It was just like being at a big horse race when all eyes are on the favorites...and a longshot whose day has come slips through on the rail to win. The announcer stutters. The crowd gasps, then cheers. That's how a new star is born in horse sports, whether it's the Grand National or the Badminton Horse Trials.
New Zealand's Jonathan Paget just stunned eventing aristocracy by winning the 2013 Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials in dramatic form this morning aboard Clifton Promise--on his first try at the iconic British event.
It's not big news for a New Zealander to win at Badminton, but everyone had tagged this year as the year when Andrew Nicholson would claim it--after 32 tries, and with the Rolex Grand Slam his to claim if he could win.
But it's a fresh face that rode around the arena for the victory gallop.
Jonathan "Jock" Paget is just the second first-timer to win Badminton, following in the footsteps of Sir Mark Todd--also from New Zealand--who won his Badminton debut on Southern Comfort II in 1980.
Not bad for a 29-year-old former brick layer, who rode Frances Stead's New Zealand Thoroughbred, Clifton Promise; Paget's clear showj umping round put a few tons of 4* pressure on the back of the Olympic, World and European champion Michael Jung (GER) on La Biosthetique-Sam FBW. Jung led throughout the event and most thought he had trumped the showjumping as well to win the title--but a rail fell on the last fence.
But it almost wasn't to be. Earlier in the day, at the final horse inspection, Promise was held by the ground jury and had to be re-presented. He finally was allowed to go forward.
According to Equestrian Sport New Zealand, Paget has been quietly working his way to the top. The London Olympics team bronze medallist, who is now based in Surrey, England, spent some time this past winter at Jung's Germany stable where he trained with the highly-regarded rider.
Jock didn't start riding until he was 18. Within two years of starting training, he went from never having jumped a fence to riding in a three-star event. Now, just ten years later, he has placed 10th individually in the Olympics and won Badminton on his first attempt--beating the best in the world to do it.
Clifton Promise, who is 15, was bought as a green Thoroughbred; Jock brought him from novice to four-star himself.?"I was just thinking one fence at a time," said Paget of his showjumping round, admitting that the victory hadn't really sunk in. "I came here knowing I had two great horses and that I could win . . . both horses did everything I asked of them and that was enough."
Paget said he'd been coming to four stars with victory in his eyes: "It didn't matter which one it was, I just wanted to win," he continued.
It's interesting to note what Team Paget was doing while Jung was in the ring. Jock, owner Frances Stead, and a group of the Kiwi riders and supporters did not watch Jung's jumping round. When the cheer went up, they figured the German had won. But it was quickly followed by a groan . . . and then the celebrations began.
Paget finished Badminton on his 39.7 penalty point dressage score, with Jung adding four faults to finish on 40 and Nicholson on 40.2 for third.
Nicholson and Nereo (owned by Libby Sellar) did everything they could to win not just Badminton, but also the Rolex Grand Slam - the rider who wins Burghley, Kentucky and Badminton consecutively - but it just wasn't to be. Despite a beautiful clear round, they just couldn't get past either Jung or Paget. The illusive Badminton title remains tantilizingly out of reach for the world's number one ranked rider, who is also leading the HSBC FEI Classics Series.
Equestrian Sports New Zealand high performance coach Erik Duvander said the well-deserved win was something Paget had been building up to for a while.?"I believed strongly that Jock could win - they've come into the competition with the horse in top form and I never doubted he could pull it off," he said. "Many say they would rather win Badminton than the Olympics . . . in the eventing world, Badminton is the glory one to win."
He also had plenty of praise for Nicholson, of whom he said, "He is just such a machine. It was so tight at the top that any of those five or six could have won with a little luck on the day. Andrew really is the ultimate sportsman."
Nicholson, who has completed Badminton a record 30-plus times, was also 11th on Avebury (owned by Mark and Rosemary Barlow and Nicholson), with Paget 14th on Clifton Lush (owned by Lucy Allison and Frances Stead).
Between Paget and Nicholson, New Zealand had four horses in the top 20, tying Germany as the most successful nation. A shout-out to Italy is in order, as they posted two riders in the top ten: tefano Brecciaroli in sixth and Vittoria Panizzon in seventh.
Badminton began with 85 entries, which shrank to 65 for the jumping today. Top placing North American riders were Canada's Rebecca Howard in 12th and the USA's Tiana Coudray in 17th, Clark Montgomery in 27th and Colleen Rutledge in 57th.
Thanks to Diana Dobson of Equestrian Sport New Zealand and Badminton Horse Trials for background used in this article.