The more things change, the more they stay the same, it appears – or at least that proved to be the case with the formidable German team today. All three team competitors – Sandra Auffarth and Let’s Dance 73, Michael Jung and fischerRocana, and Ingrid Klimke and SAP Asha P – produced clear rounds inside the team, making Germany the only team to stay on their post-dressage team total.
As a result, they maintain a considerable lead in the Nations Cup competition, finishing the day on an aggregate score of 78.1 – an unassailable 36.2 points ahead of second-placed Australia, who climbed from 6th after dressage to take runner-up position on 114.3. This was down to the strength of two of their three team members: Chris Burton and Clever Louis and Kevin McNab and Fernhill Tabasco sailed home clear inside the time, earning themselves places in the individual top ten, too. That third team member Sammi Birch clocked up 20.8 penalties on course with Finduss PFB became less and less consequential throughout a day that saw team fates fluctuate wildly.
It was a good day at the office for both the Swiss and the Belgian teams, who sit fifth and third respectively after bringing all of their team members home without jumping penalties. The Tokyo ticket remains on a knife edge: if the placings stay as they are tomorrow, Switzerland will qualify for the Olympics, but if there’s any movement either way, the fates could realign dramatically.
Belgium started the week as outliers for the qualification, lagging 55 points behind the Dutch and 65 points behind the Swiss in the series rankings. But three exceptional performances saw them climb from seventh place after dressage into a respectable overnight third. Constantin van Rijckevorsel and Beat It added 3.6 time penalties, Senne Vervaecke and Feebe van Alsingen totted up 15.6, and Lara de Liedekerke-Meier and Alpaga d’Arville sped their way to a clear inside the time, giving the Belgians an aggregate score of 117.5 as we head into the final day of competition.
“It’s a challenge, and no one expected us to be there,” says Lara. “But we believe in it, and I think as hard as we believe in it, until the last horse jumps we can still hope and dream of it. That’s what we’re doing. In Luhmühlen the team was not so good, so it was only for me, but here I took the horse out of holiday for it and I knew there was the pressure to give a good round.”
Switzerland’s success came down to focusing on staying safe and coming home, rather than trying for any heroics, and all three team riders did just that. Caroline Gerber and Tresor de Chignan CH added 4.4 time penalties, while 21-year-old Robin Godel and Grandeur de Lully CH clocked up 12.4. The round of the day, though, went to Tiziana Realini and Toubleau du Rueire, who sailed across the finish line with a spotless score sheet, a sea of red jackets welcoming them home with a cheer.
“The horse was very good – relaxed but with power,” says Tiziana. “He was beautiful to ride. I was in the time – wow! I tried to be easy and concentrated to my plan, and to concentrate together with the horse, so it was very good.”
Some of Switzerland’s reformation today can be attributed to the help of cross-country coach Andrew Nicholson, who joined the team’s efforts over the winter and has been helping them to refine their technique and tactics in this most crucial phase. As a result, they earned the second-lowest number of penalties of the twelve teams today, and sit on an overnight score of 125.9.
“It’s pretty much down to them – I went over in February and March and worked with them a bit, and since then, I’ve seen them at a few events to see what they’re like in action and to point them in the right direction,” says Andrew. “They’re a good bunch of people to work with. It’s very much our own little competition here, trying to qualify – it’s probably the most exciting it’s ever been at a final. But none of us – the Swiss, the Belgians, the Dutch – need to win the competition to win our own little competition. So we just stuck to our plan of getting three riders to the finish – we didn’t want to have to take 200. They’re very much happy to ride what they’ve got and do their best, and I’m really proud of them.”
Andrew was positive about the new Olympic format, which has been met with much consternation since its induction this season.
“I think it’s going to make it very exciting at the Olympics,” he says. “For me, equestrian stuff isn’t really a team sport – it’s individual, but we have to have teams. But this way is going to make it very exciting. You’ve got to try to get three clear rounds – they don’t have to go flat out. I think it’ll be very difficult for some riders to take team orders, and I think it’ll be difficult for team managers, but I can see it looking very exciting. It puts a lot of pressure on the riders. I’ve thought for years that it’s odd that riders at the Olympics win medals for doing a bad job, sometimes – I’ve done it myself, but you don’t see any of the other sports do that. In a relay race, if you drop the baton, you’re out – so making all three scores count is more the way sport is in the Olympic Games. Everyone has to do their best.”
