Jonty Evans praises outstanding dressage display at Badminton Horse Trials
Jonty Evans hailed his "horse of a lifetime" after an outstanding dressage display shortened odds on a first Irish winner at the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials for 52 years.
Evans, who finished ninth at the Rio Olympics last summer, cajoled another superb performance from 11-year-old gelding Cooley Rorkes Drift to lie third overnight behind Australian Christopher Burton and Germany's multiple major championship gold medallist Ingrid Klimke.
But it was another disappointing day for the sizeable British challenge, with no-one threatening the top 10 ahead of Saturday's pivotal cross-country test. Alexander Bragg and Tom McEwen are currently the leading hopes in equal-18th place.
Irishman Evans, who shed tears of joy after his dressage test, posted 37.2 penalties, leaving him 0.8 behind Klimke and Horseware Hale Bob, with Surrey-based Burton moving well clear aboard Graf Liberty on 32.9, the third-best dressage score in Badminton's 68-year history.
Reigning Olympic champion, world number one and Badminton title holder Michael Jung, meanwhile, lies ninth on La Bioesthetique Sam, seven penalties adrift of Burton.
But the day belonged largely to 45-year-old Evans as Irish hopes were raised of Badminton glory for a first time since Major Eddie Boylan and Durlas Eile triumphed in 1965.
The last Irish podium finisher was Jessica Harrington, who finished third in 1983 and is now a successful racehorse trainer, highlighted by Sizing John winning this year's Cheltenham Gold Cup.
"He is definitely my horse of a lifetime," said Evans, who is based near Cheltenham and last competed at Badminton 10 years ago.
"This is very special, and I can't believe it.
"You try not to look at the scoreboard, but when I halted at the end of the test and got some nines among the marks, I thought, 'oh, my God'.
"It hasn't sunk in, and it won't sink in. If I am still in this position on Sunday night, it will mean a huge amount.
"It means a lot now, and I am over the moon with him. He tried so hard, and was totally and utterly with me all the way through the test.
"He is a very special horse. What's so amazing is you know that if you turn up, he will always turn up.
"You have to try and treat Badminton as just another event in your mind, although obviously it is not. The aim is to finish on our dressage score.
"The cross-country course is big and bold, but it's there to be jumped. I think riders have got to use their heads and go out and do their best job."
Burton currently leads the way, but a host of his fellow world stars - riders like Jung, double Olympic champion Mark Todd, his fellow New Zealander Andrew Nicholson, Rio individual silver medallist Astier Nicolas, 2014 Badminton winner Sam Griffiths and 2010 champion Paul Tapner - are all within striking distance.
Hailing Graf Liberty, 2016 Burghley champion Burton said: "I am so proud of him. I didn't push him too hard this week - I didn't get on him until Wednesday - but he was perfect today."
Attention now turns to the considerable cross-country test - 30 challenges across more than four miles of south Gloucestershire parkland - and Klimke said: "It's a tough, bold and difficult course.
"There is a combination between high and wide fences, and technical lines. With the turning before and after fences, the horses have to be very sharp and concentrated.
"I have done some difficult courses with Horseware Hale Bob. I know that he is mature, bold and very fit. I have cantered him a lot in the hills at home to help ensure he is in top shape."