Isn’t it nice when some unknown comes from nowhere, baffling the punters and confounding the form guide writers, to make their debut at a championship? Isn’t it even more magical when that unfamiliar face goes on to take the lead at said championship? That’s exactly what happened today at the Longines FEI European Championships, when a nice German chap called Michael Jung stormed into the lead on a remarkable 20.9. He seems nice – just don’t mention the war.
We kid, of course. There were two hot favourites for the lead today – both Michael and fischerChipmunk FRH and teammate Ingrid Klimke and SAP Hale Bob OLD were expected to post top-of-the-leaderboard marks, with the latter edging ahead in the projections. But they would fall short – just – delivering a 22.2 for second place. The leading test, which nearly equals the combination’s personal best of 20.4 at Jardy, was only the pair’s second effort at CCI4*-L – Michael took the ride over from fellow German Julia Krajewski over the winter, and has been using this season to develop a relationship with the eleven-year-old Hanoverian. Though we haven’t seen them hit the sub-20 marks that Chipmunk achieved with his former partner, they’ve been edging ever closer, and their test today showed a tantalising glimpse of the extra sparkle the horse can bring.
“He’s really a great horse,” says Michael, who finished second with the gelding at Aachen last month. “He has a lot of power, he’s very clever, and he’s very pretty – and he’s a super moving horse. It’s difficult to get the balance between all the power you need for the dressage marks to be at their maximum, because on the other side, you need a relaxed horse, and you need him to be calm and quiet. Everything needs to be easy. I feel very happy with him; he was really good to enjoy.”
That quest for the perfect balance resulted in a minor wobble for the pair when Chipmunk broke to trot in the extended walk.
“The walk was a bit slow, so I asked for more and he started trotting. These are the misunderstandings that can happen when you try to get more marks – you take a little bit of risk also,” Michael explains.
A similarly small mistake crept into Ingrid Klimke‘s test with SAP Hale Bob OLD, and so the reigning champions were happy to settle for second overnight on a score of 22.2.
“Bobby did a wonderful job – it was pure fun,” she enthuses. “He was so proud – I was really laughing because he was a bit excited before he went in, and as he entered he said, ‘okay, right, I know my job here!’ And he was so proud; he was trotting like a dressage horse – we just had one little stumble [in the medium trot].”
Ingrid and ‘Bobby’ hold a unique accolade – their finishing score of 20.2 at the Strzegom Europeans in 2017 was the lowest-ever finishing score since the competition’s inception in 1953. If they can win this week, Ingrid will become the second-ever person to win back-to-back Europeans on the same horse – while Michael has won three consecutively, he won them on different horses. Pippa Funnell is the only person to manage it so far, winning in 1999 and 2001 with Supreme Rock. For now, though, Ingrid is focusing on taking it one phase at a time – and so is Bobby.
“He’s so mature now that he knows exactly what each day is,” she explains with a smile. “He’s supple, free, and ambitious in a positive way, and he really opens up and enjoys [each phase] a lot.”
While their score today doesn’t quite match the lofty heights of the 16.4 they scored at Wiesbaden and the 20.7 they earned at Aachen, Ingrid remains pragmatic.
“I really liked the Aachen and Wiesbaden tests, and I couldn’t feel a difference today – but you never know what the judges will do, so you can only do your best, and I think we did that.”
Third place becomes the domain of overnight leaders Laura Collett and London 52 – and Laura, who rides as an individual this week, has a lucky charm up her sleeve for tomorrow’s challenge.
“When I was a junior, my teammate Emily Llewellyn gave me a golden horseshoe and told me to wear it for luck,” she explains. “I wore it all through my Junior and Young Rider championships, and it was lucky – and then, the other day, I found it again in my room. I’ve brought it, so hopefully it’ll be lucky again!”
Germany’s Kai Rüder and France’s Thibaut Vallette hold onto equal fourth overnight, while Dutch National Champions Tim Lips and Bayro slip into sixth place on their score of 26. But as competitive as the mark is, Tim couldn’t help feeling slightly disappointed by the way the numbers played out.
“I think Bayro felt like he had a bit of extra expression than in the warm-up – but it possibly didn’t look so good! I’m a little bit disappointed with the marks,” he says. “My feeling was better than the score.”
Tim and Bayro were another combination to lose valuable marks in the walk for a minor error: “I think the trot work was good – I know how experienced he is now, so I could really ride for every point. But that little dribble in the walk was the first time he’d ever done it – but then we had no other mistakes. I know I can trust him, and he’s getting better and better in atmospheres like this.”
Much as we saw yesterday, many combinations with projected low marks failed to meet expectations, despite solid work in the ring – and seventh-placed Oliver Townend and Cooley Master Class, who lead the British team effort, followed this pattern. The double Kentucky winners, who ordinarily flirt with the very low 20s, posted a 27.6 to settle in the middle of the closely-packed lower half of the top ten. Though their test trended around 23 for the early movements, a break into canter in the shoulder-in saw their marks rocket towards 30.
“We had one costly mistake, but he was otherwise very good,” says Oliver. “It’s a solid mark for the team, and that’s the main thing. He’s getting better and better, but he probably just over-tried in there – and that’s where the mistake happens.”
Though this is the gelding’s first squad call-up, Oliver explains that he’s the consummate championship horse.
“He’s very consistent, and an atmosphere actually improves him – he’s a lazy so-and-so at home and at the smaller events,” he says. “In a place like this, he gains some presence, so he’s an ideal championship horse. He doesn’t really do proper arena familiarisation, because I feel that’s when he’s at his best – this morning, he had a trot around for two minutes and felt good, so we finished on that.”
