Leading Irish riders O’Connor and McCarthy excited by Badminton chances

  • 3 May 2022, 16:24

IRISH eventing fans can be forgiven for dreaming big with the Badminton Horse Trials, presented by MARS Equestrian, now just days away.

It has been three long years since Irish Sport Horse (ISH) Vanir Kamira won in 2019 under Piggy March (GBR) and hopes will be high that the defending champions can repeat the trick next month on the big stage for Monaghan breeder Kathryn Jackson.

Vanir Kamira (ISH) won’t be ploughing a lone furrow, however, with Ireland bidding to hold on to its crown as the competition is held for the first time since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Horse Sport Ireland caught up with two of Ireland’s leading chances ahead of the event, with hopes high.

Having impressed at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games last summer, Austin O’Connor and the Mellon Stud-bred Colorado Blue return to action and the Corkman is very much looking forward to competing with the 13-year-old grey again – especially with crowds returning.

“It’s great – it’s great for the sport, Badminton is the pinnacle so it will be great to have proper crowds there again. He’s had a very good spring, a very good prep – I’d say we have him in as good a place as we can at this stage.

“I haven’t put any pressure on myself or on him, regarding expectations and the like – we’ll be just looking for a maximum performance really, obviously starting with the dressage and we’ll go from there.

1 August 2021; Austin O'Connor of Ireland riding Colorado Blue during the eventing cross country team and individual session at the Sea Forest Cross-Country Course during the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Austin O’Connor riding Colorado Blue during the eventing cross country team and individual session during the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

“He’s in work since November last year and things have gone well – we’ve tried to improve every element of his training – the dressage element has gotten stronger and stronger and with Badminton in mind it’s all about having the horse in the best condition you possibly can.

“There are not many competitions bigger than Badminton, this year especially, and I’m very much looking forward to it.”

Tipperary’s Padraig McCarthy, Ireland’s highest-ranked Event rider, will compete on board Falullah and HHS Noble Call (ISH), who was bred by Olympian Marion Hughes.

HHS Noble Call (ISH) hadn’t been seen in action since an excellent eighth-placed finish at the five-star Bicton Horse Trials in September, but has blown off the cobwebs at Thoresby Park and most recently again at Bicton, leaving him spot-on for a tilt at Badminton

The 11-year-old has enjoyed an impressive rise through the ranks, leading to that Bicton result, and McCarthy is confident the grey can continue to compete at the highest level.

“With him it’s all about the cross country – he’s very strong in that phase and I’m really looking forward to that phase with him on Saturday. I’d be hopeful of him moving up quite significantly after the dressage stage on Friday.

“He’s proved himself at the level now – he was very good at Bicton in September, it was tough terrain but he handled it in great style. I was very pleased with him because he is still very green at that five-star level.

“When I bought him from Marion I was felt he had the quality to be a top-class cross country horse – he gave me that feeling the first time I sat on him and hopefully he can do the same in Badminton. It’s a big ask but I’ll be going there with plenty of confidence in him.”

As a nervous type, HHS Noble Call (ISH) has tended to struggle in the dressage arena before making up for it on the cross country course, and McCarthy has put plenty of work in to improve his skills on the flat – he is still putting that work in.

The man ranked 39 in the world, however, has long since stopped trying to figure out the reason for his weakness in dressage. With Badminton on for the first time in three years and excitement sure to be at fever pitch among the huge crowds, McCarthy offers a fascinating insight into dealing with the quirks of a high-class horse like HHS Noble Call (ISH).

Padraig McCarthy and Fallulah will compete at Badminton (Photo: Irish Eventing Times)

Padraig McCarthy and Fallulah will compete at Badminton (Photo: Irish Eventing Times)

“He’s quite a tense horse, but I’ve no choice in the matter, really. I’ve no idea how he’ll handle it, to be honest. He could be shell shocked into submission or he could get complete stage fright and in a way I’ll be expecting the worst,” McCarthy joked.

“But I do have an unorthodox preparation plan in place, we’ve jumped trained him with Grant Wilson, a bit of canter work before the briefing and will even try get a bit of jump training in before the dressage – just to keep his mind off it.

“Sometimes the more you focus on it the worse it can get so we’ll make sure to keep his brain busy and then on Friday when he has his dressage we’ll stay up there and keep him out of there for a few hours – take his saddle off and let him graze.

“Just so he’s in there among the atmosphere and he’s not walking down from the stables and suddenly there’s 30,000 people waiting for him. So we try to manage that side of it as much as anything.

“He’s just naturally a nervous horse, it’s just something that we have to deal with and the fact that he has risen through the ranks has possibly contributed to that. But I don’t really have the answers this horse!”

Regardless, McCarthy is positive towards his chances. The pair have already proven their credentials at five-star level and, while Badminton is a different beast, McCarthy is confident in HHS Noble Call (ISH).

“You always go there as optimistic as you can be and any horse can make a mistake at Badminton but there wouldn’t be many other horses I would take ahead of Noble Call over the cross country.”