Sometimes, as a journalist, you really push for a slightly questionable hashtag to stick. Sometimes, you push it over and over again, before the pivotal moment arrives when it can emerge from its chrysalis of social media shame to shine bright amongst all other, inferior hashtags.
This, folks, is that moment. Because Piggy French has just topped the Event Rider Masters podium after three superb performances with Quarrycrest Echo, and now, #gettingpiggywithit can reign supreme. We, for our part, are thrilled.
Piggy, for hers, is thrilled too – this is her first ERM podium appearance, and a high-profile win to slot in as the cherry atop a layer cake made of very-nearly runner-up places. After the birth of her son, Max, Piggy has been climbing and climbing – and this could be the year of the French.
Not the French in the traditional sense, of course – despite making up a whopping 20% of the field, those who flew the tricolore set out to put themselves firmly in the radar of their team selectors ahead of this year’s World Equestrian Games but couldn’t quite invade the final podium.
Astier Nicolas was the first atop it for his performance with reigning seven-year-old World Champion Alertamalib’or, in the horse’s first three-star and only his fifth international, but he couldn’t hold it – his 9.2 seconds proved one of the faster rounds of the day, and propelled him from 15th to finish 10th overall.
As predicted, we saw time play the most major influence this afternoon – course designer Ian Stark delivered a course which rode and walked well, making the questions clear for the horses but making use of Chatsworth’s extreme undulations. This gave the riders a slew of time-saving options, using inside lines and angles, but also meant that they had to prove their ability to change gears and rebalance quickly, as combinations came up after galloping, downhill stretches. Only one would make the time – the final rider of the day, and our winner, Piggy French. She and ‘Red’ become the sixth combination to make the time here in over 1300 runners.
Before the cross-country even commenced, we saw a huge reshuffling of the leaderboard in the showjumping. As the first three pairs in the ring clocked up clear rounds inside the time, it was easy to assume that Di Boddy‘s course was, perhaps, too easy – but then the poles started coming down. We saw highly-placed combinations plummet – most notably Thibault Vallette and Qing du Briot ENE HN, who dropped from 3rd to 27th – and lower-placed combinations climb stratospherically, like Wills Oakden, who moved from 24th to 7th. Overnight leaders Laura Collett and Mr Bass had a costly rail, moving into third place. 2017 Pau winners Gwendolen Fer and Romantic Love squeezed ahead of her, notching into place just behind Piggy.
And then it was all systems go, as combination after combination left the start box to try to chase the tight optimum time of 6:05. The first twenty combinations – the lower half of the pack – ran in order of their FEI ranking, which saw Tim Price and Xavier Faer as the pathfinders. They added just 5.2 time penalties, coming home full of running and moving themselves from 34th place to 13th. Their time would be one of the fastest of the day, and as more and more riders came home with considerably slower rounds, we started to doubt whether the time was even achievable.
The course, for its part, presented few dramas, although in eventing, one or two are inescapable. French hopes Maxime Livio and his four-star winner Qalao des Mers parted company on course, while Brazil’s Carlos Parro and Maesmawr Fox retired after a disagreement. Sweden’s Ludwig Svennerstal had, perhaps, the most climactic moment on course, when his rein snapped as he jumped into the tricky water complex, Queen Mary’s Bower. He subsequently retired, and we returned to musing about the double-figure time penalties accumulating across the board.
That is, until Ireland’s Sarah Ennis left the box, atop Horseware Stellor Rebound. Aptly monikered ‘Rocket’ set a blistering pace around the course, creating high drama for the crowds at two fences but getting the job done, despite nearly losing their line at the final combination. They finished with just two time penalties.
“It was a bit erratic, and a bit dodgy,” laughed Sarah, who names Chatsworth as one of her favourite events. “We really had a few moments out there; he just got strong, and then I had absolutely no control. We got two strides at the water, which I had said would be dangerous, but he did it.”
Speed-queen Izzy Taylor was a hot favourite to usurp Sarah’s place on the podium, but her round with Call Me Maggie May couldn’t quite top the Irish stalwart’s, and she added 4.8 time penalties to finish in third place.
“I’m delighted with the horse and so happy for her owners,” said Izzy. Call Me Maggie May was produced to Intermediate by her owner, Tom Strong, who still rides the horse regularly and keeps her at his base. “It just wasn’t quite fast enough – she’s not the fastest horse in the world but she went as fast as she could. She’s very good, and very honest, and I’m so happy with her.”
As Piggy left the start box, the pressure, the atmosphere, and the eyes were all on her. But Quarrycrest Echo never looked for a moment like he wouldn’t rise to the challenge and, says Piggy, “the course was well within his capabilities; I didn’t think there was anything that he wouldn’t be able to do. I put the pressure on myself – I really wanted this, and sometimes you’ve got everything to lose. I wanted it for the horse, I wanted it for the owner, and for the team, and something like this makes it all worth it.”
Piggy and Red’s double-clear earned the horse his first ever international win, and for Piggy, who runs a small string of horses, this is an enormous hope for the future.
“He’s really well-suited to the ERM classes, and it would be interesting to try to chase them,” she says. But Red is entered for Luhmuehlen as his first four-star – a decision that Piggy acknowledges would put them out of contention for much of the ERM season.
“I just want to do right by the horse, and whether the World Games is on the horizon for him, I don’t know – but he had a hard year last year, and he had to really step up and become a man, and he’s done that. I have two horses at the top level, and I always want to do the best thing for them, and I’d like him to be at the top level for many years to come.”
Piggy took the ride on Red in 2013, campaigning him first at one-star as she transitioned him from his former career as a showjumper. He holds a special place in her heart as her favourite on the yard to ride – although, she laughs, “he’s a miserable old sod at home, and just wants to be left to it – he’s a man who likes a job!”
She had initially worried that the Irish Sport Horse gelding wouldn’t have enough blood to be competitive at the upper levels, but as she produced him and he became stronger in his body, she found it easier to put his long, athletic stride to work.
“I really look after him, and I don’t gallop him around like a lunatic. He goes out every day, and we just work on strengthening him all the time. He’s an incredible jumper – technically the best that I’ve got – but I can often find one down on him out competing. Nine times out of ten, he does a perfect job at every fence, but I certainly expected to have a pole down today.”
As Piggy collected her winner’s cheque for £16,000, an enormous grin spread across her face.
“What a fantastic win, what a fantastic horse,” she said.
We’re not really up on our Chinese zodiac, but if we can name this the year of the Pig, we’d like to hedge our bets there now.
And so concludes the first leg of the 2018 Event Rider Masters series, with our three queens of the fast lane comfortably atop their podium. The series moves to Wiesbaden, Germany for the next leg, which kicks off on Friday – you can tune in on eventridermasters.tv, where you can also watch all of this weekend’s action back. Want more behind-the-scenes action? We’ve got a jam-packed image gallery coming your way soon.
Until next time – Go ERM, Go Piggy, and GO EVENTING!