European Championships: Hopes, Hiccups, and Heartbreaks on Cross-Country Day

Michael Jung and fischerChipmunk FRH. Photo by William Carey.

And then there was Jung.

After a whirlwind day of high hopes and heartbreaks at the Longines FEI European Championships, the undisputed champion of modern eventing didn’t just rise to the top of the pack – he stayed there. Michael Jung and fischerChipmunk FRH were our dressage leaders yesterday after a phenomenal test that earned them a 20.8. Today, they were the hot favourites as they left the start box, but even so, the questions percolated and circulated – could this new partnership best the tricky track that Mike Etherington-Smith had set, after only nine months together? Would we see some of the magic of the La Biosthetique Sam days shine through once again?

As it turned out, we would. Michael and Chipmunk sailed through the finish flags with eighteen seconds to spare – and they did so despite a bizarre incident in the middle of the course.

“There was a strange situation – I galloped around the corner to fence 17 [the Rathaus table] and a guy was walking slowly into my way and shaking his hand,” he explains. “I was confused because he didn’t have a flag, I didn’t know, was he trying to stop me? But because I was looking to him, I lost my distance and I had a shit jump. I looked back after the fence and the crowd was screaming, ‘you have to go on!’ I lost my rhythm; it was a stupid situation.”

Though it’s unclear whether the mystery man was a fence judge attempting to stop Michael because of a previous faller, the fence in question isn’t one of the marked stopping points on course – in part because it directly precedes the tough final water.

Just a hack through the heather – Michael Jung makes light work of a tough day’s sport. Photo by William Carey.

Despite that blip, Michael and Chipmunk executed a masterclass across the country, setting the German phenom up to become the first rider ever to win four European titles.

“The cross-country is fantastic [with Chipmunk],” he says. “It was a nice dressage test yesterday, but today was really an amazing feeling. In the first minute, I thought I was much too fast so I just went slow, slow, not too much canter, and he gave me a really good feeling. He just kept jumping for me.”

The home crowd urged Michael around the course, not just at fence 17, but across its nearly 6km length.

“It’s nice to see how many people are supporting our sport – we had super conditions and a super competition, and it’s nice to see so many people are here,” he says with a smile.

Though Chipmunk’s showjumping remains his one question mark, Michael insists that all he can do is take each step as it comes.

“I need to concentrate on my job, and on my horse, and then we can think about all the other things,” he says.

Ingrid Klimke and SAP Hale Bob OLD. Photo by William Carey.

There was nothing defending European Champions Ingrid Klimke and SAP Hale Bob OLD could do but their best, and that’s exactly what they delivered. They added nothing to their 22.2 dressage to remain in silver medal position overnight, and for Ingrid, it was a very Happy Hale Bob Day indeed.

“Bobby was really full of himself in the warm-up, so I made sure I could hold him,” she says with a laugh. “It was good for him that we had a long gallop through the woods [between fences 3 and 4] – it was pure fun.”

Ingrid and Bobby, too, benefitted from the support of a home crowd: “every time they cheered him on, he was like, ‘okay, I’ll go faster!’ I was like, ‘no, Bobby – we’re right on time!’ At the bird at 20B I had my distance, and I thought I was on a straight, clear line, and the crowd screamed ‘hop!’ So I’m laughing as we came to the corner [at 21], thinking, ‘do I need to scream ‘hop’ as we jump?

As the last German team member to head out on course, all the pressure was on Ingrid – not just to help her team to win back the title, but to try to retain her own, too.

“Hans [Meltzer, Germany’s chef d’equipe] told me only to pet him when I came into the finish – don’t smile, just focus,” she laughs. “Sometimes I pat him so much, and I spend so much time saying, ‘Bobby, you are my hero!'”

As for the day’s oppressive heat, that, too, was something of an advantage: “I hate the winter! This was perfect for me,” she smiles.

Thibaut Vallette and Qing du Briot ENE HN. Photo by William Carey.

France’s Thibaut Vallette and his Rio and WEG mount Qing du Briot ENE HN stepped up into bronze medal position from equal fourth after dressage after executing one of the day’s 20 fault-free rounds.

