Dressage at Le Lion: A Tough Start for a Top Field

Fit and focused: William Fox-Pitt’s Grafennacht heads to school. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Is there anything more charming than six-year-olds on tour? Despite baby brains and physical weakness – and genuine surprise at seeing actual crowds for the first time in their young lives – we’ve seen 42 of them gamely take to Mondial du Lion’s main arena in hot pursuit of the first glories of their long careers to come.

It’s not at all uncommon to see a big name at the top of Le Lion’s leaderboards – after all, the Eventing World Breeding Championship has established itself as both a valuable education and a lucrative shop window for some of the world’s top riders. But at the culmination of the dressage, first place in the six-year-old CCI2*-L is held by a less familiar face from a far less prolific flag.

 

Norway’s Yasmin Sanderson-Olsson owns just one horse, but the University of Leeds undergrad has confidently put all her eggs in that basket – and rightly so, if Inchello DHI‘s performance today is anything to go by. The Dutch Warmblood gelding (Chello III VDL x Barbarena O.A., by VDL Montreal) won in his last international run at Millstreet’s CCI2*-S for six-year-olds, and in his only other FEI event, he finished fourth. Today, he didn’t quite hit his personal best of 25.5, but the 26.3 he earned was good enough to edge the lead by less than half a penalty.

“It was hard when the rider before me came out and everyone clapped – he was like, ‘what’s going on?!’,” laughs Yaz, who is based in the UK and bought the horse as a four-year-old from Heidi and Ian Woodhead at DHI Event Horses. “I’ve trained with Ian [on the flat] for years, so the dressage is always quite good, we hope.”

Though the gelding is young, he’s had a significant amount of experience for his age – he competed in  the four-, five-, and six-year-old classes at Osberton’s Young Horse National Championships, as well as contesting the finale of the Burghley Young Event Horse series.

But, says Yaz, “he’s not done any Intermediates, which a lot of the six-year-olds would have done – I just don’t see any point in rushing him. This is only a two-star, so he doesn’t need to have done tonnes. I think Burghley was a good occasion for him; there were a lot of people watching, so hopefully he’ll go out there this weekend and perform. He’s usually pretty confident, and I’d like to see how far he can go.”

Sophie Leube and Sweetwaters Ziethen. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Germany’s Sophie Leube piloted the Trakehner stallion Sweetwaters Ziethen (Abendtanz x Zaria, by Campetot) to a close second place on an overnight score of 26.6, just a penalty point over his international personal best of 26.5, earned in the CCI2*-S at Hamm on his debut in August.

“He’s very cool, very clever, and while you never know with a stallion, he’s done very good tests the whole year,” says Sophie, who has ridden the horse since his four-year-old year and has contested Germany’s Bundeschampionat with him, too.

Piggy French and Cooley Lancer. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Piggy French debuted another stable star into the global spotlight, posting a 26.7 with the Lancer Stud’s Cooley Lancer (Coeur de Nobless M x Tante Catoche du Houssoit, by Ogano Sitte), registered with the Warmblood Studbook of Ireland. In his two internationals thus far, he’s been impressively consistent: he finished on his 29.4 dressage at Burgham CCI2*-S and just 0.4 over his 27.7 dressage at Rockingham CCI2*-S. But although Le Lion will represent a bigger challenge than either of those short-format competitions, a personal best – and third place after dressage – is a jolly good start by anyone’s estimation.

“I’d hoped [for a performance like this], but only as long as he’d had enough work – he’s been very bright since he got here,” says Piggy, who broke the record for the most international victories in a season at this month’s British Young Horse Championships at Osberton. “He felt really settled today, though. He’s a lovely horse – I wasn’t necessarily thinking he had to come to Lion, because I think he’s a higher-level horse, but he’s got the brain to deal with it so we’re here and we’re going to enjoy it. I’m hoping he’ll cope with the competition as well as you can hope for when they’re six, but it’ll be interesting, and a big learning curve for him.”

For Piggy, Le Lion is a welcome addendum, rather than a necessary building block, for her young horses’ careers.

