One of my most closely-held pet peeves is when I hear someone refer to Pau, the south of France’s late-autumn offering, as a ‘soft’ five-star. That’s usually an assessment that comes from people who’ve not been to the event; it’s one of those annoying little bits of mythology that spreads by hearsay, and perhaps leads the wider eventing world – at the very least, the fans of the sport — to underestimate what can happen here.
Pau is very different to the world’s other five-stars, that much is true: dimensionally, it’s not a patch on Burghley, and its terrain is very flat, but for some cleverly-utilised manmade mounds scattered around the course. But if Burghley exists on one end of a spectrum, Pau sits at the far opposite end. It’s intensely technical; glances off of extraordinarily skinny skinnies and deviously angled brushes and corners are the bread and butter of the thing, and the time’s no walk in the park, either.
And so everyone who tuned in to Pau’s livestream today, perhaps for the first time, might have found themselves a touch surprised at the influence Pierre Michelet’s course exerted throughout the day. From start to finish, there was not much in the way of respite: pathfinder Jesse Campbell went for a swim with Cooley Lafitte after finding himself on a half stride at the third water question at 20AB and 21, and second out of the box Ros Canter and her Badminton placer Pencos Crown Jewel had a driveby in the same complex. As fourth to go, Tim Price looked like he was going to get the job done — as Tom Rowland had, steadily, as third out with KND Steel Pulse — with his nine-year-old debutant Viscount Viktor, a horse he hails as his star of the future, but just a handful of fences from home, they suffered two run-outs at the skinny at 28B before finally clearing it and finishing the course. Then Kirsty Chabert fell from Opposition Heraldik Girl at the second pass through the first water complex; just behind her, Jonelle Price, too, hit the deck while navigating the final water complex at 24AB with her World Championships team medallist McClaren. Ten horses into the start list, we’d seen just two clears — and as one of those, Kylie Roddy and SRS Kan Do, proved, that created a colossal open door. Their clear, which saw them cross the finish line with 8 time penalties, rocketed them up the leaderboard from 16th to seventh going into the final day’s competition.
In all, 37 of our 54 starters (Tim Price opted to withdraw his former Boekelo winner Happy Boy) made it across the finish line, creating a 68.5% completion rate; just 21 would do so without picking up jumping penalties, putting the clear rate at a scant 39%. The problems, where they came, were well scattered: 9ABC, the second pass through the first water, which featured a brush spread to an up bank, followed by an angled hedge that was only visible at the last moment, caused the most headaches, with ten competitors picking up penalties here; similarly, fence 13AB, an oxer to an open corner on a blind left-handed turn, caught plenty by surprise, and we saw seven competitors run into grief here. Otherwise, the first pass through the water at 7AB saw just four, the tough third water at 20AB, at which most competitors ultimately opted to go the long route, saw another four, and — surprisingly, perhaps — just three picked up penalties at 28ABCD, the fearsome penultimate combination that helter-skeltered competitors down a mound and over a skinny and an angled brush.
And that optimum time of 11:06? Just about impossible to catch – and those who did get close by and large did so after mid-round holds on course. One rider throughout the day did catch the time, though not without jumping penalties: that was Boyd Martin, who, after a long hold, was deemed to have crossed the finish line six seconds inside, but activated a MIM-clip at 13B, that open corner on a blind turn.
With capacious, raucous crowds, tight, often blind turns, and some pretty extra fence decorations scattered around the course, Pau wouldn’t necessarily be a playground that you’d expect to suit Ros Canter‘s sharp, spooky ten-year-old debutant, Izilot DHI — particularly after his big fright prior to an excellent dressage test yesterday, when he took dramatic offence to a cameraman at B and wouldn’t go near him while preparing to enter at A.
But this isn’t Ros’s first rodeo, and ‘Isaac’, a horse she says has taught her more than any horse she’s ever sat on, is a puzzle she’s been making an extraordinary effort at figuring out. They began their round, which came very late in the day, on super form; by fence 18, though, just before the tough racecourse water complex, they were held — something that Isaac has never experienced before. When they were restarted, roughly fifteen minutes later, they had to get straight back into the swing of the tough track in something close to cold blood — but Isaac never faltered.
