You don’t quite think of the first phase as being the battlefield for a ferocious head-to-head, but that’s exactly what it became this afternoon as day one’s batch of competitors came forward at Les 5 Etoiles de Pau. The exceptional line-up, which featured the first 32 competitors of week, was replete with plenty of heavy-hitting dressage combinations, both veteran and established — and in the end, the fight would come down to the wire between a representative for each camp.
Australia’s Chris Burton and his longtime partner Graf Liberty took the lead at the end of the day, posting an exceptional 22 to sweep the top spot and also the Pau dressage record. Though the fifteen-year-old tends to fluctuate up and down the 20s — and sometimes into the 30s — this isn’t actually his best five-star score: he produced that at Badminton in 2017, when he delivered a 21.9 (“I have no idea how he did it,” laughs Chris).
Though their test today was smooth, fluid, and almost mistake-free, Chris admits that it didn’t always feel that way from the top: “I’m really pleased with him, but I was actually struggling to hold him and keep him together the whole way. Obviously it looked better than it felt!”
Graf Liberty’s undeniable ability, combined with that tendency towards the unexpected, is what makes him an occasionally frustrating horse to be partnered with, says Chris.
“That’s exactly what I struggle with,” says Chris ruefully of the horse’s marking fluctuation. “He’s got that Cavalier blood; they’re all a bit quirky. But he and I know each other so well — we know each other too well! — and so it gets frustrating some days. But his ever-loyal owner, Jill Martin, has stuck with him forever and has always believed in him. She wanted desperately for him to come down and do Pau, and so I’m so glad he came and went well.”
Their partnership might be akin to that of an old married couple who constantly bicker lovingly at one another, but there’s a solid basis to it, particularly where Pau is concerned: though the horse has never contested the CCI5* here, he won the CCI3*-S back in 2012 at the beginning of his career after a late entry due to the cancellation of Le Lion d’Angers that year.
“He beat a little horse called fischerRocana,” says Chris with a grin. “I don’t want to jinx myself, but he’s a good cross-country horse. But Pierre Michelet courses at Pau are always tough, and sometimes unexpectedly tough, so I’ll have my work cut out for me.”
Just an hour before Burto’s leading test, Piggy March skipped her way into what seemed like an unassailable lead — particularly because her 22.2 was, at the time, a new Pau record. But though she can’t take that accolade home with her, she can certainly enjoy the fact that she delivered her best-ever CCI5* mark today — and riding a level debutante, nonetheless, in Brookfield Inocent.
While fans of the horse — and indeed the rider, who broke the record for the most FEI wins in a season last year — won’t be surprised to see a score like this, Piggy began her day unsure of the horse she’d be on when her time in the ring came.
“He can be really spooky, and I often speak to Kevin [McNab, who previously rode the horse] and say, ‘well, he’s doing well, but god he’s a spooky sod!’,” she says. “You think he’s passed a flower pot ten times and not looked at it, and the eleventh time there’s a dragon there or something. Just when you let your guard down and think, ‘okay, he’s not spooking today,’ he can do it properly. And then he just gets very tight and the whole picture’s different; I just have to hang on, and it’s not what dressage is meant to feel like.”
Nor was their warm-up wholly free of wobbles: “Just warming up, every letter is a cone with a green bush on it, but one of them just has the flowerpot without the bush — and that’s game over. It’s all just a big deal to him; he can handbrake-stop and bugger off backwards ten strides pretty quick.”
Piggy’s main concern in the arena? The proximity of the judges’ huts, which can feel crowding to a young horse, particularly when paired with an atmosphere — a rare thing to find in 2020.
“I’m relieved, to be honest — he’s a super horse and he’s done some great things, but he’s still quite inexperienced with a big stage,” she says. “I didn’t do masses with him last year and this year, obviously with COVID, everywhere we’ve been there’s been no people and no feel. He does lovely stuff at home when there’s no one there and there’s not the atmosphere, but it’s just bringing that out to the shows that’s the important thing. But I really felt that he was a man today; he really tried to stay with me. He’s a lovely horse and so beautiful, so it’s easy when his brain’s in the right place to get the nice stuff from him.”
Just one error — a late second change, which received 4s across the board — precluded an overnight lead.
“I missed a change, which is annoying and my own fault, but there you go — in my mind, my bogey was doing that towards the huts, where when I’ve been in trot I’ve slowed down and positioned him to the inside so I can get the spook away. But to aim at them, I was thinking, ‘don’t look!’ and it meant I was slow to get the canter quicker and get the change earlier. I’m just delighted with how hard he tried, though.”
For the horse who won Blenheim’s CCI4*-L on his debut at the level, though, it’s an impressive and not wholly unexpected step up to the biggest of leagues.
“It’s fantastic; it’s his first five-star and he’s such a lovely horse, so obviously it’s exciting. I’m really pleased with him,” beams Piggy.