“I don’t necessarily consider it essential, especially for the six-year-olds,” she says. “But if they can cope with it, then that’s great, because it’s such an amazing experience for them. But at seven, if you’re excited about them, they should be able to come here and cope with the pressure of being at Lion. It gets them used to the international field with the crowds – the French get very excited, so it’s all a good learning curve.”

Fourth place in the six-year-old CCI2*-L class is held overnight by Germany’s Kai-Steffen Meier, who piloted the Rheinlander gelding QC Rock and Roll (Rock Forever NRW x Delilah SL, by De Niro) to an unassailable 27.1.

“It was exactly as I was hoping,” says Kai, acknowledging that sometimes, with six-year-olds, that’s not quite the way it plays out. “He peaked here, and he was really on the spot – he’s a nice, trainable horse, and I’m really pleased with him.”

QC Rock and Roll made it to the final of the Bundeschampionat – Germany’s prestigious young horse championship – as a five-year-old, and again qualified this year, but Kai opted to focus on his fledgling international career instead.

“It’s good to bring them here, but you need to see a little bit if they’re ready,” says Kai. “This year, I had three or four qualified, with two six-year-olds that were very close with each other. I took this one because he felt a tiny bit more prepared at the moment, but if you looked at the results through the season for the other one, you might say that it would be the one to go first. I had two others qualified, too, but they’re not ready for all that. They need to be really good and ready in the head to come here and learn a lot.”

Australia’s Sammi Birch has only had the ride on Trisha Rickard’s Faerie Magnifico for a month, and although she finds herself in the high-pressure situation of catch-riding for Jonelle Price, she delivered the goods: her score of 27.6 puts the pair into fifth place overnight.

“I don’t know him particularly well, but the test was great,” says Sammi, deputising for Jonelle, who was unavailable for this competition. “The ground was really wet in there, so I had to be a little more cautious than I would have liked. But he’s a lovely little horse and he’s got a fantastic brain, so he just went in there and did his thing. Jonelle’s done a beautiful job producing him – I’m just enjoying the fun this weekend.”

Faerie Magnifico (Birkhof’s Grafenstolz TSF x Faerie Song Too, by Catherston Dazzler) benefits from an enviable damline: the British-bred Sport Horse is a maternal half-brother of Jonelle’s Luhmühlen winner Faerie Dianimo and Xavier Faer, who has had success at five-star with Tim Price.

Tom Carlile and Dartagnan de Beliard. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Sixth-placed Dartagnan de Beliard, ridden by France’s Tom Carlile, also boasts a quality damline: he’s a maternal half-sister to Birmane, the eight-year-old with whom Tom enjoyed success in Boekelo last week.

“I’ve known him since he was born,” says Tom, who has earned a reputation not just as a successful pilot at this competition, but as a prolific producer of high-quality young talent. As such, he’s au fait with breeding and bloodlines – and he rates the influence of the dam far higher than that of the sire.

“The stallion counts for 20%, and when you get the good dams, it’s more precious,” he says. “You maintain the qualities – you’ll find the same strengths on all the horses. I do appreciate dam lines; I think they have more value than the sire.”

The Selle Français stallion (Quite Easy x Royce de Kreisker, by Diamant de Semilly) has three wins from three international runs on his short but exciting record, which sees him average a sub-25 dressage.

“He was lovely to ride, though both horses have suffered from the state of the arena,” says Tom, whose business is based out of the same facility as Mondial du Lion. “The ground is exceptionally soft in there, which isn’t really fair to the horses. I was quite happy to have a late draw with him, but when I came in to familiarise and saw how deep it was, I thought actually, you’d be better off going at the beginning. He’s a really powerful horse, but he was just pushing into butter and going nowhere. I was hoping for [sub-25] today, but we just couldn’t get the bounce today. A 72% is tough on him, but that’s the way it is.”

