Welcome back to Le Lion d’Angers, the gathering point for four-legged child prodigies and one very, very large spider. Today saw us head out onto the beautifully-designed cross-country course, where much excitement ensued.
The CCI2*-L for six-year-olds, as is typical, didn’t cause any enormous dramas – in fact, of the 42 starters, only four failed to complete the confidence-building course, designed to help these talented youngsters progress and grow. Of the 38 finishers, 34 would cross the finish line without jumping penalties, and 23 would record double-clear rounds, giving their horses a valuable education in crowd-control in the process.
This is the thing with Le Lion: while it’s not designed to be the type of championship track and tricks, traps, and separates the wheat from the chaff with ‘gimme’ 20s, it’s an enormous step up from anything these young horses will have faced before. Yes, there are harder CCI2*-L and CCI3*-L courses, but there isn’t another place in the world that allows a horse of this age and level to meet enthusiastic crowds of spectators, who cheer and shout and lean across the ropes in their droves to catch a glimpse of the action. The real test is this: can a fresh-faced youngster rise to the challenge and greet the crowds as a welcome motivator, or will their attention and focus falter, giving their rider the tough job of setting it back on track? For horses intended for the upper levels, it’s an undeniably useful primer for the championship tracks and five-star courses to come.
UK-based Norwegian rider Yasmin Olsson-Sanderson should be feeling exceptionally happy with these future prospects after Inchello DHI, the only horse she owns, embraced the crowds as his own personal fan club, making easy work of Pierre Michelet’s beautifully-presented track to sail home clear within the time allowed.
“It’s such an amazing event, and they make such an effort with the decorations – every fence is something different to look at,” enthuses Yaz. “He quite enjoyed the crowds; he thought everyone was here just for him!”
Fresh from university herself and based with boyfriend Hector Payne in Hampshire, Yaz finds herself at a critical juncture in her career – and at the point where many talented riders have to choose between a ‘normal’ career and pursuing the eventing dream full-time, the impressive up-and-comer has opted for the latter.
“It was always the plan to do horses – I ride a lot being based with Hector, and I go to tonnes of events even if I’m not riding,” says Yaz, who cut her teeth in the West Hampshire Pony Club, and was convinced to try eventing after a lesson with Kiwi eventer Bruce Haskell when she was eleven. “He said we should get an event pony, and so I started when I was twelve. No one really did it then, because everyone stayed with the Pony Club.”
Yaz worked her way through British Pony Trials, and the Norwegian Federation spotted her talent. Aware of her heritage, which sees her claim her flag through her Norwegian mother, they implored her to ride for them. After some consideration about the opportunities this switch could afford her, she made the decision to do so.
“I said no originally – I wanted to stay and do the pony trials for another year,” she says. “I did all the under-16s, but then I thought, ‘actually, it’s quite a sensible decision.’ Why not, if you can?”
A gap year spent working for British eventer Kirsty Johnson strengthened her resolve, and then the age-old question reared its head: would she go to university, or stay on the yard? Ultimately, she decided it would be best to give herself options, and this spring, she graduated with a degree in English Literature and History from the University of Leeds. But her studies proved useful in another, unexpected way.
“Leeds have a massive sport programme – I was a Sport Scholar for three years, and it was amazing to have access to strength and conditioning programmes, sports psychology, and so much more. It was so useful, and they were really helpful in allowing me to make up what I missed for eventing,” she explains.
Just having one horse competing – plus an exciting three-year-old at home – might seem a tricky start for a fledgling career as a professional, but Yaz has found a system that functions well for her, and one that keeps her dreaming, at the 20-box yard she shares with Hector, who has competed to five-star.
