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This afternoon at Le Lion d’Angers, as the final session of dressage reached its climax, the Frenchest of French things happened.
“Zees ‘Cute Girl’ eez not zat cute,” sniffed a woman sitting on the cold concrete bleachers dismissively, as Australia’s Kevin McNab trotted into the arena on the thusly dubbed Holsteiner, who he rides for prolific owners Scuderia 1918. But neither Kevin nor his owners — nor, in fact, Cute Girl herself — should take it that seriously: one of life’s greatest sports is proving French women of a certain generation wholly wrong, and both rider and (yes, very cute) horse did just that, soaring straight to the top of the Seven-Year-Old leaderboard with their excellent score of 26.9.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the daughter of Coventry at Le Lion — “though I’d hoped you wouldn’t bring last year up,” laughs Kevin after his test. The mare made two-thirds of an excellent showing here last year, sitting fourth going into cross-country after delivering her then-personal best on her debut in the major atmosphere here. On cross-country, she was every bit as impressive — but an unfortunate technical elimination for a skipped fence meant that her competition ended there. It wasn’t, perhaps, a great week on paper, but the education she picked up over the course of the event have helped to shape her into the young professional she is now.
“She’s really improved, and she feels really settled and workmanlike now. She was great to ride in there; I came down [to warm up] a little late, but when I started I thought, ‘I’m still too early!’ She was really settled in, and she felt great and was really easy to ride in there,” says Kevin.
That mental stability allowed Cute Girl to nail down a significant FEI personal best in what is her first-ever CCI3*-L, and though she might have been skating under the radar after last year’s error, she certainly looks set on her path to redemption this time around.
“It did take away from her last year, which was unfortunate because she didn’t deserve that,” says Kevin. “But I have to say, even though she didn’t showjump here last year, she’s come back a lot more mature and a lot easier to ride, so hopefully the rest of it stays this smooth!”
Kevin takes over the lead from Laura Collett and Outback, who now sit second on 27.2, followed by Hayden Hankey and Heads Up, who move from second to third on 27.4. Fourth place is the domain of yesterday’s third-placed Selina Milnes and Cooley Snapchat, who posted a 27.5 — and if you’d like to refresh your memory on any of these impressive (and yes, all British!) tests, head over to yesterday’s report for the full story.
Another returning competitor made a very strong showing and in the process, contributed to an ultra-competitive British entry in this class. Oliver Townend‘s Cooley Rosalent finished second in the Six-Year-Old World Championship last year, but she actually began her week in fifth place — and today, she finds herself in exactly the same spot, holding equal dominion over fifth place with fellow Brits Sarah Bullimore and Evita AP on 27.9.
It’s certainly an excellent starting point, and throughout her FEI career, the exceptional Irish Sport Horse mare by Valent has proven almost preternaturally consistent, never picking up a single cross-country time or jumping penalty in any of her runs, and so a climb up the leaderboard feels almost inevitable. But that must be a bittersweet knowledge for Oliver, who thinks an enormous amount of the horse, and who was piloting her into a nearly guaranteed lead until he made an error of course at the very tail end of the test. While he was far from the only rider to preemptively ride his final centreline, he was certainly the one who paid the biggest price.
France’s Tom Carlile returned to the arena with another daughter of his great stallion Upsilon today, and just as he had with the second-placed six-year-old Fair Lady des Broucks yesterday, he landed firmly within the top ten. This time, he was aboard Etoile de Beliard, who looks much more her grey father’s daughter, and who moved with a surprising deftness and balance for her considerable size to earn a 29.3, allowing her to take ninth place going into cross-country.
Rounding out the top ten — and taking the top spot as EN’s horse of the day — was Lillybelle EA, the exceptionally pretty Oldenburg mount of Germany’s Anna Siemer. She was the consummate showgirl in the ring, pointing her toes and arching her elegant neck en route to a 29.5, but behind that delicate exterior, Anna tells us, the daughter of Diarado has a seriously spicy side.
“She’s the beauty and the beast in one person,” she says with a grin, reminiscing over a recent hiccup in which the mare bucked off her groom, Ayleen Stuhr, in a prize-giving ceremony that she’d borrowed her for after winning the class with another horse.
“It was a rodeo style buck-off, not a little one — it was really unbelievable! So Ayleen comes off, and we’re both running after her, and finally we grab her and Ayleen just says, ‘you know, she’s a bitch!’,” she laughs. “She’s a pretty girl, but she’s the bloodiest beast we have in the whole stable. She’s not allowed to go out with another horse in the field, because she’d kill them, eat them, and spit them out. She’s like, ‘hi, here I am, I hate you!'”
Lillybelle’s disdain for other horses meant that Anna had her work cut out with her in warm-up rings in the mare’s first couple of seasons out eventing.
“It was kind of a problem because she was like, ‘eyes on me, please — what are you doing in here with me?!’ And she gets pissed when there are other horses in the warm-up making mistakes, like, ‘what are you even doing? If you can’t do this, get out!'”
This week, the feisty, talented mare is wholly in her element: as Anna’s sole entry here, she’s enjoying all the fuss and attention, and she got to travel down on her own in the lorry — a queenly luxury befitting her astronomical self-confidence. And though Anna is quick to make a fond joke about her mare, she, too, believes wholeheartedly in the horse.
“Anything could happen this week, but it’s all an adventure, and I love adventures,” she says. “Here we are, and I’m so lucky to be here. I’m glad I can ride her, and glad to have good owners — and it makes me really proud that they’re here.”
Our final US combination, Avery Klunick and her own Pisco Sour, delivered a sweet, solid test this afternoon to put a 36.8 on the board for 45th place. Though Avery had hoped to find herself higher up the leaderboard at this early stage, she was delighted with how the Irish Sport Horse gelding by Metropole handled the atmosphere in the arena, which is serving as a crucial part of his long-term education.
“I’m really happy with how he handled all of it,” she says. “It’s kind of hard because we’ve been here all week, and this is the first time I’ve done a long-format like this with him, so I’ve been thinking the whole time, ‘am I doing too much? Am I not doing enough?’ And then he came out today and just felt a bit like, ‘please, no more dressage!’ But he went in the ring and tried really hard, and he’s getting there. It’s a lot to do for a seven-year-old!”
Avery bought the gelding as a three-year-old from Ireland’s Monart Sale, and throughout his production, she’s had Le Lion in the back of her mind as a goal. But the pieces really started to fall into place as a result of the pandemic: though Avery is a well-seasoned rider and has competed at CCI5*, she actually works full-time in finance and just competes Pisco in her spare time. When COVID forced office-based workers to take their jobs home with them, she spotted a golden opportunity to balance her time extra-creatively, and began looking into basing herself in Europe to put the finishing touches on her gelding’s seven-year-old campaign.
“It’s really lucky,” she says. “I was in Aiken last winter getting lessons from Boyd Martin, who I worked for when I had my Kentucky horse, and I said to him, ‘hey, I’m kind of thinking that he might be able to go to France and do this — where should I go?’ And Boyd was like, ‘I’m calling Kevin McNab right now.'”
Avery had previously met Kevin and his wife, Emma, at Luhmühlen Horse Trials, where she’d groomed for Boyd purely by dint of being his only staff member with a passport at that time, and that familiarity meant that she immediately felt comfortable with her new family unit in the south of England, where she’s been based with the McNabs since June. She spends her mornings training and returns to her ‘desk job’ from 2pm until 1am, and although that slightly bonkers timetable takes commitment, she’s relishing every moment.
“It’s literally just been such a game-changer. I want to be as competitive as I can, and I’m also trying to enjoy it as much as I can — and I’m learning so much from them,” she says. “The horses get better, everyone gets better with the amount you go out to all these amazing competitions. I never want to go home — I love it!”
The top of the Six-Year-Old Championship remains largely intact, with 20-year-old German prodigy Anna Lena Schaaf maintaining her day one lead with her own Lagona 4 on their excellent score of 25.8. Second place, too, remains firmly in the grasp of France’s Tom Carlile and Fair Lady des Broucks, who posted a 26.5.
Third place, though, goes to a new entry, and it’s great news for the home nation and for the superb Selle Français studbook, which is enjoying a prolonged and well-deserved moment in the sun. Nicolas Touzaint and the elegant, typey Fibonacci de Lessac HDC, by Carinjho HDC and out of a Bright Silver mare, put up a strong fight in their hunt for the lead but ultimately missed out by a mere penalty, putting them into third place on a 26.8 as we look towards tomorrow’s cross-country. Behind them, Germany’s Julia Krajewski sits pretty in fourth place with ChinTonic 3, a full brother to the excellent Chipmunk FRH, on their Thursday mark of 27.9.
As in the seven-year-old class, there’s a two-way tie for fifth place in the six-year-old line-up, too. Ireland’s Sarah Ennis and the elegant Dorough Ferro Class Act laid down a polished, mature effort to earn themselves a 28, putting them on even keel with Great Britain’s Izzy Taylor and SBH Big Wall. For Sarah, this is a stepping stone en route to a pretty serious destination — and it’s a hugely gratifying one to tick off the list.
“He came into my yard on livery last February, and he was always for sale, so I got an owner to invest with me,” she says. “We bought him at Millstreet in August, and we’re really excited about him; our aim is the Paris Olympics, and while he’ll be a little young — he’ll only be nine — he’s so exciting. He’s gorgeous, and his personality’s gorgeous — he moves, he jumps, he’s brave, and you couldn’t ask for more. He’s much loved by us all.”
While he’s been a perfect gentleman to produce so far, Sarah’s felt that special something more in the Goresbridge Go For Gold graduate.
“There’s definitely a fire inside him, but he’s very good at actually controlling it. That can be really hard, especially at this age, so I’m really excited by this one,” she says.
Tomorrow sees our competitors dive into the main event, and it’s certainly always a special one here at Le Lion d’Angers: after running behind closed doors last year, the organising team is expecting to see the return of the usual enormous, enthusiastic crowds, and course designer Pierre Michelet has delivered another strikingly beautiful, fair, and sympathetic set of courses for our burgeoning young superstars to tackle. The six-year-olds will be first out of the box starting at 10.00 a.m. local time/9.00 a.m. UK/4.00 a.m. Eastern, while the seven-year-olds will follow along from 13.00 local/12.00 p.m. UK/7.00 a.m. Eastern. We’ll be taking a closer look at the artistic course they’ll be facing, so keep it locked on to EN to get to grips with the challenge ahead.
Until then: Go Eventing!