Forget what you’ve heard: there’s nothing soft about Pau. Designed by Pierre Michelet — the man responsible for that Rio course, as well as last week’s courses at Le Lion d’Angers, France’s four-star makes the most of small swathe of land within a racing facility. As such, the buzzwords here are twisty and technical rather than big and bold, and whereas Badminton, Burghley, and Kentucky feel as though they’re inside their own expansive bubble, the Pau course abuts a main road, so if you’ve ever wondered what it would feel like to jump onto a commuter’s Citroen and pop to the Aldi down the road, this is the course for you.
To help me unravel the various questions asked by this testing track, I sought help from the best: indisputable eventing legend and course designer Ian Stark, who has been helping our American riders with their cross country tactics this year, the #ThunderFromDownUnder himself, Boyd Martin, the brilliant Buck Davidson, and European first-timer and expert OTTB pilot Allie Knowles.
What I saw frightened and thrilled me in equal measure.
Fence 1: Centaure Events
It’s big and it’s beefy, but its easy-to-read profile and abundance of visual aids and groundlines mean that this should set our horses and riders up easily for a straightforward first effort. It’s placed right next to the entrance chute to the arena, and riders will have to gallop away down towards the lorry park and warm-up arenas, so the main focus between fences 1 and 2 will be getting the horses to focus on the task at hand and not nap for home.
Fence 2: Bac de Chataignier/Ville de Pau
Another big, square-profiled fence, this one appears on the back of a hairpin bend that will bring horse and rider away from the warm-up arena and lorry park. There’s a tree in the middle of the track so riders can cut inside and angle the fence or swing wide and get a straight approach, but this early in the course probably isn’t the time to try to utilise time-saving strategies.
Fence 3: Arbre Tordu/Service Espace Vert Ville de Pau
It’s a nice, straight shot down to fence three, a raised log with plenty of foliage to set the horse up. There are no real questions asked here, although the CIC2* fences are in close proximity so a greener horse may need a reminder to focus on the task at hand.
Fence 4: LoxExpo France Oxer
One more spread wide enough to have a nap on with a couple of your closest friends before the real questions start. From here, you can hear the rumble (or purr) of all those speedy little Citroens zooming by.
Fence 5AB: Le Chateau – Bouclier Bearnais
There’s not a lot of terrain at Pau, so Pierre Michelet and his team have been very clever and created lumps, bumps, and mounds to ask some different questions of horses and riders. This first question features one such mound. Riders will canter up to the first element – a fairly big rolltop on the top of the mound – and depending on how they land, will have to make a decision about how they tackle the skinny at the bottom. It’s a bending line, and landing to the right will make it five strides, while cutting in left will make it six. It’s an accuracy question, but not a particularly tricky one: riders just have to think forward and on their feet, be prepared to ride accordingly if their horse props or trips on landing, and not let their focus drift onto the busy main road just ahead of them.
Fence 6: Mur Medicis/Freejumpsystem Table
Just your bog-standard big, hard, solid table, which looks from afar like it’s been painted with beautiful, intricate baroque detailing, but has actually just been attacked at random with some vomit-coloured paint. A forward fence, but going into the trees, so it’s always best to look up so you don’t end up in one, I guess.
This is a fence where riders might be tempted to jump on an angle to shave off a fraction of a second, but Ian Stark says a straight approach is better: “Over-angling is a little bit like over-setting-up: it just saps energy.”
Fence 7AB: Bergerie Point
The second combination on course is another rolltop to an accuracy question – in this case, a corner that, on its own, would be a two-star fence, but when installed in this line, takes a bit more riding. The red flag on the corner has been set quite far to the left, giving a narrower point of entry and a smaller margin for error, so riders will need to stick to their line and ride emphatically for it, heading straight for a stride after the rolltop and then turning onto the corner. Trying to angle the entire line will open the door for a run-out, but despite the respect the question needs, Ian cautions against trying to bottle the approach too much, saying, “it should be approached in a slightly stronger stride than a showjumping combination, and riders should set up lightly and then approach the first element in a balanced gallop.”
There’s a bit of a dip on the landing side of the first element, so a particularly exuberant first effort could make a horse stumble and fold slightly – riders will need to be prepared to help out as needed.