“Today was a really great round for the horse and me,” says the rider, who is part of the Cadre Noir at Saumur. “This is the first time I’ve come to Luhmühlen and my horse was very nice all the way around. He’s a great horse and my best friend, and it’s very good for the team – I have high hopes for a good day.”

Tim Lips and Bayro. Photo by William Carey.

Though it was a tough day in the office for the Netherlands (see Nations’ Standings, below), it was a good one indeed for the Dutch National Champions Tim Lips and Bayro. They stepped up from sixth to fourth place, and currently sit on an overnight score of 26 – just a fifth of a penalty away from the bronze medal contenders.

“I was very pleased; on the course I was all the time on my minute markers, although I lost a little bit at the last two waters, so I had to push a bit,” he says, before admitting: “After our second [Dutch] rider fell, I thought maybe I won’t run – I could go to the Nations Cup instead for those points. But my dad said, ‘are you mad? You’ve had this horse so long, and he’s thirteen already’ – I’m glad I listened to him.”

Oliver Townend leads the British team, who sit in overnight silver medal position, after a faultless clear with Cooley Master Class that belied the fact he’s missed nearly two months due to a badly broken wrist. So, too, did it bely the fact that Cooley Master Class – who won his second Kentucky title this year – only runs at a couple of internationals per season.

“He doesn’t need run after run, and it’s proof that he’s better than ever,” says Oliver, who jokes that he became a full-time horse dealer ‘rather than a part-time eventer’ during his time off. “He’s very special, and he needs very little preparation – he’s just grown in confidence every event that he comes to. It’s a very special feeling and a huge credit to the massive team behind him. We always thought he was this good, and now he’s showing it again and again.”

Oliver was the last British team member to run, and after a surprise run-out was added to Tina Cook‘s scoresheet, the pressure was on. But did it affect him?

“I’m a bit strange – it doesn’t worry me too much. I know what I have to do. I sometimes question how relaxed I feel in terms of the cross-country warm-up; I think it’s very calm and very relaxed, and then as soon as I get across the finish line I’ll laugh or cry or do something embarrassing.”

Cathal Daniels and Rioghan Rua. Photo by William Carey.

Ireland’s Cathal Daniels and Rioghan Rua recorded a typically speedy round to step up from thirteenth to sixth place overnight.

“She was super,” he says. “She started off a little bit hot, but she was amazing to jump. I overrode the right rein in the combination in the arena, and she was amazing to jump the corner where she did, but the rest of the round was unbelievable and she’s finished very strong and looks in very good nick.”

Piggy French and Quarrycrest Echo. Photo by William Carey.

France’s Christopher Six and Totem de Brecey lie in seventh overnight, followed by Italy’s Pietro Roman and Barraduff. Great Britain’s Piggy French and Quarrycrest Echo move from 17th to ninth after coming home six seconds inside the 10:10 optimum time, and despite a hairy moment at the second water.

“He’s fabulous on this day, but the one thing he can be wary of is water,” explains Piggy. “But he was super brave at the first, and while I’d normally give him a tap beforehand, I didn’t at the second. He was genuine through it, but he was hard work, and I had to keep turning the key. It was laboured and he started to spook, so I had two give him two sharp taps and then he was away again. You can’t be defensive on a course like this, but you’ve got to be clever, too – you have to keep thinking and stay on your A game, and always think of your plan A, B, and C. The time, though is disappointingly easy, which is a shame for my horse. If I keep a gun to his head he’s so much better – if we’re ten, fifteen seconds up and I drop the pace, then he drops behind the bridle and thinks he’s finished. He’s a twisty, quick track horse all day, but I don’t want to come in 40 seconds under the time because it looks like an unnecessary risk.”

Kitty King and Vendredi Biats. Photo by William Carey.

Kitty King and Vendredi Biats, competing as individuals for Great Britain, sit tenth after adding just 2.4 time penalties to their 27.9 dressage.