Kitty King follows closely behind Oliver on a 27.9 riding her Bramham and Burgham winner Vendredi Biats. Like Laura, she rides as an individual – her horse, too, is a young talent, and the focus for the week will be on developing him as a potential Tokyo horse. Although the French-bred horse has always been classy and capable, training his brain has taken some time – but today, we saw ‘Froggy’ shelve his previous naughtiness and deliver a professional test, the promise of which wasn’t altogether diminished by a break in the medium trot.
“He felt really good – it’s just a shame he broke in the medium trot, because it’s one of his highlights and it’s so expensive, because you get judged for the transition, too,” remarks Kitty. “But he wasn’t as spooky as he can be, and that’s probably the biggest atmosphere he’s ever seen – yes, he went to Badminton, but he did his test on the Thursday afternoon. It’s a shame to have a mistake – we’d have been closer, maybe not to Michael, but to some of the others – but we’ve got two days left. It’s exciting that he’s not the finished product, either – his quality is improving all the time, and he’s getting more mature in his brain. The mistake wasn’t because of a lack of concentration, like it has been – it was almost like he was trying too much.”
A reformed Billy the Red sits in ninth place overnight with Tina Cook, who sacrificed an extra second in the first halt to allow the gelding to keep thinking forward. They scored a 28.3 – and while this doesn’t rival their best marks, it’s also a considerable improvement upon some of their tests, which have seen the German-bred gelding boil over in the ring.
“I’d have loved a split second longer in that first halt, but I wasn’t going to take the risk when he’s feeling bright. He’s naturally a bright, excitable horse, which makes him a brilliant jumper – but this is his most difficult phase,” says Tina, who’s joined for the first time at a championship by her two children. “He’s twelve, but he’s like a young horse in my eyes. He tries so hard, and then he gets spooky. He felt the atmosphere in there today, but the test was mistake-free.”
It wasn’t all plain sailing, though – before their test, Billy the Red whipped around in the chute – but Tina knew she couldn’t rise to it.
“He has the potential to do an amazing test, but he was born sharp and bright, and you can’t take that out of them. He just needs more belief in himself – he holds his breath in the test, so I have to be very relaxed myself so he feels like he’s schooling at home, not in an area with thousands of people watching him. He’ll spook at things he’s already seen, but I have to relax for him and not discipline him – I have to be floppy, so it’s mind over matter.”
French individual rider Christopher Six and Totem de Brecey round out the top ten on a score of 28.4, while Ireland’s Cathal Daniels and Sam Watson both delivered scores well below their predicted marks to aid the Irish efforts. Cathal Daniels’ Rioghan Rua is well-known for her prowess across the country – she’s both the fastest and the smallest horse in the field, at just shy of 15.2hh – but this phase has been a weak spot for her. Though she was projected to hit around the 34 mark, she delivered her best performance yet to score a 29 for overnight thirteenth.
This is just the second time they’ve gone sub-30 in the horse’s international career – they managed it once before, at the Junior European Championships in 2014. But a fright at Badminton – which resulted in a score of 56.4 – knocked the mare’s confidence, and Cathal, along with trainer Ian Woodhead, has put in an enormous amount of work to rebuild it.
“I couldn’t be happier,” he says. “She’s never found the dressage easy, and with a lot of work and a lot of time we’ve got into the 20s at a championship – it’s a big deal for us. Ian has put hours and hours and hours into her, and we’ve tried so many things. She struggles with an atmosphere and with Michael Jung doing such a good test just two before us, there was a big crowd in there. She had a big scare at Badminton [in 2017] and it took a long time to bounce back from it – the roofs on the stands were flapping and then she spotted the crowd, and she didn’t know which way to go. For a long time, when she spotted a crowd she’d get very stressed; she was always just waiting for them to make a noise. But we kept testing the waters and pushing her a little bit more.”
Sam Watson and Tullabeg Flamenco, too, average around the 34 mark, but they sit in sixteenth place overnight on a score of 29.6. Sam, who is half of the frontispiece of equestrian stats company EquiRatings, has used simple metrics and performance indicators to improve upon his marks in the ring – and his performance today is the proof in the pudding that the system works.
“It’s a personal best for the horse at this level – he’s got loads of ability,” he says. “I’m happy to break into the 20s at a championship, and I’d say it’s my best test at one. He’s a big-moving horse, so that’st taken some time, and he’s only ten, but his brain and his heart are his two biggest attributes. I love him to bits, and this is a very professional debut for him.”
There are no surprises here: Germany heads the bill on an aggregate score of 68.0, which puts them a whopping 16.8 points ahead of second-placed Great Britain. (You’ll have to do some creative interpretation of the below leaderboard – Finland, who have been erroneously placed in silver medal position, have unfortunately lost the chance to field their first championship team after this morning’s withdrawal of Pauliina Swindells and Ferro S). The Belgian front continues to head the list of Tokyo contenders, now made up of seven countries, while France sit in fourth place and Ireland in fifth. While there’s over five points between Britain and Belgium, there’s not even five points between fourth and seventh, so expect some movers and shakers tomorrow. Italy remain second in the Tokyo hunt, with the Netherlands knocking on the door in third (seventh overall).
Now that dressage is in the bag, we’re looking ahead to the fun stuff – and tomorrow’s cross-country course looks set to provide a serious challenge. Stay tuned for our full course preview, with insights from the riders, coming to you this evening.
Until then – Go Eventing (and go eat sausages for dinner for like, the eighteenth meal in a row – we certainly will.)