“I go to a lot of events and people ask if I’m riding, and I’m like, ‘no, I have one horse – I can’t ride at every event,'” she laughs. “I’m in a transition phase, but I’ve been counting down the weeks until uni was done and I could just concentrate on it. I had an exam on the Thursday of Tatts; I flew out that night, and then came home on Sunday night and had another exam on the Monday. It was ridiculous, and it’s so nice to not be juggling. Now, I’d like to buy another three-year-old, and I hope this will help me connect with some potential Norwegian owners – it’s amazing how they’ve connected with the sport. They’re all so supportive, and it’s nice to give them something to be proud of.”
Germany’s Sophie Leube and the Trakehner stallion Sweetwaters Ziethen remain in second place, a trend that continues down to the sixth spot on the leaderboard. But his success this week comes at the culmination of a season that hasn’t necessarily been centred around this one goal.
“He’s a breeding stallion, and so he’s had other aims this year – he had to get in the studbook, to be allowed to breed,” explains Sophie. “He couldn’t do events and cross-country all year; he had to do jumping tests and his licensing. But he’s a very cool horse, and very relaxed, and for a young stallion he’s very concentrated. In the dressage, he felt like he has done this very often, but he hasn’t – he really showed what he can do. Today was the same; he walks to the start box focused but super relaxed, and then when he knows it’s starting time, he’s on fire.”
Piggy French and Cooley Lancer hold their spot in third place, giving the Team GB camp much to celebrate as they look ahead to what could be a superlatively successful conclusion to the week.
“It’s a good surprise [to be this well-placed], but then he’s a lovely horse and I wouldn’t bring him here if I thought he wasn’t ready for this event. There was no surprise today with his ability and how good he felt. It’s great to be in the top three, but I did come here to be competitive,” says Piggy, for whom Cooley Lancer was bought as a five-year-old by the Lancer Stud from Ireland’s Cooley Farm.
“Richard Sheane [of Cooley Farm] thought he was a very good horse, and this has always been the aim – it’s nice when it all goes to plan. It’s the whole occasion, here, for six-year-olds especially – the crowds, going for nine minutes, having lots to take in for a longer time. Even getting to the start on a six-year-old can be more entertaining than usual! But the course is very inviting and fair, and the horses have time to understand it. As long as they’ve done enough in their education so far, it’s a very fair test.”
Piggy hopes to bring the gelding back for the seven-year-old class next year, but in the meantime, she’s planning a slightly different route for him.
“He’s a horse I won’t event a lot – he’s naturally very brave, and he’s a big horse, so he doesn’t need to run too much,” she explains. “I’ll try to get him qualified early enough next year that he can run on the good spring ground, and then I can take the pressure off in the summer – he’ll do a lot of showjumping, more than I would normally do with my horses.”
Germany’s Kai-Steffen Meier remains in fourth place with QC Rock and Roll, while Australia’s Sammi Birch holds onto fifth place with catch-ride Faerie Magnifico, who she’s competing for Jonelle Price this week.
There’s plenty left to be done, though: just a solitary pole covers the top seven in this class.
There was drama early on in the seven-year-old CCI3*-L, when overnight leaders Josephine Schnaufer and Viktor 107 picked up twenty penalties in the formative part of the course. Though the impressive, mature-looking gelding left the start box with conviction, his ground-covering stride proved to be his detriment as he landed from the significant drop at 6AB and failed to regroup in time for the second element, situated on a 90-degree turn to the left on this surfaced section of the course. Though Josephine attempted to wrestle back some control, the damage was done – though the pair cleared the C element nicely and continued well afterwards.
But was it? After some deliberation by the ground jury, Josephine’s 20 disappeared, leaving behind just 3.6 time penalties. It was still enough to demand a forfeiture of the top spot, but Josephine had scraped her way to redemption by a matter of millimetres: her quick-thinking serpentine to the left, rather than to the right, allowed her to wiggle her way back to the fence, just breathing on her own tracks as she did so. She now lies tenth overnight as we head into tomorrow’s showjumping.
Josephine’s snafu – and the extra time it cost her – opened the door for a new overnight leader, and Tom McEwen left nothing open to consideration as he piloted the rangy Brookfield Benjamin Bounce to a clear round, three seconds within the optimum time of 9:15.