“I’m just delighted with I’m – he’s only ten,” she says through tears. “I watched the beginning [of the cross-country] and then I stopped watching because it wasn’t going very well. It’s really exciting what the future’s going to hold for him – it’s just lovely. Top ten was my aim coming out here – I wanted a personal best in the dressage, but didn’t manage it, and I wanted a clear in the time, and we were just over.”

It would be amiss not to mention the great efforts of British pathfinders Pippa Funnell and Majas Hope, who skipped home inside the time and sit 21st overnight.

“Last night and all this morning I was thinking, ‘why haven’t I retired yet?!'” she laughs. “But it felt great today.”

The top ten after cross-country.

We knew this would be a tough course, but it still caused its share of surprises – namely, that the time proved far less influential than we expected it to be. In total, 20 combinations sailed home clear and inside the time – owing, in part, to the fast ground and the superb conditions.

“We saw a lot of world-class riding all around the course; there was some spectacular riding and good decisions being made by everyone, not just the top guys,” says course designer Mike Etherington-Smith, though, he admits, “I didn’t expect quite so many to get the time. When you get good ground and good weather conditions like we saw today, then it becomes easier to get the time – but you have to wheel it for 570mpm over the distance, and so it is what it is.”

Plus, as Mike points out, conditions like today’s aren’t guaranteed – particularly at Luhmühlen, which was struck by torrential rain and flooding in June.

“You have to build for any weather conditions – it could have poured,” he says.

As predicted, the course caused problems across the board, with glance-offs and stops from 5D, the latter part of the first water, all the way through to 25, the second of the offset hedges at the tail end of the course. But the colourful bird in the water at 20B – the, erm, tit, as Harry Meade pointed out – caused the most problems through the day. In total, it was responsible for eight faults – two refusals, two rider falls, three horse falls, and one subsequent retirement – including that of bronze medal contender Laura Collett, whose gutsy round was full of the gumption that London 52 needed. But a slight misjudgement of the distance to 20B saw the horse catch his front legs, and some quick thinking and a last minute backwards scramble was all that stopped him from having a rotational fall. But it was too late for Laura, who tipped out the front door and had to make the long journey to the finish on foot.

Laura Collett and London 52. Photo by William Carey.

“Luckily, he’s absolutely fine – in a way, it’s good to have that long walk back, because it means I can make sure he’s okay,” says an understandably heartbroken but perennially pragmatic Laura. “He felt amazing, and he was taking everything on, but he just got confused by all the twists and turns at the end of course. We ended up getting to 20B on no distance at all. I’m gutted – I came here with huge expectations. But we have to take the positives; he’s never seen a track like that, or crowds like that. He’s only ten years old and he has a bright future ahead of him. He trusted me out there today – it just didn’t come off.”

20B was also a major architect in the defeat of the Dutch team, who saw Merel Blom retire there and Ilonka Kluytmans fall.

10A – the first of the upright gates after the arena – was also a surprise culprit, resulting in the fall of Polish rider Jan Kaminski, two refusals for Spain’s Maria Pinedo Sendagorta and Carriem van Colen Z, and broken frangible devices for Italy’s Vittoria Panizzon and Spain’s Esteban Benitez Valle.

In something of a freak drama, Germany’s Nadine Marzahl and Valentine 18, who were placed in the top twenty after dressage, were eliminated for missing a fence – they skipped nine, the hedge after the arena, and continued as far as the second water before they were pulled up.

71 combinations left the start box – the withdrawal of Finland’s Sanna Siltakorpi and Bofey Click diminished our numbers by one – and 59 crossed the finish line. Of those 59, 44 would return without having incurred jumping penalties, flag penalties, or frangible penalties. That’s a clear rate of 62% – about right for this level – but a whopping 28% double-clear rate.

Germany continue their hunt to regain the team gold medal, despite having to drop the score of Kai Rüder and Colani Sunrise, who were equal fourth after dressage. This is due to an issue in the start box, which saw the sometimes tricky gelding rear and refuse to go forward. Ultimately, it cost the pair 16 time penalties – or 40 seconds on the clock.