Lara de Liedekerke-Meier and Hooney d’Arville. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Belgium’s Lara de Liedekerke-Meier followed close behind husband Kai, scoring a 29.4 for overnight 7th with homebred Hooney d’Arville. The Belgian Sport Horse mare has had something of a chequered preparation, with issues across the country in CCI2*-S sections at Arville and Waregem, but her pedigree is replete with Belgian eventing royalty: her dam, Nooney Blue, is out of the same Thoroughbred mare as Alpaga d’Arville, with whom Lara contested the European Championships and Boekelo this year. Nooney Blue, for her part, was Lara’s partner for the 2010 World Equestrian Games.

“I wasn’t actually expecting to be here,” says Lara. “There was a bit of drama with my Federation – they selected me while I shouldn’t be here, and then the fourth rider arrived while I was already here, so it wasn’t the best preparation. But I like this horse a lot – I expect maybe a bit too much of her, which isn’t always fair, so I tried today to just enjoy our moment and give her a nice time, and I think that’s what I did. I’m really happy with her.”

She’s followed by France’s Camille Lejeune and Dame Decoeur Tardonne, who posted a 29.5 for eighth place overnight. This is just a third international start for the Selle Français mare (Lando x Soade Tardonne, by Contender), who finished second in the French Six-Year-Old National Championship at Pompadour in September. Ninth place is held by Australia’s Kevin McNab, who debuts another horse for the Scuderia 1918 couture sneaker empire. Holsteiner gelding Scuderia 1918 Humphreys (Humphrey x Kimberley III, by Contender) holds his place on an overnight score of 30.1. The top ten is rounded out by France’s Nicolas Touzaint, who can boast one of the best success rates at this competition, and who rides Demoiselle Platine HDC, a Selle Français by Quite Easy II out of a Robin II Z mare.

The top ten after dressage in the six-year-old class.

The Seven-Year-Old CCI3*-L

Josephine Schnaufer and Viktor 107 take the lead. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

The Eventing World Breeding Championships got well underway with dressage for both the six- and seven-year-olds – but at the end of the day today, just one horse, and one studbook, could boast the top spot in each section. In the hotly-contested seven-year-old class, that horse was Viktor 107 (Vitalis x Scarlett, by Schumacher), ridden by rising German star Josephine Schnaufer, and the studbook was that of the Westphalian breed society. Together, the duo delivered a 26.7, showing a continuation of their sterling form at Bad Segeberg, where they produced a 24.6 in the CCI2*-S.

Tom McEwen and Brookfield Benjamin Bounce. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Tom McEwen sits second overnight with the Irish Sport Horse Brookfield Benjamin Bounce (Nazar x Ashmores Zoe, by Grange Bouncer), who made his international debut at Tattersalls last season with Kevin McNab, before moving to Ireland’s Patrick Whelan and ultimately to Tom, who began to campaign the gelding this spring. Since then, he’s notched up a second-place finish at Tattersalls’ CCIYH2*-L, a second at Camphire CCI3*-S in his debut at the level, and fifth at Gatcombe CCI3*-S.

“This has been a distant aim – a very distant one, actually, with no aim in direct circumstances at all, but he’s just got better and better and better,” says Tom. “To be honest, every time he’s come out he’s been right up there behind five-star horses having a good run. He’s jumped some great clears and he’s really coming along, although this is a different test than anything he’ll have faced before.”

Chris Burton and Coup de Coeur Dudevin. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Chris Burton and the Selle Français gelding Coup de Coeur Dudevin (Top Gun Semilly x Tiebreak Combehory, by Leprince des Bois) sit third after producing a 27.4 in the horse’s second trip to Le Lion d’Angers. He finished seventh in the six-year-old class last year.

Tim Lips and Herby. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

It’s not every seven-year-old – or, frankly, any seven-year-old – that comes to Le Lion having just run in a 90cm class, but that’s just what Dutch rider Tim Lips‘ Herby did prior to making his way to the World Championships.

“His owner and I share the ride,” explains Tim with a laugh. “So I will see how he cooperates tomorrow with it – it’s maybe not the ideal preparation, but okay, we did some cross-country training at home and he feels really good.”

Herby, who previously belonged to Evelien Hamers, a student of Tim’s, has had a busy 2019: it’s been his first international season after contesting the Belgian young horse circuit last year, and he began it with a bang, finishing second in a tough CCI2*-S at Chatsworth.

“I knew the horse for three and a half years already, since he was at our stable. She produced him until he was six, and he’d won almost all his classes as a five- and six-year-old. She asked me in the beginning of the year to take the ride and of course I was quite pleased – I know it’s a really nice horse. We did our first event – a national one – in April, and then we went to Chatsworth. At first we thought, ‘oh shit, these hills – maybe it’s a bit tough for him!’ But he gave me a good feeling. The plan was always to sell him, and after that there was a lot of interest. I thought, ‘I’m going to lose the ride’ – but I was very lucky that he was bought for me,” says Tim. His next run was his CCI2*-L debut at Renswoude, which he won, and he enjoyed a stint of international showjumping before finishing sixth in a CCI3*-S at Haras du Pin. Today, he scored a 28, allowing him to sit fifth overnight.

“The only other time he did a dressage test on grass at Chatsworth, and the ground is difficult today – I didn’t know how he’d cope with it,” says Tim. “But I never felt for one second that he was going to make a mistake. He’s maybe not the most ‘wow’ mover like Bayro, but he’s so consistent in everything, and that’s why he scores well.”

Astier Nicolas and Lumberton. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

In a day characterised by harsh marking, in which much of the class failed to meet their projected marks, it was a rare thing indeed to see a personal best. But that’s just what Thursday’s last combination in the ring did: Astier Nicolas and Lumberton (Hirtentanz x Laticosa, by Cosinus) posted a 28.5, besting their three-star record by almost a mark and a half and sitting sixth ahead of cross-country. But although Astier had planned the German Sport Horse’s season around Le Lion, targeting Belton CCI3*-S in March to lock in an early qualifying result, balancing the needs of a seven-year-old, he discovered, isn’t always so straightforward.

“I had high hopes, but this is very challenging ground, so I’m very proud of him – he was genuine and generous in giving me what he had,” says Astier, who bought the gelding from Kai-Steffen Meier at the end of his five-year-old year. “Last year, he did six-year-old classes, but this year, I got him qualified at Belton so that I could make the season made-to-measure for him – but actually, I was not a great tailor, because he feels a bit tired at the end of the season! But today, he delivered.”

Astier makes a point of bringing his young horses to Le Lion, which he regards as a vital stepping-stone to future success.

“I think if everything is done in quite a classic way, and if the horse is good enough, it’s very good to come here,” he says. “The long format is very useful to teach them, and I feel like even the good horses who are very easy on the cross-country feel quite tired at the end here at Le Lion, because it’s the first big atmosphere they’ll encounter in their early career. So they all become more adult from Le Lion. In other disciplines, the world championship for young horses is not always the right path to make the horse reach the top level and preserve him, but here, it is, definitely. It’s a good way to detect the horses’ ability and also to preserve and produce it. It’s the best place – it’s the difficulty, the length of the course, and the exposure to the public.”

Ingrid Klimke and Equistros Siena Just Do It. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Ingrid Klimke sits 7th overnight with Equistros Siena Just Do It, a Westphalian mare by Semper Fi and out of a Weltrat dam. This is a first CCI3*-L for the relatively experienced mare, who has finished second in her last three CCI3*-S competitions. Today, she scored a 28.9, bettering her average though not quite tipping her personal best. She’s followed by Vanessa Bölting and Ready To Go W (Rock Forever NRW x Weingold GD, by Weinberg), also representing Germany and the Westphalian Stud Book, who scored a 29.2 for 8th place.

Liz Halliday-Sharp and Cooley Moonshine. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

While it was an afternoon to celebrate in camp Nicolas, for the USA’s Liz Halliday-Sharp and Cooley Moonshine (Cobra x Kilpatrick Duchess, by Kings Master), it was a bittersweet 29.3 for 9th place. The Irish Sport Horse gelding, who led the first two phases here last year as a six-year-old after producing a 22.4, has gained a reputation for his prowess in this phase – but Liz confessed that she was disappointed with the mark awarded.