Spare a thought for the home nation, who started the week full of confidence in their Olympic dream: an elimination for accumulated refusals for pathfinders Andrew Heffernan and Gideon saw them take a 200 penalty hit, and even a fast clear from Merel Blom and Ceda couldn’t redeem their place in the order. A further 36 penalties for Raf Kooremans and Dimitri puts them on an overnight score of 342.40, knocking them down to 11th out of 12.
Now, they have two choices: they can either sub in Tim Lips and Bayro to showjump for Andrew’s place tomorrow, taking a further 20 penalty substitution hit, or, because he didn’t suffer a horse fall, Andrew can showjump Gideon if he makes it through the final horse inspection. But either way, they’ve ruled themselves out of the Olympic qualification race.
They weren’t the only team to see their high hopes dashed by the enormous expense of a non-completion. Ireland, who sit in 12th place on 503.6, suffered twice today – a fall for Padraig McCarthy from Leonidas II earned them a direct hit of 200 penalties, although they’re still eligible to showjump in the morning if the horse is able to pass the final horse inspection. Cathal Daniels and OLS King Aragon were issued a technical elimination after being awarded 20 penalties for a run-out: while we’re used to seeing 15 penalties awarded for a contravention of the flag rule, it’s possible to take twenty if the majority of the horse’s body is deemed to have travelled outside the line of the originally flagged point. If this happens, the rider must re-present at the fence, clear it successfully, and take the 20 penalties. If they don’t, as we saw today with Cathal, they’re eliminated for missing a fence. They, too, will be able to showjump if they so choose, though it’s likely we’ll see team reserves Austin O’Connor and Kinnordy Rhondo step in for one of the two combinations we saw eliminated today.
Great Britain had set themselves up for a great week after both Laura Collett and Dacapo and Mollie Summerland and Charly van ter Heiden produced quick clears – the latter after a dispute over two flags – moving them into second. A second or first place finish in this competition would earn them the series title, but a run-out at the skinny at 14b and 20 further time penalties for Izzy Taylor and Artful Trinity ultimately sent them down to seventh place out of twelve teams.
The United States, who were in second place at the conclusion of dressage, also experienced a slip in the rankings after an unfortunate round for pathfinder Jennie Brannigan, who took a tumble from Stella Artois halfway around the course. Their unlucky trip didn’t put a damper on the team’s focus, though: Tamie Smith and Mai Baum blitzed home just two seconds over the optimum time, while Liz Halliday-Sharp and Cooley Quicksilver added 2.8 time penalties. Team USA now lies ninth on a combined score of 292.9.
Sweden, the current leaders in the Nations Cup series standings, have had a tumultuous day, which sees them spend the night in tenth place. Anna Nilsson was eliminated with Candy Girl for accumulated refusals, so can come forward to showjump tomorrow, while Hanna Berg and Quite Survivor and Viktoria Carlerbäck and Zlatan delivered steady clears to get the job done, earning 16.8 and 18.4 time penalties, respectively. But all hope is not lost: Sweden will still be able to win the series with this event as their discard score as long as Great Britain fails to crack the top two and the Swiss stay outside of the top three. If the Swiss finish fourth and Sweden finish eighth or lower, they’ll tie – then, we’ll head directly into more complicated territory.
The Individual Efforts
Sandra Auffarth maintains her narrow lead of 1.1 penalties with Let’s Dance, with whom she produced a double-clear round – but more remarkably, this is her first long-format competition with the twelve-year-old Holsteiner gelding, who she took the ride on in July of this year. Previously, the horse had been campaigned by Kari Ingrid Gunzenhäuser and Marina Köhncke, who produced him to CCI4*-S. The Köhncke family, who bred the horse, maintain ownership.
“We had a great round today and I’m looking forward to tomorrow – he’s a really good jumper, I must say, though every horse can do a mistake,” says Sandra. “I think I can enjoy it, though. It was really good today, I have had the horse a few months and I knew he had a good rider before because he was really straight and honest and gave me a really good feeling, and he was really fit to the end.”
They say that bad things come in threes, and this has proven true for Great Britain’s Laura Collett who, after a promising start to the season, has suffered more than her fair share of heartbreaking luck with the inordinately talented London 52. But today, she shelved the past and set out on course with one goal in mind: give the ten-year-old gelding, who only made his eventing debut three years ago, a bit of fun and let him remember just what he’s capable of. And that’s precisely what she did, finishing clear and just one second inside the optimum time to move into second place – the spot they finished in last year.
