Well, here’s something nobody could have predicted: as we close the book on the first phase of competition at the 2022 FEI World Championships of Eventing at Pratoni, it’s Germany’s Michael Jung who holds the lead with fischerChipmunk FRH. A shock to bookmakers and statisticians worldwide! An unprecedented turn of events! Who’d have thunk it!
All jokes and flippancy aside, this is Michi’s world, and we’re all just living in it. And how lucky are we, really, to get to see such a tour de force at the top of his game, building superstar after superstar and consistently exceeding even his own rather flabbergasting standards?
That’s exactly what he did this afternoon. After witnessing the gauntlet-throw that was Laura Collett‘s 19.3 aboard London 52 yesterday, he wasn’t fazed — instead, he does what The Terminator does best: he rallied. Though he was rather lucky with the scores in a couple of places — the halt and rein-back, for example, in which he wasn’t quite square in front and then chucked his head while moving back but didn’t go lower than 6.5 — the test was, almost wholly, a masterclass in harmony and accuracy. When it was duly awarded with an 18.8 — and two 10s and a 9 in the harmony collective — the packed-out stands went wild. The maestro had done it again.
“I just have to say that I’m really proud of my horse — fischerChipmunk is an amazing horse,” says Michi, who smashed his own CCI5* record score this afternoon, while also delivering the second-best-ever test at a World Championships. For the man who’s won every title there is to win, including the World Championships in 2010 with the exceptional La Biosthetique Sam FBW, it’s an extraordinary feat to continue achieving above and beyond, and on a number of different horses.
“It’s just wonderful if you can compete at this high level at a championship with another horse, with another superstar — and it’s amazing how he performed in the arena,” he says. “He just brings everything inside [the ring], and you can ride like at home, so this is a great feeling. He’s so relaxed, but still powerful and concentrated that you can show everything that you trained before — and this is an amazing feeling for the rider. “
How does a rider even begin to think about marginal gains when riding a horse that’s been so exceptionally trained — first by teammate Julia Krajewski, who delivered a 19.9 with him at the 2018 World Equestrian Games, and latterly within one’s own programme?
“I think you cannot make it 100% the same and you can always be a little bit better,” says Michi. “You have always there a little mistake, and then there is better, so it’s always a bit different. But like I said, it’s a wonderful horse and he did everything right. He went like I wish, so I’m very happy. I just planned to have a nice preparation and to have a good feeling — I didn’t plan to have the result. I just look to have a great partnership and a good feeling together with my horse, and if everything works well, then we have also good results.”
Not only is Chipmunk one of the world’s most exceptional event horses in the first phase, he’s also in a league of his own across the country — though a couple of little blips, including a pin at Tokyo and a flag rule contravention at Aachen, prove that even the giants among us aren’t completely infallible. Still, there are few horses who are, on paper, better equipped to try to clinch the title here this weekend, even if Michi isn’t wholly in favour of the way the cross-country course has been laid.
“I’m not so happy about the cross country because when you know the cross country [course at Pratoni generally], it’s just a beautiful place,” he says. “But Giuseppe didn’t use the whole course, so he makes it very twisty, and many turns where you have to slow down, and it’s difficult to find a really nice rhythm on this high level. So it makes it much more complicated. But the course [itself] looks good. There are nice jumps, andI think he had a lot of nice alternative routes for some people or horses that are not having the best experience. If you have to change [your plan], of course you have a few options so that you still can arrive safely home. Maybe in the end it’ll be better to gallop and better to ride than I thought — but it’s just sad that he didn’t use the [back end of the course] so you can have a really nice, open gallop.”
Michi is still riding a wave of confidence from his decisive Kentucky CCI5* win with the gelding this year, which confirmed for him his conviction that he’s truly made the horse his own.
“I had a great season, especially Kentucky, which gives me very good energy and gives me a very positive feeling,” he says. “He is absolutely a superstar; he is top in the dressage, top in the cross country, top in the show jumping. So all the competitions before he went really well, just in Aachen, I did a mistake so that was not him. He was again giving a great performance there, and I’m just happy to have another superstar.”
The sole Chinese representative at this Championships, Alex Hua Tian, pulled a seventh nation into the first-phase top ten after delivering a 23.7 with his two-time Olympic partner, Don Geniro. That’s their best-ever score at this level, though only just: at last year’s Olympics, we saw them put a 23.9 on the board. Their test today is enough to put them in overnight fourth place going into tomorrow’s cross-country, behind day one leaders Laura Collett and London 52 (now second on 19.3) and Yasmin Ingham and Banzai du Loir (third, 22).
“I’m very, very pleased, and I’m very proud of him,” says Alex, who finished eighth in Rio with the gelding but has sometimes grappled with the appearance of ‘Psycho Don’ even in this first phase. “He’s 15 now, and he seems to get hotter and fizzier as the years go by — and he’s found the traveling here quite hard. We knew that was going to be the case, so we sort of broke the journey up to get here. I perhaps haven’t been able to work him how I would have liked to have done before the test, but despite all of that, I was really proud of him in there because I felt like he went in and really tried, so I’m very pleased.”
Despite Alex’s continued enormous efforts to build China’s presence on the world stage, Pratoni was never actually the main goal for this year — particularly as neither heat nor hills tend to suit his horse.
“Yeah, I’m looking forward to Saturday,” he says with a wry laugh. “It wasn’t plan A to come here in the first place. We were supposed to be at the Asian Games this week in China, but they’ve been postponed due to COVID, so it wasn’t until May that we — Pip, Don’s owner and I — came out for a day for the test event to look at the terrain and sort of discuss whether we want to bring him or not.”