“I wasn’t sure what I was going to do at that water – I’d thought that if he was getting tired, I’d go long [as most competitors through the day had], but then I had no excuse,” she laughs. “I was umming and ahhing in that hold, thinking, ‘god, I’ve only got the triple bar and then that water, what do I do?!’ And I rode him really badly at the triple bar. So I was like, ‘come on, girl, get your act together,’ and then he was amazing at the direct route at the water.”
And so they tackled every single combination via the direct route, en route to a finish that would put them atop the leaderboard going into the final day — but the drama wasn’t done yet. As they made their approach to 28ABCD, that exceptionally tough penultimate combination, a crossing point on course hadn’t been closed on time, and Ros was pulled up again, suddenly, by a steward as the course, and the ropes, were cleared. And so back she went from whence she came, before turning around, picking up an attacking canter, and putting her horse exactly where he needed to be to sail through that combination, the next single fence, and into the arena, where they were welcomed home over the final three fences to enormous cheers. At first, that extra time was added to their tally, putting them on a two-phase score of 31.1 — the same as first-phase leaders Tom McEwen and JL Dublin, who’d added 8 time penalties, though they still edged the lead for being closer to the optimum time. But then, after an appeal, it was taken off; now, at the close of play, she sits in first place on 27.5, having added just 3.2 time penalties.
“Isaac was absolutely fantastic. He’s really matured and grown up this year, so I was really delighted with him,” says Ros. “He’s got a real spooky streak, and quite a big flight instinct, but god, he was absolutely amazing. Now he’s learned his job, he’s such an honest, genuine horse. I was really happy with how he set off at the start, because he was a bit anxious about the car next to him [filming alongside the competitors down the first stretch]. Once the car left, and he’d had a bit of a spook at the cameraman after fence two, he really settled down. I think he’s always a little bit shocked by what’s going on, but he was super — he’s a really polite horse to ride, as long as he’s not being flighty, he’s actually really easy.”
Though the hold itself might seem like something that could set Isaac off, Ros wasn’t worried about maintaining his sterling headspace — instead, she was mostly caught by surprise by its occurrence in the first place, which came after Tom Rowland and MGH Maybe A Mission suffered a horse fall in the final water (a fall from which, we’re told by the event, the horse has been checked over and released from the local veterinary clinic).
“I knew he’d be good in that kind of situation; I was confident about that,” says Ros. “I think it was a bit of a panic stop, though — it definitely wasn’t a stopping point, and they were shouting at me as I was jumping a jump, so I wasn’t really sure what was going on. So that wasn’t ideal, but I guess they did what they had to do.”
The making of Isaac, who’s always been brimming with talent but has had some frustrating blips while the pair have figured one another out, has been a depth of learned trust that’s a testament to Ros’s ability to put mind over matter — or, perhaps, matter over mind.
“I’ve tried to, perhaps, dominate him a bit more in the past and tell him not to spook but it doesn’t work — you just have to trust him and drop the reins and let it happen, and just assume he’ll choose to go over the fence, which goes against all my instincts, but I’m always learning with him,” she says.
Tom McEwen and JL Dublin will now go into showjumping 3.6 penalties — or less than a rail — behind Ros and Isaac, having swapped leaderboard positions with them when picking up 8 time penalties. But, Tom explains, he’s just delighted to have had a total non-event of a round, executing all his plans and enjoying his spin around the track on the former Nicola Wilson ride, particularly after a year that’s had more than its fair share of blows.
“It’s been a bit of a weird year, because nothing’s really gone wrong, but a lot of things have gone badly wrong — at Burghley the horses were amazing, but it all went wrong, and the same at Aachen, Dubs was amazing but it went wrong,” he muses. “So it’s nice to come here and have a day like this; when we were first suggesting this trip, we did think, ‘when you’re having a bad year, is it better to call it quits?’ But actually, I’ve felt great on him all year, and he was amazing in his final run at Little Downham, so I was very much looking forward to coming here.”
That commitment to finishing the year on a high paid dividends, and — crucially — helped Tom avoid a rinsing from the assorted on-site members of his bachelor party, which will commence post-Pau but has, he laughs “kind of already started!” And — finally — they had a bit of luck, too: though they jumped cleanly over the corner at 23AB, as they jumped it, the MIM clip on the front rail simply fell off, but as the rail stayed upright and balanced, somehow, they didn’t incur any penalties.