“He’s a phenomenal horse, and things just haven’t gone right here this year for him,” she says. “It wasn’t the plan to come here – he went to the Europeans and rerouted here, where we wanted to finish on a good note. We’ve sure done that. It was perfect for what I wanted for him, with some nice let-up fences – the intensity of the Europeans sort of fried his brain a little bit, so to come here and have a really nice run was spot-on. To be second after cross-country is the icing on the cake. [Chef d’equpe] Chris Bartle said to me in the start box to just enjoy the horse, and that’s what I did.”
Chris Burton made light work of his first long-format competition with Clever Louis, who has been in his yard for just shy of seven weeks – but for once, his reputation for being the fastest rider in the world worked against him. He crossed the finish line three seconds inside the optimum time to finish on his dressage score of 26 – the same as Laura – but because Laura was closer to the optimum time, she was given the favourable placing.
But for Burto, who has one major goal in mind for next season with the gelding, it was more than enough to finish the day in third.
“I was so chuffed with myself that I’d left Laura just three seconds to work with – I thought, she’ll never do it,” laughs Chris. “But it really just shows the quality – and she was 0.007 ahead of me in the dressage, so it’s only fitting! I was delighted with the horse. We’re still getting to know each other where I can tell that we don’t know each other very well, but he’s a super horse and I’m really excited about him. There were a few times when he’d run through my distance a bit – he’s a bit that way inclined anyway, so maybe it’s just me getting to know him, but his name fits him, as he’s very clever at his fences.”
Is there any stopping Michael Jung? One would suspect not – and certainly, he was formidable today. He finishes the day with three horses in the top ten after clear rounds inside the time with fischerRocana and Highlighter, and a clear with 1.6 time penalties with new ride Creevagh Cooley. They sit fourth, tenth, and eighth, respectively: if Michael Jung was a nation unto himself, he’d be in second place in the Nations Cup on a score of 83.
“fischerRocana is an experienced horse and I know her well, and she was very easy all the way around with super galloping and jumping,” he says. “Creevagh Cooley has only been with me since May, and she’s also a great horse but not super experienced at this level, but she did everything at the jumps very easily. At the last jumps I slowed down too much, otherwise I would also be in the time with her. It was a great feeling. Highlighter has always been ridden by Pietro Grandeis in my stable, but he’s a super horse for the future – a bit green sometimes on the jumps, but I like it when they also think about what they’re doing and not just galloping and jumping everything. He’s quite a clever horse, especially as this is his first time over ten minutes.”
France’s Tom Carlile capitalised on an excellent dressage mark of 26.9 with the eight-year-old Birmane when he, too, came home clear and inside the time to move up four places to overnight fifth. It was a great result for the French team, too, which was helped along by the faultless round of Astier Nicolas and the nine-year-old Babylon de Gamma (15th), although a horse fall at 19c for Karim Laghouag and Triton Fontaine saw the team slip to eighth overnight.
“This is her first time at the long format and her first time at such a big venue, so she was really impressive,” says Tom of Birmane. “After seven and a half minutes it was a question mark for me how the mare was going to react, so I kept my leg on and a bit of pressure to the end. At the ninth minute I thought, ‘yeah, she’s cruising’ – I had enough left that I could take my time on the jumps. Coming to the last fences I could get her to relax sooner and save something for tomorrow. It’s a tight competition, with the top ten within a pole – it’ll be exciting, but we’re among the creme de la creme.”
If spotting the stars of the future is your bag, it’s been a very good day of sport indeed: sixth place is held overnight by Ingrid Klimke and last year’s seven-year-old World Champion Asha P, who recorded the fastest round of the day when they came home on 9 minutes and 40 seconds. This was despite a hold on course, which saw them stopped at one of the toughest points on the course.
“The hold was in front of the corners, and the girls at the corners maybe didn’t realise that someone had restarted me,” explains Ingrid. “So I jumped the first, and then they say, ‘no, no’ – I thought, either I pull her out or I ride on the wide line. She was so good to survive it. I knew the water was coming then, and she was just focused to the end. She was nearly too bold to the ditch, but she flew over it – then it was really short. She thought, ‘maybe I can do three,’ but then she did a small one – but really, it shows she can do everything. She’s so smart and so clever, and so focused.”