Together, they made the decision to come — but with a crucial caveat.
“This may well be his last big one, I think,” he says. “He’s getting to that stage in his life and career. We sort of decided to bring him whether we were competitive or not, so I think tomorrow will be relatively academic in terms of competitiveness. I think we’ll we’ll set off and try and have a nice round, but in real terms, I think we’ll be out there to look after him and make sure he comes home safely.”
In making that call, Alex closes the book on a partnership that has been equally immensely rewarding — but also fraught with tricky moments that have no doubt shaped who he is as a rider.
“He’s amazing, but I’m happy to admit he’s quite a hard work horse to deal with in life,” he says. “He has quite a lot of quirks, and he’s very much a horse that when the stars align, and your educated guesswork and his management is good, then everything goes well. And if you don’t quite get one thing right, the way he is personally, he sort of punishes you for it at a competition. So he’s always been a horse that suits the championships, because you can you can work your way up to a big event and put everything in place for that to happen.”
Oliver Townend closed out an extraordinary start for the British team, who set a new record for the lowest-ever first-phase team score at a World Championships with their aggregate score of 69.2, by slotting into overnight sixth with a 24.3. That puts them just three-tenths of a penalty behind the USA’s leading pair, Tamie Smith and Mai Baum, who hold onto fifth place after a dazzling test with one expensive mistake in this morning’s session.
It was a score that may have felt slightly off the pace for a horse who’s previously posted a 21.1 at five-star, but Oliver is happy to concede that it’s an enviable enough starting point to work from.
“I was happy enough with him,” he says. “Maybe didn’t quite take me forward enough in the trot, but I felt once I was into canter, I was away, and then I thought the work was very quality.”
It’s that thrust on the flat that Oliver and his team have been working on with the now-fifteen-year-old Irish Sport Horse, who now has seven top-five finishes from seven five-star starts — plus an individual fifth place at Tokyo — to his name.
“We’re always working, and we’ve just been trying to get him more forward,” he says. “He’s a horse that is always that’s a little bit introverted — either that, or completely explosive. So I’m just trying to get him to breathe and take me a little bit more in all the paces really, and it showed up in the canter. When it shows up in the trot, obviously we can produce a better score, but for him to go in there and do a correct test is very good for him and obviously very, very good for the team. I think it’s a bit of a dream start for the Brits — so let’s hope we can keep it up.”
Belgium’s Karin Donckers and her seventeen-year-old Fletcha van’t Verahof are arguably one of the most experienced pairs in this field at Championship level, with a fifth place finish at the 2014 Normandy World Championships under their belt and a total of six Olympics and seven World Championships to Karin’s name across her career. All that mileage is being put to good use this week as they take on anchor duties — and de facto lynchpin duties — for the Belgian team, and they certainly got their campaign off to a good start between the boards. Their score of 25.8 puts them into tenth place overnight, just a tenth of a penalty behind ninth-placed Kevin McNab and Scuderia 1918 Don Quidam and two-tenths of a penalty behind joint-seventh-placed Tom McEwen and Toledo de Kerser and Monica Spencer and Artist.
“You know, he counts on me, and I count on him,” says Karin sagely. “It’s amazing, that experience — for me, it’s so important to build up the bones between you, to trust between each other, and it’s so nice that I can have him for three World Championships. I really appreciate it a lot.”
That trust will be the basis of their tour around Giuseppe della Chiesa’s tough track tomorrow — and will be helped along by their trip to compete in the CCI4*-L here last year, where they finished fourth with ten time penalties.
“This is a big course as always, especially with the ups and the downs and the 10 minute course that you have to ride clever from the first moment till the last moment. It definitely will be no dressage competition, that’s for sure,” she says.
It certainly won’t. We’ll be bringing you an in-depth look at tomorrow’s challenge, plus a round-up of thoughts and opinions from many of the competitors, shortly — but suffice it to say for now that the intense, twisty, terrain-heavy track will be less a walk in the park and more a tour through a volcano. With just over a second separating our top two, and ten seconds separating third from twelfth, there’s very little margin for error — and a huge amount of potential for movement, even from the lower chunk of the leaderboard upwards.
Great Britain holds the lead going into cross-country on an aggregate score of 69.2, which sees Laura Collett, Oliver Townend, and Tom McEwen — all of whom are in the top ten — count, while Ros Canter, sitting equal fourteenth overnight, is the current drop score. They’re just 6.9 penalties — or just over 17 seconds — ahead of Germany, who’ve pulled themselves up by the bootstraps from seventh to second place today. It’s all pretty close, though: Germany has just a second in hand over the USA, who sit in bronze medal position overnight, and New Zealand is just 1.3 penalties — or just shy of three seconds — behind them.
Want to make sure you’re totally in the know before tomorrow? Click on through to read the three proceeding dressage reports and find out more about the competitors who’ve made their mark so far.
You can also catch up with the rest of today’s North American competitors in Shelby’s wrap-up here. And for an interesting overview? We’ve been crunching the numbers across the two days, and 88 tests, of dressage: in looking at how the tests were considered between judges, Peter Gray (CAN) gave the highest marks throughout, for an average score of 68.79% from H, and the judge at B was the harshest, averaging 67.99% from the side of the area at B. Christina Klingspor met in the middle with her average mark of 68.79%.
They disagreed the most on both Tim Price and Kazuma Tomoto where there was an 8.89-point spread. For the New Zealander, Christian Steiner (B) awarded a 69.07% compared to Peter Gray’s 77.96%. Kazuma, on the other hand, saw his highest marks from the centerline (77.78%) and lowest from B (68.89%.)
Stay tuned for more from Pratoni, and remember: when in Rome, Go Eventing.
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