While Brookfield Inocent is a fresh face at this level, third-placed Ros Canter‘s Zenshera is completely the opposite: at sixteen, this is his sixth five-star, and he’s never finished outside the top ten at the level. Pau is a particular favourite playground, and he’s previously racked up two fifth-place finishes and a seventh-place finish, scoring between 24.1 and 27.2 each time. Today he proved his extraordinary consistency once again, delivering a workmanlike and correct test for 24.8.
“As usual — we love Alfie,” smiles Ros, who bought the horse for €4,000 as a four-year-old who’d flunked out of showjumping and become a carriage horse. Since then, he’s become a part of Ros’s family, and she retains ownership of the diminutive gelding with her mother.
Although the well-mannered gelding is the yard pet — and can often be found roaming without so much as a headcollar to contain him — Ros tells EN that he’s capable of lighting up in the ring.
“He’s actually quite a hot little horse — or he certainly was in his youth,” she says. “But he’s sixteen this year, and he’s certainly gone down a gear, which has made him a bit more rideable.”
A tricky calendar this year meant that Ros has had to rely on their long relationship in coming out to a five-star — but she still found herself debating the best way to prepare the gelding for their test.
“We’re a little bit short of match practice,” says Ros, who ran Alfie in an OI and an Advanced this year, but missed their final run at Little Downham due to the cancellation of the national classes. Because of this, “I wasn’t quite sure what prep to do, and so I did less — and it seems to have done the trick. He’s an absolute cool customer when it comes to atmosphere; I think you could set a bomb off next to him and he’d be oblivious. He just likes his job, really, and he is what he is so we just try to wheedle what we can out of him.”
Though Ros is pragmatic about the week to come — “the time is tight here, but he likes to just get in one gear and stay there!” — she’s delighted with the areas of progress that Alfie made in his test, particularly in his walk work which, she explains, has knocked their marks down in the past.
“He doesn’t have the biggest walk, but he stayed really rideable,” she says. “His extensions, too, are always a highlight, and his changes are a real highlight in the warm-up — but he likes to throw one in early in the ring, like he did today!”
One of the most hotly-anticipated debutantes of the day was that of 22-year-old Mollie Summerland and Charly van ter Heiden, who she’s produced herself through the levels with top-ten finishes at Boekelo, Barbury, and Chatsworth, among others. Consider that list almost laughably non-exclusive — in 14 four-star runs, they’ve finished in the top ten nine times. One of the highlights of their partnership has been their dressage prowess, which has come together in the past with low-20s scores at four-star, though has fluctuated as expected through the eleven-year-old’s early career at the level. And so a low-20s score today was always very viable, though the added pressure of a tougher test, a big atmosphere, and a long-anticipated move-up meant that a higher score would have been fair and reasonable.
But far from wilting under the pressure, Mollie and Charly trotted into the main arena looking quite remarkably like a Small Tour dressage partnership that had got lost on the way to nip round a Prix St George. Mollie, who has based herself with dressage rider Olivia Oakeley and now trains with Carl Hester, has evidently spent 2020 learning how to make the most out of her horse’s extravagant paces without losing engagement or rideability within the flash. Their impressive effort today was rewarded with a 25.5, which saw them lead for much of the afternoon. Now, they sit fourth going into tomorrow’s final dressage session — and Mollie couldn’t be happier with how her day played out.
“I’m so pleased with him — to do that on his five-star debut, he’s just such a good horse,” says a delighted Mollie. “It’s a credit to my team at home; Olivia’s worked so hard with me and has been amazing to get me in with Carl as well, so working with them in even the short space of time I’ve been there has been so helpful. I’m just so excited for next year, to think we’ve got the whole winter to train with them. I know he’s got more to give, it’s just me learning how to ride him! But he was such a good boy, and I couldn’t have asked for more from his brain.”
Though the canter extensions, trot half-passes and Charly’s signature show-stopping extended trot were spectator highlights, for Mollie, the best part of her test was the effort her horse made for her.
“I felt like he just put everything into it; he tried so hard,” she says. “I actually ended up smiling around my test, which is quite rare for me, but when he gives you a ride like that you just think, ‘how lucky am I to have a horse like him?'”
One of the assorted lessons to be learned in competing at this level is getting into the right mindset — and that’s a tactic Mollie mastered today before climbing aboard for her test.
“I was trying to stay in my own little bubble and ignore everybody else; I think it’s quite hard to do that for me. I’m a competitive person, but I really tried to drill it into myself coming here that there’s no pressure, no one’s expecting us to do anything, and I’m coming here for experience.”
Though we’ll have the treat of seeing Laura Collett‘s first-phase supremo London 52 tomorrow, she got her week off to a flying today, posting a 26.2 to sit fifth provisionally with Mr Bass. This came despite an odd few moments prior to her test, in which ‘Chuck’ entered the main arena and inverted, looking to fight against Laura’s quiet, persistent aids. Fortunately for the pair, who average very respectable 20s marks despite dressage not being the horse’s natural strong suit, he crossed the threshold into the arena and softened to produce a typically pleasant test.
“I wasn’t expecting that — he was lovely outside [in the warm-up arena],” says Laura. “I don’t know what happened, whether he had a fly or something was bothering him. I think that’s where he’s grown up as a horse, because he just went in there and he thought, ‘right, I’ve got to concentrate.’ He tried really hard; I just lost him a bit when he went into that first canter, but then he came back to me. He’s a horse who struggles with dressage, so I’m really proud of him.”
Nicola Wilson and Bulana, back at this level after the rider fractured her neck in a fall at Arville last year, delivered a 26.8 for overnight sixth. Though the European bronze medal-winning mare can be quite spicy in the ring, she was consistent throughout the test, just losing a couple of marks in the tricky and influential rein-back.
The test of 2019 victors Tom McEwen and Toledo de Kerser was one of the surprises of the day after some minor errors, including an erratic transition out of the reinback into canter, landed them with a final score of 27 — by no means a bad mark, but not quite in touch with the sub-25 scores they’ve delivered in their last two outings at the level.
“I’m delighted with him, but there was just way too many mistakes and that cost us,” says Tom. “He needs to do a really accurate test because he’s not got the most flamboyant trot; it all needs to be very correct, and there were too many mistakes today. It’s one of those things — sometimes you don’t always perform as well as you can do, and it’s just been one of those days, really.”
New Zealand’s Tim Price makes an appearance in the top ten with the second of his three rides here this week: 2018 Burghley winner Ringwood Sky Boy earned a 27.2 to sit eighth after the first day of dressage, producing an error-free test and receiving a 10 for his final halt, too.
“These old boys that haven’t been out all year still know how to do it all, so I’m really happy with that,” says Tim. “He’s such a cool old horse.”
For Tim, among the highlights of the test were three perfectly respectable halts: “That’s only something we’ve been able to do in the last couple of years,” he says with a laugh. “He was really rideable, too — sometimes he’s trying extra hard and there’s a nervous energy that just keeps his outline down, whereas now I think he looks like there’s a bit more conviction.”
This will be Ringwood Sky Boy’s first trip to Pau since making his five-star debut here in 2013. In the interim period, he’s become a consummate Badminton and Burghley specialist, and so a return to the tight, twist Michelet track here might seem like something of a surprise.
“When I brought him years ago it was so difficult for him — he had five down on the last day, and on paper, you’d say it’s not his sort of course,” says Tim. “It’s flat, and it’s going to be a bit more of a Wesko type of course, where you can whip around. But he’s learnt his job so well now that I can adjust him, and I’m optimistic that he can play the sort of tune required out here just through training and experience. It’s all about balance in the gallop and on the flat, with not a lot to hold them off — but his knowledge that he should do what he’s told will help him. I’m quite confident in him here.”
Australia’s Kevin McNab was the third and final member of the Antipodean contingent to break up a Brit-dominated top ten, posting a 27.6 — and bettering his 2019 mark by nearly six marks — with Scuderia 1918 Don Quidam.
“He was really fun in there,” says Kevin. “There’s a couple of little things to improve upon, but he was great. We were trying to get the same quality of work as last year but trim down on the mistakes; there were still a couple of mistakes, but fewer than last year — and we were six marks better, so if he can do that again next year we’ll be in a good place!”
Rounding out the top ten is 23-year-old Yasmin Ingham and her five-star debutante Rehy DJ, or Piglet, who sit tenth on a 28.7 — his best mark yet at four-star and above.
“I’m really chuffed,” says Yas. “I came here not expecting a hugely good test, because it’s his first time at the level — I know he’s capable of doing it, but there’s so many other factors like the atmosphere and the harder test. But he was amazing. We had a couple of little mistakes, but even so, he was super — I’m so happy with him. It’s really nice to have a really good score at his first five-star.”
Yas made her debut here in 2018 aboard Night Line, finishing in the top twenty — and this time around, she’s enjoying having the extra experience under her belt to help her produce Piglet at the very top level.
“You can’t really ever prepare enough for a five-star — I got a real shock when I came here two years ago on my other horse,” she says. “But I’m really glad that I’ve been and done it once and I can understand what to expect — like when you come in here and it’s dead silent, and every eye’s on you. It’s such a big atmosphere, but I’m lucky with him that those sort of things don’t really stress him out. It’s more just getting the test solid with him.”
A text message comes in from owners Sue Davies and Jeanette Chinn as we discuss Piglet’s test — and there are tears coming down the airwaves from the UK. Yasmin beams.
“That’s what it’s all about, you know,” she says. “It’s not about me — it’s about them, and all the support they’ve given me. It’s great to be able to give them this.”
Tomorrow’s compact final session begins at 9.00 local time/8.00 UK/3.00 a.m. Eastern and will continue until roughly 11.00 local/10.00 UK/5.00 a.m. Eastern. Just fifteen horse-and-rider combinations remain to be seen — but despite this, we’re looking at a morning full of heavy-hitting talent, including the two horses in the field with the lowest dressage average. We’ll be bringing you a full breakdown of the tests you need to make sure you tune in for — perhaps, admittedly, with slightly bleary eyes — to potentially glimpse your first-phase leaders.
Until then, may the wine flow and may the baguettes be fresh and steaming. À demain!