“I’ve had him for just about a year, so everything so far has just been about getting to know him,” he says. “Everything he’s done leading up to this he’s done really well, but he’s a big horse and very rangy, and with a lot of power, so a lot of it has been about developing his balance.”
Despite his size, and the relative ungainliness that ordinarily accompanies it in a young horse, Brookfield Benjamin Bounce coped well in the bog yesterday to post a score of 27.2, which he remains on after the second phase.
“A lot of people talked about the conditions yesterday, but actually, it suited him,” says Tom. Today’s main ask – the exposure to crowds of over 20,000 – didn’t faze him either.
“He didn’t notice any of the people today, and for the young horses that have never seen that, it’s a big ask. It’s not a video I’ll want to keep to watch back in ten years’ time, but we got it done. He was young and green, but we learned a few things that we’ll be able to put into practice differently next time.”
With the prospect of showjumping, arguably Le Lion’s most influential phase, tomorrow, Tom is remaining pragmatic about the young horse’s chances.
“He jumped brilliantly in his last three-day at Tattersalls, and for me, he’d be a lot more used to these conditions than many horses,” he says. “But it’s a bit of a lottery. There’s so many of us, so tight together, and the three horses you see at the top of the leaderboard today could be a different three tomorrow. This is all just a stepping stone, a milestone for him – next year is a new year, and we’ll make further plans after he has a holiday.”
Chris Burton showed yet again why he’s widely regarded as one of the most economical cross-country riders on the circuit, cruising home in nine minutes and eleven seconds on Coup de Coeur Dudevin to step up to second place overnight.
Oliver Townend has cruised to success on several offspring of Ramiro B, the Belgian Warmblood stallion who acted as a foundation sire for his breeding operation Harthill Stud, which he operates in conjunction with Nina Barbour. We’re used to seeing those offspring at the top levels – Cooley Masterclass, for example, won Kentucky CCI5* this year and in 2018, and was part of the silver medal-winning Great British team at this year’s European Championships, and Cooley SRS was second at Badminton last year – but in Miss Cooley, who sits third overnight after a speedy clear, he has a young gun waiting in the wings for her own chance to shine.
“I’ve had her since she was four years old,” says Oliver. “She’s a very tough mare, and overly enthusiastic – she can be a little bit sensitive and she always wants to do everything a little bit quicker than you’d like, but she’s not short of talent or enthusiasm, and she wants to do the job. I couldn’t be more impressed with her this week, but as Tom [McEwen] says, tomorrow is a lottery.”
For Oliver, the young mare’s week so far has been a welcome indicator of her promise for the future.
“I think she’s a top class horse, and this has been a big milestone. You never know if they’ll get the trip and keep the enthusiasm when they get a little tired, but today, she stuck her head down and dug deep even when she got a little tired. The mental tiredness is the big thing with these young horses, but she answered all the questions in the way I’d expect a top-class horse to, so I see no reason why she couldn’t be a top-class horse in the future.”
Astier Nicolas leads the way for the home nation, lying fourth with Lumberton despite a sticky moment at the tough combination at 6AB and 6C, where we saw Josephine falter and several horses corkscrew their way over the second element.
Dutch superstar Tim Lips made the trip easily with Herby, despite some unusual preparation: the KWPN gelding had popped around a 90cm event as his final run before Le Lion, piloted by his owner, who shares the ride with Tim. Nonetheless, some focussed schooling at home allowed him to get his head in the game for a three-star, and he was one of seventeen horses to finish the day on their dressage score.
It was a good day in the office for Liz Halliday-Sharp, whose clear rounds on Flash Cooley, who finished inside the time, and Cooley Moonshine, who added 1.2 time penalties, sees her in eleventh and thirteenth place, respectively, at the end of the day.