“That was, of course, a bad start – he went very well in the cross-country and would for sure have been in the time,” says Kai. “He’s never been quite like this; he gets nervous, sure, but this time, the entry for the start box was quite narrow. He’s a big horse, and I should have gone around, but I didn’t see it until the last second.”

Kai Rüder and Colani Sunrise. Photo by William Carey.

But with a horse like Colani Sunrise who, Kai noted after his dressage test, needs to be filled with confidence, it wouldn’t have been productive to have forced the start.

“You have to stay quiet and just pat him,” he explains. “He’s done so many good rounds that I thought it would be a good day – but that’s horses, just as that’s life.”

With Kai’s score discarded, the German team sits on 78.5 – but this still offers them a considerable lead over Great Britain, who sit in the silver medal position. Their overnight score is 92.8 – 14.3 points behind the leaders – after a shock blip on course dropped Tina Cook and Billy the Red out of contention. Their otherwise fast and classy round was marred by a drive-by at the C element – a skinny triple brush – out of the second water.

Tina Cook and Billy the Red. Photo by William Carey.

“I’m really disappointed,” she says. “I was having a good round up to them, and he jumped into the water super – he just took his eye off the fence. I have no explanation for it. He knows his job and he’s a fantastic cross-country horse – he’s jumped clear around the Europeans and the WEG.”

Though Tina was individually placed in the top ten after dressage, and thus in the hunt for a podium finish, her thoughts were solely with her team.

“I’m so disappointed for the team. When we walked it, I knew it would cause plenty of problems – it’s a real championship course, and it’ll be a real champion that wins it.”

From then on, the team standings are tightly packed: France sit in bronze medal position on 93.6, just 0.8 penalties behind the Brits, and helped along by the fact that all four riders went clear. In fact, the only combination to add anything to his dressage score was Alexis Goury and Trompe de l’Oeil d’Emery, who added just 0.8 time penalties, but it was Karim Laghouag and Punch de l’Esques whose score was dropped. They remain on their dressage score of 38.4 overnight, giving France something of a safety net for tomorrow’s competition.

Italy now leads the way for the teams not yet qualified for Tokyo. They lie fourth on a score of 99.2, having discarded the score of Vittoria Panizzon and Super Cillious, who added nine time penalties to their 31.5 dressage. Like France, this is a drop-score that could be used to their advantage – it’s not so far out of the hunt.

Sweden follows Italy in fifth place on 101.1, with two double-clears and two rounds that only added time penalties. Ludwig Svennerstal and El Kazir SP lead the way for their country, lying 11th overnight on their dressage score of 31.

Sam Watson and Tullabeg Flamenco over the bird at 20B. Photo by William Carey.

Behind them, Ireland sit sixth after three clear rounds and one unfortunate twenty on course. Sam Watson and Tullabeg Flamenco – just a ten-year-old – were the last team members to go, and were one of many combinations to run into trouble at fence 20B, the colourful bird in the water.

“He was having a magic round; he was fantastic,” says Sam. “But then he jumped a bit dead into the water, and I had to pick him back up. I lost my killer instinct in that turn – I thought about doing the turn to the inside, but I knew that people had fallen there earlier, but when I turned back, I felt the angle was too much to ask him for. In hindsight, maybe he could have done it.”

Like Tina before him, Sam’s thoughts were entirely on the fate of his team.

“I’m delighted with the horse – he’d have been inside the time otherwise, so there are a lot of big positives for him,” he says. “But it was a soft 20, and it was a tough one to get when the team was in a medal position. Right now, I’m just gutted for my teammates and for the horse’s connections.”

Belgium, down to three riders after the early fall of Laura Loge and Absolut Allegro at an inconspicuous table at 17, languishes behind in seventh on a score of 146.6, while the Netherlands are down to just one rider: Tim Lips and Bayro are the only Dutch competitors left in the hunt.

We’ll be back bright and early tomorrow morning for the final horse inspection, which kicks off at 9.00 a.m. local time. Stay tuned for a full report and gallery, before we head into the action-packed finale of the 2019 Longines FEI European Championships. Until then – so long, farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, goodbye!

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