“He really struggles with bad ground, and it’s terrible in there – there are divots, and it’s a bog,” she says. “I was so pleased with him in there, and I’m disappointed about the mark – but it’s a little bit what you expect from an early draw here.”

Liz Halliday-Sharp and Flash Cooley. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Liz also sits 18th with Irish Sport Horse Flash Cooley (CSF Mr Kroon x Castlefield Ruby), who she considers much less experienced than Cooley Moonshine, despite their shared age.

“He had a bit of time off for a colic surgery at the beginning of his six-year-old year,” explains Liz, who bought the horse as a four-year-old, before Pru Dawes took over his ownership last year. “He lost loads of last year, and then he literally picked up, did two Novices, and finished third at the British Young Horse Championships. He was very green – like, jumping 800 feet over everything! Then he went to the Ocala Jockey Club and jumped double-clear there. He won his first CCI3*-L in Ocala this spring, so he’s just come on and on and on. Any question you ask him, he answers – even though he’s so green for his age. He really trusts me because I’ve had him for so long, but he’s so careful that you do need to look after him.”

Ireland’s Clare Abbott sits 10th on 29.7 with Jewelent (Valent x Bellaney Jewel), also registered with the Irish Sport Horse studbook. This is a second CCI3*-L for the gelding, who finished seventh in his last run at Millstreet.

William Fox-Pitt and Grafennacht. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

William Fox-Pitt lies =11th overnight with Oldenburg mare Grafennacht, who was produced through her five-year-old year by fellow British rider Tom Jackson. It’s been Fox-Pitt behind the wheel for the entirety of her five-strong international career, though, which saw her become Reserve National Seven-Year-Old Champion at Osberton at the beginning of this month.

“Sue [Eggleton, the horse’s owner] is great friends with the woman who sold me Georgisaurus, so when she and Tom decided to part ways, the link was already there,” explains William. “Sue bred her and always intended to keep her, but now she’s had to put her on the market for financial reasons. I need to find somebody to buy her for me, really!”

This is William’s first appearance at Le Lion since the near-catastrophic accident here in 2015 that put him in a coma. But his absence from the event hasn’t been due to a desire to avoid it – instead, he says, it’s just been about the horses’ needs, as usual.

“I’ve had a few young horses who could have come, but I’ve felt they weren’t quite ready,” he explains. “But she’s ready. She was a bit stupid in her test, but she’s ready. We always say they can go better, but she’s very good at dressage normally, and in the test she was just quite good. I’m certainly not scared, and I’m not thinking, ‘god, Le Lion d’Angers is a frightening place’ – I have no recollection of the fall at all. I’ve been doing a lot of competing and I’ve been normal, so I’m just hoping I’ll be normal on Saturday!”

Ludwig Svennerstal and Magnolia. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Grafennacht shares eleventh place with Ludwig Svennerstal‘s Magnolia, a Swedish Warmblood mare by Canterbury out of a Dardel mare.

“I’m very happy with her; she’s a very good horse,” says Ludwig, who sourced the mare in Sweden two years ago. “She’s still a bit weak, but she really has so much ability. She did her job today.”

Maxime Livio and Casanova des Isles. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Home-side hero Maxime Livio will head into cross-country in =14th place with the Selle Français stallion Casanova des Isles, who was originally produced by Camille Lejeune and who, under Maxime, hasn’t finished outside of the top ten in any of his four internationals this season. Sired by Grand Prix showjumper Flipper d’Elle and out of a Darco mare, he’s bred to jump – but curiously, this has been his weak spot in his otherwise impressive international career. He’s yet to jump deliver a clear round over the poles in an FEI competition, and at Le Lion, the final phase tends to be the most influential.

Spain’s Alexis Gomez and Madagascar C. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

There’s a curious case of role reversal for Alexis Gomez and Madagascar C: while the rider is Belgian-based but Spanish-bred, the gelding is a Belgian Warmblood (Copitol C x Kalotta, by Landgraf I) that was bred in Spain at Eduardo Campos’ and Eva van Eeckhoudt’s Yeguada Campos. This is a CCI3*-L debut for the horse, who was produced to CCI2*-S by Belgium’s Audrey Franche.

“I’m very happy with the horse,” says Alexis, who was one of many riders to note the poor footing in the sodden main arena, but scored a 30.2 for =14th nonetheless. “The ground was terrible, but he was so nice – not very hot, and very concentrated. But this is the first big competition for him – it’s just our first year together, and I’m so glad to be here, but we will see.”

Tom Carlile and Cestuy la de l’Esques. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

France’s Tom Carlile is used to being in the spotlight at Le Lion – after all, it’s the base for his own business, and his seemingly endless string of talented young horses have proven their worth over this track time and time and time again. Today, he couldn’t quite edge the lead, but riding the Anglo-Arab stallion Cestuy la de l’Esques (King Size x Gaia of Ultan, by Ultan), he nabbed overnight 17th place on a score of 30.3. Though this is the stallion’s first long-format three-star, he’s certainly not short of experience: he’s already taken wins at CCI3*-S (Chaumont en Vexin) and CCI2*-S (Lausanne).

“I have a really good relationship with him and I was really happy,” says Tom. “He, too, suffered a little bit with the ground – he’s a small horse, and not the most powerful, so he was just trying to unstick himself. On the last serpentine he struggled a bit and broke into trot for a stride, but it was nothing, really – he stayed really round and supple even when he did that. So a little mistake, but I think the judges ought to be a little bit lenient when they see ground conditions like that.”

Kitty King and Cristal Fontaine. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Last year’s six-year-old World Champion Cristal Fontaine, ridden by Kitty King, failed to live up to the mid-20s mark he produced here last year, though it can’t be said that a year of further development and education hasn’t suited him: in his carriage, his movement, and, of course, his colour and breeding, he’s a convincing döppelganger for stablemate Vendredi Biats, also a Selle Français. A 3 and two 4s in the canter serpentine precluded a sub-30 score, but his consistency elsewhere paid off – the seven-year-old sits 19th on 30.5.

A kiss for Cristal Fontaine from groom Chloe Fry. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

But will this be enough for the striking grey to take back-to-back titles? It doesn’t look likely. In fact, the winner of either class at Le Lion has never been lower than seventh after the dressage, though lower-placed horses – such as Upsilon, thirteenth after dressage in this class in 2015 – have recorded podium finishes. Though the cross-country here is educational, it’s rarely influential: instead, the showjumping course tends to cause the most movement in the seven-year-old rankings. Luckily for Cristal Fontaine, he’s only ever pulled one rail in his nine-strong international career.

The top ten going into cross-country in the seven-year-old class.

The State of the Studbooks

The Irish Sport Horse studbook can boast a narrow lead at the moment in the breed society rankings, which are calculated using an aggregate score of the three top representatives across the two classes. It’s a good day indeed for Richard Sheane of Cooley Farm: both Miss Cooley, ridden by Oliver Townend, and Cooley Moonshine, ridden by Liz Halliday-Sharp, contribute to the Irish lead.

Just behind the Irish horses on 84.4 is the KWPN studbook, ably led by six-year-old leader Inchello DHI. Third place is held by the Studbook Français du Cheval Selle Français, for whom Chris Burton‘s Coup de Coeur Dudevin is the leading score.

The studbook podium at the end of dressage.

Tomorrow sees us head into cross-country, which is always an exciting prospect at Le Lion – artistic and beautifully presented, it’s one of the most striking courses in the world.

It’s also the first chance these talented young horses will get to face championship crowds – and the French sure do love this event and all its pomp and circumstance. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s full report, and check out the running order for the six-year-old class (from 10.00 a.m. local/9.00 a.m. British time/4.00 a.m. Eastern) here, and the seven-year-old class (from 13.00 p.m. local/12.00 p.m. British/7.00 a.m. Eastern)  here.

As always – Go Eventing!

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