Fence 8: Vertical Attelage
This is a fairly innocuous, airy upright with no solid groundline, but some sort of exciting bush shoved underneath to give a clue or two. It shouldn’t require too much setting up, but it’s been fitted with mim clips in case anyone really misreads it.
Fence 9ABC: Tronc Triple Brush
This is the first serious question on course, and the first time an option has been made available. The direct route is a hanging log topped with brush, over which our intrepid combinations will jump into the water and turn onto a holding four-stride line to a triple brush and then up and out on a longer two-stride line over a second triple-brush. They’ll have to really ride their line and not lose focus or concentration for a second, although Ian assures me that triple brushes are an easy fence for a horse to lock onto and so riders will be able to anchor them on and, even if they chip in or get a less-than-perfect stride, the horse should aim to get between the flags. Still, he says, there’ll be a few that glance off, and for those who are worried, there’s the long route – over the log, right-handed to a big up bank, and then a big loop back around over a skinny. A few inexperienced combinations may choose this route, but anyone with their eye on the clock will be likely to go direct here.
Fence 10: Oxer de Haies
Because nothing makes you feel better after tackling a frankly unpleasant combination than galloping down to an enormous, solid oxer, right? I mean, yeah, sure, whatever.
Ideally, riders should jump this at about 3 minutes and 25 seconds, but the previous minute has been a slow one, and they’ll likely find themselves about 15 seconds down on the clock.
Fence 11ABC: Haie/Forestier Combination
Oh man. You know the Vicarage Vee? You know how it’s just sort of not very nice? Okay, imagine two of them, sandwiched together on a sharp bending line. Oh, and you’re tackling them after flinging yourself over a huge brush fence on the top of a very steep mound. Control will be key here: it’s still early in the course, and hot event horses throwing themselves down hills is probably a recipe for disaster if left untempered. Riders will plan to ride straight over the first element and turn after a stride to B, which will prevent the horse from getting his eye on the fence too early and will allow it to ride more like an intermediate fence. Then there’s a fence on the landing side that riders should use as a bouncing-off point, riding all the way to it and then turning back to the C element.
Fence 12: Haie de Course
Now the course opens up into the centre of the race track, and with fewer hairpin bends to contend with, riders will be using this middle section to regain some lost seconds. This enormous brush monster is the first fence they’ll meet out here, but although it’s the size of a small Balkan country, it’s actually got a forgiving profile and can be jumped on an open, forward stride.
Fence 13AB: Bac a Laurier Corners
These compact corners won’t be the easiest question for horses, who will expect to be moving on in this open space, and they require more respect than may be immediately obvious. Riders will want to square up to the angled rails and get their leg on into them, riding decisively through the dogleg turn before moving on after the B element.
Fence 14: Plateau de Course
A table with more square footage than my apartment, so thanks for making me feel like a failure as an adult, Pierre. That’s really cool. I’m going to steal your flower pots when this event ends.
Fence 15AB: The Coffin
Not a coffin in the classical sense, as there’s no distinct ditch element, this question actually consists of two skinny logs, each situated on an ample mound. Look, basically you gallop into the cleavage and then back over the other mound, there’s no nice or civilised way to say this. Ian reckons riders should slow down early and expect to land short, and I guess enjoy the curves along the way.
Fence 16: Haie de Laurier Brush
White rails and an ample (I can’t stop saying ample!) helping of brush on top give easy focal points to both horse and rider, so despite the slightly narrower hole to jump through, which gives the impression almost of a modified owl-hole, this should be another effort where some valuable seconds can be snatched back.
Fence 17: Le Chariot
One more chunky table before Pierre does his best Mr Burns impression and builds you all another stinker of a combination. Enjoy!
Fence 18AB: Tronc Suspendu
Okay, so it’s not as bad as things can – and will – get, but it’s not all fun and games and galloping around anymore, either. Another hanging log curves around to a skinny with some serious spread on it, so the line has to be accurate to give the horse the best chance of clearing it. There’s an alternative route here with another hanging log.
Fence 19: Barriere Anglaise
The fence of slightly questionable English stereotypes, including a post box, some merry looking guardsmen, and…lots of red brick? Are we very boring in England? It’s essentially a five-bar gate, so those who hunt through the winter (that is, all the Irish riders in the field) will be whooping with joy at the sight of this one.
Fence 20: Pointe Air France
BUCKLE UP, BABIES. There is quite literally no line that makes any sense to anyone here and frankly, you’ve not reached the part of the course with swimming rats yet, so I’d just hold my hand up here.