The strength of Flash Cooley’s 9:09 round allowed him to climb seven places from 18th, despite being arguably greener than stablemate Cooley Moonshine, who contested the six-year-old class here last year and led after the first two phases. Flash Cooley’s limited life experience, the result of a minor colic surgery, didn’t show on course though, and Liz found the compact youngster improving stride by stride as he tackled the track.
“He was totally amazing, to be honest,” she says. “He gets better every time out, and he’s not seen crowds like that before – I wasn’t sure how he’d cope with it. But he’s a little nippy thing, and the track really suited him. Now he’s happy in his box thinking he’s the bee’s knees, which is just great.”
Cooley Moonshine lost a couple of seconds at the second water, where Liz had to enact some expert piloting to help the keen gelding through the bending line, which provided a plethora of distractions from the assembled audience.
“He’s a big, bold, galloping horse – the kind that needs to go around Burghley, not these twisty tracks,” she laughs. “I was disappointed to have the time faults, and there were probably a few more places where I could have saved some time, but he can be tricky in the mouth. He’s strong, but at the same time he needs you to be right there with him – I don’t think I have it quite right yet with the bitting, but we’re nearly there.”
Now, in spitting distance of the top ten, Liz is grateful for unlikely blessings – like running at boggy Ballindenisk, which gives her horses an edge over many of the continental entries, who won’t have encountered footing like they’ll need to jump out of tomorrow.
“We’re within a rail of the lead, which is just incredible,” says Liz. “I never thought I’d say that jumping at Ballindenisk would be useful, but it was! Now, we just have to see – the hardest thing about this venue is that the warm-up is so different. They go in and they have something totally different to deal with. But they’re both very good jumpers and they’ve jumped out of a bog before.”
Typically, we see a tougher track for the seven-year-olds than the six-year-olds – not because it’s a level higher, of course, but because it applies an increased relative amount of pressure and technicality. This year, the general consensus was that the twisty track, which turns through the woods and makes use of sharp inclines and descents, was more intense than usual.
“The ground conditions definitely played into it, but I thought the course and the time were tougher than last year – running it this way around makes it more intense,” says Liz.
Of the 66 starters – diminished by one after the overnight withdrawal of Ireland’s Camilla Spears and BT Martins Masterpiece – 60 would complete, while 42 would complete without adding jumping, flag, or frangible penalties. 17 would come home clear and inside the time.
What comes next?
Tomorrow kicks off with the final horse inspection, which takes place at 8.30 a.m. local time/7.30 a.m. British/2.30 a.m. Eastern time. The six-year-olds will present first, followed directly by the seven-year-olds. The showjumping for the six-year-olds will commence at 11.00 a.m./10.00 a.m. British/5.00 a.m. Eastern, while the seven-year-olds take to the main arena at 14.30 p.m./13.30 p.m. British time/8.30 a.m. Eastern.
If the cross-country at Le Lion is known for being reasonably nurturing, the showjumping is where the true championship challenge lies, and for the seven-year-olds particularly, it tends to be enormously influential. This phase will see us back in the main arena – the one you may recall as having difficult, holding ground on Thursday and Friday – and with the better part of a hundred horses jumping on it, it’s certain to play its part in the outcome of this week’s competition. Though the riders have spoken out in favour of moving the showjumping to the spacious schooling arena, which has a surface, the competition looks likely to stay in its normal place – but there are widespread calls to install a surface in the main arena for future competitions. It’s easy to see why: this is a world championship, and one that takes place in rainy October, and when we’re looking at horses that we hope will be the future of the sport, it makes little sense to risk breaking their confidences – and their hearts – by asking them to perform in conditions that work against them. Our prediction? A spate of overnight withdrawals – not because the cross-country taxed their horses, but because there’s little benefit to be gleaned from asking a non-competitive youngster to tackle a notoriously hard showjumping course in deep, holding mud.
We’ll be bringing you the full report tomorrow – until next time, folks, Go Eventing.