“I was delighted with him; he flew through as one of the fastest of the day without being stopped. It shows the intensity of the track: people could have been up on the clock, but they couldn’t get close to it, and then the three fastest of the day were the ones that were stopped,” he says. And though there wasn’t much inspiration to take from watching the action unfold on the live stream through the day before his own start time, Tom did use what he saw to help him fine-tune his plan of action on course, a tactic that helped him cross the finish line with plenty of horse left.
“It wasn’t the viewing that I was after, to begin with! I did make a couple of different choices, in places where, perhaps, I’d planned on going on three strides, but he was so keen and bold and fresh that I thought, ‘if you start doing that, you start taking risks later on and eating up distances’. So I actually added a couple of times early on.”
Now, he says, after taking the runner-up spot at Boekelo last year and Kentucky this year, he’s got one big job to do tomorrow: “I’ve got to make sure I jump clear tomorrow and get rid of this bout of seconditis that I’ve got!”
The fastest clear round of the day went the way of Kirsty Chabert and Classic VI, a horse who’s been as frustrating as she has been rewarding through her career. Today, she added to a tally of high points that includes second place at Luhmühlen last year, having motored around the tricky, twisty track to add just 0.8 time penalties — or two seconds — to her first-phase score of 32.6 and leap up from 22nd to third.
“She’s as fast around a bend as she is on the straight, so this suits her so well — I can’t take a pull or we’ll risk a stop, but she’s so quick and on the ball,” says Kirsty. “So for me, the twists and turns are very much in my favour — I can go as fast around a corner as I can when we’re going straight, and as she doesn’t have a particularly big stride, I’m never going to gain time on long galloping straights. There weren’t many of those: the first ten fences felt like a short-format, because you were constantly twisting and turning with lots of combinations, but that benefits me, because the big, rangy horses have to slow down going around the corners.”
Kirsty, like Ros, was held on course after Tom Rowland’s fall, but her hold was much earlier on: just before fence 9ABC, the tricky second pass through the first water complex, which was, incidentally, where she’d fallen with her first ride, Opposition Heraldik Girl.
“It wasn’t the best place to be held, right in front of the fence I’d just fallen off at!” she laughs. “So it was quite a good thing to let my adrenaline come down, and then pick it back up again, and the crowd got behind me, so that was great.”
Though the 14-year-old mare’s last FEI run, in the CCI4*-L at Blenheim that was won, incidentally, by Ros and Isaac, finished with a frustrating-on-paper 15 penalties for a flag that was deemed to have been missed, it was, Kirsty explains, a huge milestone moment that helped lead to her success today.
“Blenheim was a turning point for her. When I looked back at the video of the flag, you could see her contorting her body in the air to get herself over the fence. That was such a huge moment for me — in the past, she’d have looked for the way out the side door, and then, I felt her really become a cross country horse.”
Oliver Townend and Tregilder stepped up one place to fourth, adding 7.2 time penalties after narrowly avoiding a dunking at the racecourse water complex when the gelding stumbled on landing from the drop in, while Piggy March and the former Nicola Wilson ride Coolparks Sarco step up from seventh to fifth with 8.4 time penalties.
Pippa Funnell had a day of two halves; her first ride, the seasoned, though not always straightforward, five-star gelding Billy Walk On picked up 20 penalties at that racecourse water — “the good thing is, though, he took me and jumped it the second time; actually, apart from that, he was very, very good” — while her second, the ten-year-old debutant and surprise Bramham CCI4*-L winner, MCS Maverick, came out at the tail end of the day and became a man on course, adding 13.2 time penalties to slip from third to sixth and stay well in the hunt for a placing. That squeaks them just ahead of Kylie Roddy and SRS Kan Do, that early hope-giving pair, who are a tenth of a penalty behind in seventh place; in eighth, Jonelle Price redeemed a roundly rubbish day for the Price clan by cruising her own debutant, Hiarado, to 12 time penalties.
Boyd Martin is the best-placed US rider after that clear round inside the time, which he completed aboard the Goodwin family’s Fedarman B after a lengthy hold on course. Though the pair did activate that safety device at 13B, they still executed a healthy climb from 16th to ninth place in ‘Bruno’s’ second five-star start.
“I was thrilled with him — he’s such a great horse,” says Boyd. “To have a break like that and then restart… he really fought for me. Unfortunately, we popped out one of the pins and got eleven penalties, but safety’s important, and to Bruno’s credit, I thought, ‘oh, god, I hope that didn’t rattle him’, but he flew the next jump and was fantastic all the way.”