Kidding. Really. But this is a tricky question – possibly the toughest accuracy question on course – and will catch out riders who try to see a line through all three fences, which are separate obstacles, not a combination. Instead, it requires a bending line that uses the rocks in the water as a turning gauge from fence 20 to 21.
Fence 21: Haie Barree
The middle element of this not-a-combination-but-kind-of-a-combination/maybe actually just the Devil’s own related distance is a straightforward, skinny brush fence. Totally fine on its own, a bit of a bugger when paired with everything else that’s going on here.
Fence 22: Pointe Air France
Another corner, just like the first, but on the same funny, wonky line. Riders will have to ride every step of the way through these three fences and prepare to adjust their plan depending on their horse’s reactions if they want to make it through without any penalties.
Fence 23: Barriere Blanche
A left-handed turn from 22 brings you to 23, a surprisingly small white upright on the far side of a yawning ditch. This won’t give the nicest feel for horses and riders, who may well do better with something slightly more substantial or brush-topped, so they shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of security here and should plan to ride it with respect.
Fence 24: Vertical de Bouleau
A simple, albeit airy, white birch upright takes us back out of the racetrack and into the final section of the course, where things get seriously twisty again. Horses will be galloping back into crowds at close proximity, and will be tiring at this point, so riders will need to step up to the plate and help them out a bit more. Some horses may realise they’re on the home stretch here, as they come back onto the same part of the course they went off earlier, so they may benefit from a bit of a second wind.
Fence 25: Freejumpsystem Triple Brush
Up a steep mound and away over a triple brush that gives the impression that you’re jumping into space (or at least, into the carrot patch of the nice, elderly French lady who rents the allotment below. Sorry, Antoinette.) Legs on, a forward stride, and a bit of a hold onto the fence, and they’ll be away – but carelessness here will see a few opt to run out the side door.
Fence 26AB: Dome Canard
The final water brings you to the part of the course with ACTUAL SWIMMING RATS, and frankly, they’re more horrifying than anything Michelet will chuck at anyone. Honestly – beaver-sized. Terrible. They eat Jack Russells for breakfast (and loose horses, too). If the riders can avoid them, they’ll be jumping this big rolltop into the water and riding a bending line over the duck in the middle.
Fence 27: Table de Pique-Nique
Just another great, big, smug table, which is probably used by the giant rats for their dinner parties with all their horrible friends in the off-season. Or mid-event, whenever they fancy it.
Fence 28: Palette de Peintre
Despite being covered in colourful paint, this skinny palette in the shadows isn’t hugely obvious visually to horses, particularly those that are flagging a bit at this late stage of the course. Riders will have to sit up and put their legs on, and be prepared to help their horses see a stride.
Fence 29ABC: Maisons Bearnaises
Three enormous red houses curl around another typical Pau mound. One sits atop the mound, and the other two are at the bottom and around the bend. Riders will need to land from the first, turn, and set up their line to the second, which will take them at a bit of an angle over the B element and over the flowerpot at the corner of the C element. Probably a straightforward question if it was early on, but could be a test of horse and rider’s remaining resources when late in the course.
Fence 3o: Le Balcon
A big pull up a steep hill to a grey upright with some very stern statues standing guard. No time for your judgment calls today, statues. We’ve still got fences to jump.
Fence 31AB: Double de Haie
The final combination – and the penultimate fence – takes our horses and riders into the main arena and over two tall, angled hedges. It’s not an easy question, but it would be really embarrassing to fall off here, so that might keep a few bums glued to saddles.
Fence 32: Bullfinch
Man, this is hefty, but it’s also THE END, and our tired nags and jockeys will be pleased to sail over it and into the arms of their waiting grooms. It comes off quite a short turn out of the corner, but doesn’t require any excessive thought, just a bit of balance, a straight line, and some leg. Easy, right?
The time is going to be influential on course, and although there are no statement piece fences a la the Cottesmore Leap or the Head of the Lake, there’s plenty for horses and riders to do and lots of places they can easily notch up 20 penalties if they’re not focused and committed throughout. Expect a shakeup of the leaderboard, and tune into the livestream from 12.45pm local time/6.45am EST. We’ll be bringing you all the action here and on our social media, too.
Courtesy of the CrossCountry App, take a look at this interactive course preview: