It was a showdown of epic proportions. After two massive rounds of top-class jumping in the Olympic Cup this afternoon, just two riders were left on zero scores. In the green-and-gold corner, the cool, calm experience of Aussie Clint Beresford with Emmaville Jitterbug. And in the black corner, the irrepressible teenager from Taupo, at 17 the baby of the field, Briar Burnett-Grant with her spunky Fiber Fresh Veroana.
You could have hardly hoped for a better script for the climax of the 2018 Land Rover Horse of the Year Show – and even the weather played ball this time.
Clint was first to jump off, and his big scopey gelding looked smooth and confident, leaving all the rails up in a swift time of 46.92 seconds.
Briar had the entire stadium (minus a few Australian supporters) riding on the saddle with her, but the 17-year-old has nerves of ice and didn’t seem to notice the pressure. She and ‘Flash’ fair scampered around, home clear again and stopping the clock at 45.79 seconds, making her the youngest Olympic Cup winner in history.
“I’m speechless, overwhelmed, I don’t know what to say,” says Briar. “Everything paid off, and I hadn’t had the best HOY up until then. I was even thinking in the morning that I might not start him.”
The Burnett-Grant family bought Flash from Ike Unsworth, and he and Briar won the 7YO title at HOY in 2016, and had their first Grand Prix start in just January last year.
The striking roan is by Indoctro, and out of a mare from Ngahiwi lines, called Strawberry. “He hadn’t really done much at all when I got him so we had to take it slowly, but last season he really stepped up. He might be spooky and crazy, but even if you put him in the worst position, he just tries his hardest to get out of it for you.
“Everything about him is over the top – his canter is massive and it’s all over the place. He has so much expression; with some horses you can’t really read them but with him you can always tell exactly what he’s feeling.”
Briar paid special tribute to her long-time coach Jeff McVean, who she says is responsible for “getting me where I am today.”
Jeff says he has always had belief in his student, who he has been coaching since she was around 12. “She makes decisions in the ring, she is brought up the same and I probably train her the same way as [my daughter] Kate. They think for themselves, I am just there to put the polish on. She has a big career in front of her, but she has to finish school first. She is what I call a really good competition rider; she can change plans if she needs to.
“The horse suits the way she rides; she is really good – she will go all the way.”
Briar’s delighted family were ringside en masse, including all three older sisters, and parents Karen and Dave, who summed it up so well: “I am just so proud of her, I am so pleased. She has done us all proud, and done New Zealand proud. Yes, there were tears, lots of tears, every round there were tears. It is just unbelievable.”
As for a celebration? “We are just packing up and going home… we will have a celebration next week.”
Briar is a Year 13 student at Tauponui-a-Tia High School, and hopes to next year travel overseas to ride, taking Flash with her.
She and elder sister Hannah started off at a riding school, as they had to prove to their parents they were really keen before they got a pony of their own.
The sisters quickly excelled at show jumping, though Hannah no longer rides, and Briar won her first HOY title at the age of just 10, in the pony six-bar on Kabo Silver. Two years later, at just 12, she won the Pony of the Year on Millbrook.
She has also won the FEI Children’s International Qualifier in three consecutive years, from 2012 to 2014.
The first round
The Australian visitors looked ominous in the first round, with an easy clear from Clint and Jitterbug, and Stuart Jenkins looked sure to emulate that on Fairview Aliguidam, but for a rail at the very last fence. The third Australian to make it through to the second round was Brooke Langbecker with her big chestnut stallion, Quintago I, who also had a single rail.
Tim Myers, Melody Matheson and Amanda Wilson all had lovely rounds that looked like going clear until the last couple of fences; Tim had each of the last three down, Melody the last two, and Amanda the third-to-last and then the final fence.
Tom Tarver-Priebe and Popeye were crowd favourites, and had lots of encouragement and a wee bit of luck; the horse has tremendous scope and really tries for his rider; they were last out and home with just a single rail.
Cantabrian Tegan Fitzsimon has really impressed this HOY; she and Double J Monarch had an unlucky rail at the second-to-last fence, the airy Land Rover vertical.
But the loudest cheers came for Briar with her clear, and the hopes for a New Zealand victory were kept further alive by four-fault rounds from Katie Laurie and On the Point Sandy, Tom Tarver-Priebe on Popeye, Lisa Cubitt and Matawai Sentana, and Fraser Tombleson on Mea I.
Those on four and zero faults then came back for the second round. Lisa had just a single rail again, but will be thrilled with the very inexperienced Matawai Sentana’s performance at this level, and Tom also impressed with a second four-fault round; they ended up sharing fifth place.
Katie and Tegan had two down each for eighth-equal place, and Brooke and Stuart were both clear, to slot into equal third.
Clint was generous in defeat, tipping his hat to Briar. “I couldn’t have asked for more. My horse jumped super. Briar was better on the day and she absolutely deserved it.
“It is hard being first in the jump-off. You don’t know how fast to go, otherwise you risk having a rail. I sort of thought I may have done enough but she was quicker in the last couple of fences. My main aim was to jump clean; I didn’t want to risk going too fast and having one or two down.”
For Clint (25), who is based in Canberra, this was his second attempt at taking home the Olympic Cup. “Maybe it will be third time lucky. I was fourth last time, so I will have to keep coming until I win it!”