For the third consecutive year, a French rider has lifted the trophy at the home CCI4*. Gwendolen Fer’s beautiful clear round aboard her experienced partner Romantic Love secured her the title – and made her the 13th female four-star winner since 2008. The pair scored a 4* personal best of 41.9 in the first phase, putting them in ninth place, and executed one of the fastest cross country rounds yesterday adding just 3.2 time penalties to move up to second going into the final phase. The Toulouse-based rider partnered the Selle Français gelding she has competed at the international level for six years, and their combined experience and relationship shone through to earn them the win.
“Perhaps I could have saved some time on the cross country,” said Gwendolen of her well-paced round yesterday. “The horse was quite fresh early on in the course, and I felt that as I went along I got more confident and could ride for the time a bit more.”
But it was enough. The pair had contested Badminton earlier this year, retiring on cross country, before going on to win the tough CIC3* at Jardy in July, which had also, notably, been designed by Pierre Michelet.
Elsewhere throughout the standings, yesterday’s exertions took their toll over the poles.
Sarah Bullimore had the biggest job of the day – she had managed to get not one, but three “very different” horses around yesterday’s track and sat in the top ten with all three before the start of the showjumping. Jumping out of order, she was the first in the ring with Valentino V, with whom she knocked two rails. Halfway through the afternoon she had a second attempt, this time aboard the fiery chestnut Lilly Corinne and pulled three. Her firm grasp on the leaderboard was weakening. It was with her final horse – the “quirky” Reve du Rouet – that she finally delivered the coveted double clear, finishing on 45.2 and looking as though she might just inch her way to the win.
But it wasn’t to be. France’s leading lady of eventing, Gwendolen, cantered into the ring after her and never faltered, executing a smooth and classy clear round that didn’t for a moment belie the hard work the pair had put in yesterday, and moved ahead of Sarah by 0.1 points. With that, she secured herself no worse than second place and guaranteed a French win – but the title was still Astier Nicolas’ for the taking.
To win the home four-star – which he last won in 2015 with Piaf de B’Neville – would have been the just rewards of Astier’s fractured season, which saw him lose the summer months to a broken knee. A win in last week’s seven-year-old World Championship at Le Lion d’Angers proved to the world that he was back with a bang, but his ride this week – thirteen-year-old Molakai – has a chequered history on the final day of a CCI, and Astier was to have his work cut out for him if he wanted to secure the clear he needed to win.
The tests of yesterday’s track, with its relentless twists, turns, and tricky questions, had taken their toll, and Astier and Molokai pulled a rail early on course, guaranteeing Gwendolen the win and moving them into third, behind Sarah and Reve de Rouet. But then two more fell, and they slipped to sixth – a very credible placing, but a blow nonetheless for the rider who had redemption in his sight.
Falling rails saw the landscape of the top ten change, although perhaps less dramatically in years past. Historically, the final phase is the most influential at this event, and while it did have an effect – of the 39 starters, only 11 produced double clears – it didn’t change the standings as drastically as cross country. With two rails, Jonelle Price and Faerie Dianimo secured tenth place in Jonelle’s comeback four-star, as baby Otis and dad Tim cheered from the sidelines.
Also on the comeback trail was Sam Griffiths, who produced a double-clear bang on the optimum time with Paulank Brockagh to finish in eighth, just above fellow UK-based Australian Emma McNab and her four-star first-timer Fernhill Tabasco, who added just two time penalties.
Britain’s Ros Canter, who led after the first day of dressage, added four penalties with her homebred Zenshera to finish seventh. She, and fellow Brit Alex Bragg, who finished in fifth on Zagreb, will be looking ahead to next year’s World Equestrian Games with their exciting string of horses.
Sammi Birch followed up on yesterday’s fast and confident cross country round with Hunter Valley II with a double-clear in the ring today, finishing fourth. Meanwhile, in third place, France’s Cedric Lyard and Qatar du Puech Rouget were the only combination to finish on their dressage score – a 47.9, which had them in 27th after the first phase. This is a remarkable achievement at any four-star, but especially one at which so much has changed throughout the week.
It was a great day for our two remaining American riders, who rode brilliantly aboard horses who looked at the very peak of health. They rode with an extra weight upon their shoulders, carrying the collective grief of the loss of Boyd Martin’s Crackerjack, but they never faltered, and represented their country and their team with poise, professionalism, and horsemanship. Allie Knowles and Sound Prospect added just four penalties to finish in 21st place on this, their maiden voyage abroad. Buck Davidson and Copper Beach delivered one of the early double clears of the day to finish in 27th place. For both horses to finish looking so well after such a testing week of competition is an exciting portent of things to come in the upcoming championship year, and the team eyes on the ground will have taken notice. We can’t wait to see what happens next for these two fantastic horses and their very capable jockeys.
It’s been a week of incredible highs and crushing lows, and we wish Gwendolen Fer and her team the heartiest of congratulations – this will almost certainly go down as The Pau That Really Bloody Was.