Tamie Smith and Mai Baum retained their place as the best of the US contingent, adding just 0.8 time faults to climb one place to seventh.
“I definitely had a mission to accomplish,” says Tamie. “I’m thrilled with him – I know it’s been hard for us to come over and do well, and Boekelo has its haunting monsters in the ground that like to pull you off your feet. My horse wouldn’t be used to this kind of going – it wouldn’t be holding, but it would be a bit slow. We’re used to running on fast ground. But all the combinations rode to plan; I took a tug to the table in the arena and that was my two seconds, but he was super.”
It’s a great result for the US, but on a personal level, it’s also a poignant day for Tamie, who has experienced a rollercoaster year where international travel is concerned.
“It takes a lot of effort to get them over here, so it’s so nice when it goes well,” she explains. “I’ve never had so many opportunities and dreams come true but then never quite got there as this year. I got to Badminton and Wembley wasn’t quite right; then I took him to Bramham and he was fantastic. I was named to the team at Aachen, and he wasn’t quite right, and then I took Mai Baum to the Pan-Ams and we had a run-by at a corner that I never expected – so I needed this. It’s just the sport. You can’t be weak – you’ve got to be resilient, and you’ve got to be tough. It’s like it tries to weed out the week – when it doesn’t go right it either breaks you or it makes you, and I’ve decided to make them make me.”
Australia’s Kevin McNab and wife Emma’s Fernhill Tabasco moved from eleventh to ninth after an easy spin across the country saw them add nothing to their dressage score of 28.5.
Liz Halliday-Sharp and the eight-year-old Cooley Quicksilver recorded a quick round for 2.4 time penalties, to sit 24th overnight.
“The horse was just amazing,” says Liz. “He’s just an eight-year-old, and this would be a big ask for any eight-year-old, but I’ve always believed in him.”
Liz found herself up on the minute markers all the way to the water at 19, where she went long, as almost every rider did today.
“It was always our team plan to go long, but maybe we just got a little slow there – but god, he fought for me to the end, and I’m just so proud of him. I have to kick a lot on this one; he doesn’t give it to me for free, but he’s a real trier. The five is quite long for him, but I know him – if I held him he’d back off, I had to put my leg on. He’s the sort of horse who likes encouragement all the time; if I switch off, he switches off, too. But he didn’t find it hard, which is amazing for a young horse.”
Meanwhile, Dutch lynchpin Merel Blom piloted Ceda to a steady clear with 5.6 time penalties to sit 30th overnight, but at the top of the Dutch National Championship leaderboard. She sits 20 penalties ahead of second-placed Jordy Wilken and Burry Spirit.
“I do always consider if I can cope with the pressure,” says Merel, who left the start box with the weight of the Dutch team’s fate on her shoulders. “But I thought, ‘yes, I can cope’ – I’ve been riding with my head to it a little bit and made some decisions I had to, so it was good. The only rule we got was to ride right in the water; we didn’t change our plans [after Andrew Heffernan didn’t come home.]
“It’s never easy, of course, it’s not over til its really over, but I’m quite confident about tomorrow – normally she’s a good jumper and I think she’ll be able to become the new Dutch champion. I can be clear that of course, [the Dutch team] were disappointed, but it’s not like we can blame someone about anything. We had an inexperienced combination and also a young horse with Andy – we were all disappointed with the ride Andy got, and it only got more difficult from that point on.”
Just time precluded a higher finish for Matt Flynn and Wizzerd, who sit in 57th place after adding 22 time penalties to their 32.9 dressage.
“He was really stellar everywhere; it’s a twisty course, and it’s really deep at the end,” says Matt. “I need to get better about my turns, and I need to ride them more economically in those conditions. He was feeling strong all the way home, and he was faster to the last few jumps than he was anywhere, so I couldn’t be happier with him. I’ll kick myself for not having shaved off more seconds, though.”
The course, which was widely regarded as being fair, clear, and largely to be governed by time proved perhaps more influential in the team standings than it did across the board of the field of 93 starters. Of those 93, 83 complete, while 64 would complete without jumping penalties. 16 would come home clear and inside the time.
Tomorrow begins with the final horse inspection 9.00 a.m. local time/8.00 am BST/3.00 a.m. Eastern time, before we head into the showjumping at 11.00 a.m. local/10.00 a.m. BST/5.00 a.m. Eastern.