his list of wins.
“He’s very able and finds the work easy. He likes to show off and loves a big occasion,” explained Lucyanna, who is a freelance rider.
David Ashby, KBIS Prelim Silver title winner with Evanstown, sadly won’t be contesting the Winters as he had a prior engagement at the GCT tour in Miami as his insurance business sponsors a team. April in Miami versus Gloucestershire – tough call!
David has owned Evanstown for 11 years and previously evented him. “He’s stabled with Brook and Cathy Staples and Brook encouraged me to try dressage. He went well in the test even though I can’t remember when we last did a test indoors,” said David.
Owen Davies and L’Amour De Invictus complete our roll of honour, with a win in the KBIS Prelim Gold regional championship. “I’ve been riding her for about a year,” said Owen who trains with the mare’s part-owner, Denise Hallion. “She was quite weak so we’ve been concentrating on getting her stronger. She has the ability to go somewhere new and trust me and focus on me. I think she’ll cope well at Hartpury as she always stays with me if she’s not sure. Her confidence builds every time she goes out.”
Finally, thanks and congratulations to the Merrist Wood team who pulled out all the stops to rearrange the Championships and avoid disappointing qualified competitors. Well done team!
Top three results
KBIS Preliminary Gold
1. Owen Davies and L’Amour De Invictus, 74.35%
2. Kathy Staples and Le Blanc Ter Selles, 73.21%
3. Anna Lawson and Fleur D’Amour, 70.977%
KBIS Preliminary Silver
1. David Ashby and Evanstown, 72.29%
2. Sara Brown and Andrea, 71.2%
3. Frances Goodsir and Frederiksminde Fine Edition, 70.63%
Prestige Italia Novice Gold
1. Lucyanna Westaway and Keystone Rocketman, 72.65%
2. Nicola Buchanan and St Giles Flamboyant, 71.35%
3. Dannie Morgan and High Hoes Razzle Dazzle, 70.98%
Baileys Novice Freestyle Gold
1. Alice Oppenheimer and Headmore Flintstone, 74.25%
2. Alice Oppenheimer and Headmore Valentina, 71.85%
3. Charlotte Blain and Fedora, 71.667%
Prestige Italia Novice Silver
1. Tracey Lawson and Q.T., 70.98%
2. Angela Westgarth and Re-Joyce, 70.37%
3. Claire Ashley and Brynmelys Ranaldo, 67.9%
Baileys Novice Freestyle Silver
1. Nicky Morris and Headmore Bugatti, 75.27%
2. Claire Ashley and Brynmelys Ranaldo, 70.55%
3. Jess Ralton and Newton Freezeframe, 70.27%
Equi-Trek Elementary Gold
1. Nicola Buchanan and St Giles Flamboyant, 73.69%
2. Rob Trowbridge and Matteo, 71.56%
3. Robert Barker and Damon’s Destiny, 70.83%
PDS Saddles Elementary Freestyle Gold
1. Jezz Palmer and Romanno Weltino, 72.62%
2. Rob Trowbridge and Matteo, 71.53%
3. Alice Oppenheimer and Headmore Flintstone, 71.02%
Equi-Trek Elementary Silver
1. Nicky Greenhill and Betty Boo, 73.43%
2. Rowan Collins and Denzel IV, 70.46%
3. Tracey Lawson and Q.T., 70.10%
PDS Saddles Elementary Freestyle Silver
1. Sophia Marston and E-Mail, 75.51%
2. Suzanne Ashwell and Rhomantic, 71.60%
3. Kate Oppenheimer and SOS Sealpoint, 69.87%
HorseLight Medium Gold
1. Sarah Wilkinson and Koko II, 75.81%
2. Jezz Palmer and Tiny Dancer, 74.14%
3. Davy Harvey and Hercules III, 72.2%
Spillers Medium Freestyle Gold
1. Jezz Palmer and Ketcher B, 75.55%
2. Charlie Sawyer and Private Number, 72.00%
3. Ben Martin and Jacko B, 69.66%
HorseLight Medium Silver
1. Michael Bates and Fiorello, 72.83%
2. Gareth Bulley and Frouwke, 71.84%
3. Sissel Hansen and Secret Gold Bewes, 68.60%
Spillers Medium Freestyle Silver
1. Gareth Bulley and Frouwke, 74.66%
2. Michelle Bone and Decanters Tiddlywinks, 69.83%
3. Lucie Stoke and Dolores II, 68.66%
Equitex Advanced Medium Gold
1. Sara-Jane Lanning and Hawtins Lirica, 72.19%
2. Andrew Gould and Active Solaris, 71.18%
3. Sune Hansen and Atterupgaards Cirossi, 71.09%
Nupafeed Advanced Medium Freestyle Gold
1. Sara-Jane Lanning and Hawtins Lirica, 71.61%
Equitex Advanced Medium Silver
1. Sam Holland and Double Check, 68.46%
2. Gareth Bulley and Lorentina, 67.28%
3. Claire Knowles and Singing Skyjacker, 66.62%
Nupafeed Advanced Medium Freestyle Silver
1. Charlie Sawyer and Private Number, 71.11%
2. Gracie Catling and Tsjebe Fan e Vesta Hoeve,71.05%
3. Siobhan Henegan and Humm, 70.61%
Magic Prix St Georges
1. Dannie Morgan and Loxley’s Optimism, 71.27%
2. Alice Oppenheimer and Headmore Dionysus, 70.88%
3. Andrew Gould and Rockwood Virtue, 69.55%
Superflex Intermediate I
1. Sarah Dwyer-Coles and Casino-Royale, 71.81%
2. Dannie Morgan and Loxley’s Optimism, 71.56%
2. Alice Oppenheimer and Headmore Dionysus, 71.56%
Photo © NakPhotography