Hold notwithstanding, Boyd and Bruno were able to stick to plan A very nearly the whole way ’round — except for one moment of true five-star quick-thinking.
“He slipped quite badly turning into the water in the race track, and in that split second, as we got into the water, I went the long way,” he says. “But I think it only added a couple of seconds, and because he’d freshened up so much, I felt like I had plenty of horse at the end.”
Maxime Livio climbed to tenth place, and best of the home nation, with the excellent Carouzo Bois Marotin, who’s been placed in all his five-star starts and leapt up from 31st with his 12.4 time penalties today — but their round probably takes the prize for triumphing over a real series of unfortunate events.
“I’ve had quite a cross-country day,” he says with a wry grin. “My breastplate broke at fence three, and then we lost a shoe at six, and then every time I asked for a halt halt, I just couldn’t get it because we didn’t have the martingale. And then later on the course, my girth got caught on a fence and then it all slid back — but he’s amazing, really. 50% of horses would have run out somewhere with all that going on, and he’s still a young horse, so when he wants to go forward he really goes, but he’s incredible.”
Both Allie Knowles and Morswood and debutant Cosby Green and the former Buck Davidson ride Copper Beach climbed into the top twenty after excellent, bold rides: Allie goes into showjumping in 14th place, up from 28th, after adding 24 time penalties, while Cosby sits fifteenth, up from 35th, after adding 13.2 time penalties and an 11 for knocking a MIM clip at fence 23, an open corner after a downhill approach. But nothing could wipe the grin from her face as she attacked the influential water in the racecourse, and as she cleared the final skinny element, even the loud cheers of ‘allez! Allez!’ from the crowd were drowned out by her own cheer: “THAT’S MY BOY!”
Phillip Dutton and Z ran into a spot of bad luck at the tail end of the course: they were clear until the penultimate combination at 28ABCD, where they ran out to the side of the skinny B element on the downhill, and ultimately added a further 20 time penalties, too, pushing them from 12th to 22nd place going into the final day.
Of the two incidents on course that led to the day’s significant holds, we do have a brief update from Pau:
“Lea [Siegl, who fell at 13B] was mobile in all directions and did not lose consciousness when she’s been transported to the hospital. Her horse is ok. Tom [Rowland]’s horse [MGH Maybe A Mission, who fell at the final water complex at 24B] has been transported to the vet clinic and came back to the show’s stables before the end of the XC test.”
While those two incidents were the most notable of the day, there were a number of other horse falls throughout the day; Jesse Campbell and Diachello, who had been fourth after dressage, fell at the corner at 23; Jesse also fell with his first ride, Cooley Lafitte, at the racecourse water at 20AB and 21. Gaspard Maksud and Zaragoza, with whom he was sixth at the World Championships last year, fell at 24B, the final water, and Kirsty Chabert and Opposition Heraldik Girl fell at the second pass through the first water, making a total of six horse falls through the 54 starters — a number that puts a dampener on a day of otherwise exciting sport.
Of the day’s competition, designer Pierre Michelet says, “I didn’t think we’d have quite so many surprises today; it was, perhaps, a little more difficult than last year, but largely used the same obstacles. I think that what probably happened is that the first part of the course was, perhaps, more twisty than in previous years, and so the horses didn’t quite get into their galloping rhythm as much as they would have in previous years. That made them a little more timid as they came out into the race course, which is a more galloping section. The ground was also a little bit sticky [after heavy rain on Thursday], which also made for some surprises. If you don’t make the course twisty when it’s this flat, though, you’ll get too many quick clear rounds.”
Tomorrow’s finale here at Pau will begin at 11.45 a.m. local time/10.45 a.m. British time/6.45 a.m. EST with the final horse inspection (and yes, those time conversions are correct – the clocks turn back an hour tonight both here and in the UK, but not in the US, which is definitely not confusing even one little bit), and the remaining competitors will head to the showjumping ring from 2.30 p.m. local time/1.30 p.m. British time/9.30 a.m. EST. As always, you can catch all the action on Horse&Country TV, and tune back in to EN for live updates and full reports from all the day’s activities.
Until then: Go Eventing.
EN’s coverage of Les 5 Etoiles de Pau is brought to you by Kentucky Performance Products.