Gallery: French Eventing Bids Adieu to Olympic Star

A fitting farewell: Astier Nicolas officially retires Piaf de B’Neville in a moving ceremony at Pau. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

In an emotional retirement ceremony on the final day of Pau, France’s Astier Nicolas said a fond farewell to Piaf de B’Neville, the fifteen-year-old Selle Français with whom he recorded his first four-star win and considerable success at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Piaf de B’Neville (Cap de B’Neville x Homelie III, by Reve d’Elle) was unofficially retired in May of this year, with the intention of a ceremonial retirement at the French four-star, which he won in 2015. He was last seen in international competition in 2017, when he finished fifteenth at Badminton.

Astier produced ‘Ben’ through the levels himself, debuting him internationally at Aldon CCI1* in England in 2010. Ben would finish third, and less than a year later, he would jump around his first CIC3*, coming sixth. But, said Astier of the horse, who possesses only about 50% blood breeding, “he shouldn’t be doing this — but he does!” In fact, unlike so many of the world’s top eventers, Ben had never been intended for the upper echelons of the sport — instead, he was spotted by Astier at a Toulouse branch of the Pony Club, where he was being ridden by his young owner.

“He’s such a hard worker, and so trainable that you can be optimistic that he’ll soon be much better,” said Astier in a 2013 interview with EN. “You couldn’t have a much easier horse than Ben. He’s very good to work with, and he always tries hard for you; he’s very laid-back for the most part.”

Photo by Tilly Berendt.

In 2012, Astier and Ben had their first major win together when they took the prestigious under-25 CCI3* at Bramham. Suddenly, both the young French rider, fresh from his studies at Hartpury, and his exceptional horse were thrust into the spotlight.

In 2013, buoyed by the previous summer’s success, they entered their first Badminton. This was the horse’s first effort at the level, though it wasn’t Astier’s — by that point, he’d clocked up three four-star completions with Jhakti du Janlie, though just one of those had been a clear, and he’d never yet graced the hallowed grounds of the Gloucestershire estate.

Astier Nicolas and Piaf de b’Neville at the final horse inspection at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Not many can claim the considerable accolade of finishing on their dressage score at their first — or indeed, any — Badminton, but that’s just what Astier and Ben did on that fateful debut. They added nothing to their dressage score of 32.8, allowing them to finish 9th in the illustrious company of La Biosthetique Sam FBW, Nereo, Opgun Louvo, Avebury, and Clifton Promise. His turn in the spotlight justified, he had entered the major leagues of the French eventing stratosphere.

Ben’s first team call-up would follow, and he and Astier headed to the European Championships at Malmö later that summer. There, they would deliver another impeccable clear round inside the time across the country, and although an uncharacteristic three rails down on the final day would preclude a top 20 placing individually, their efforts would help the French team to a bronze medal finish.

In 2014, Ben would make a follow-up appearance for the French team, and this time, he cracked the top ten himself, jumping a quick clear at Aachen’s CICO3*. Once again, the team took bronze and proved the country’s formidability in the sport — a particularly pertinent point when you consider that the ‘A’ team was occupied with that year’s World Equestrian Games, for which Ben was initially selected. Unfortunately, a minor injury led to his withdrawal before the competition.

Astier Nicolas and Piaf De B’Neville at Pau in 2015. Photo by Leslie Wylie.

But the lows of the sport — and there are always lows, even for the superstars — weren’t to last. An incredible 2015 season, in which Ben finished in the top ten of all four of his international competitions, culminated in the highlight of his career: he and Astier would win their home CCI4* at Pau that autumn in front of an enormously appreciative crowd of fans.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time,” he said afterward. “Even when I was young I dreamed about this victory.”

Astier Nicolas and Piaf de b’Neville at Badminton 2017. Photo by Jenni Autry.

2016 was Ben’s final full season of eventing, and he made it one to remember. He took the inaugural leg of the then-brand new Event Rider Master series, making light work of the tough terrain and tight time at Chatsworth. That summer, he would finally enjoy his most important call-up yet: Ben was heading to the Rio Olympics.

We talk a lot about the French eventing team and how, for all their peaks and troughs, they can never for a moment be underestimated. Never was this more true than at Rio, where they earned the gold medal — just their second ever in eventing. For Astier, it would be a day of double celebrations — he and Ben dug deep after their hard work on the previous day’s cross-country and earned the individual silver medal for their efforts.

From left: Karim Florent Laghouag, Mathieu Lemoine, Astier Nicolas and Thibaut Vallette. Photo by Jenni Autry.

“It’s been a very long wait to bring the French flag back to the top, and we were really patient. We’ve had a French win already when they were Olympic champions in Athens, and we’ve been waiting a lot, and it’s such a good relief today. Also we have a team of good friends — the victory has a sweet taste today,” Astier said.

Astier Nicolas and Piaf de b’Neville. Photo by Arnd Bronkhorst/FEI.

Just one international appearance would follow for Ben, who picked up fifteenth place at Badminton in 2017. Thereafter, niggling health concerns would keep him out of international competition, and in May of this year, Astier announced that the horse would no longer compete.

Astier Nicolas, Piaf de B’Neville, and Julie LeMarinel at Ben’s retirement. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

It was only fitting that the horse’s fans — and, in fact, Astier himself — should get the chance to say goodbye at the site of the horse’s biggest victory, and there was hardly a dry eye to be seen as his impressive career history was read out. The ceremony was conducted in the traditional manner: Astier rode his long-time partner into the arena, and Ben was then untacked, rugged up — much to his chagrin — and led on a final tour of the main arena. His partner in this lap of honour was Julie LeMarinel, who was his groom at the Rio Olympics. He’ll spend his retirement at Julie’s dairy farm in Cherbourg, near his place of birth, and act as a companion to the cows and a conveyance around the farm.

“He’s the horse of my life, so far — whatever happens, he will always be a horse of a lifetime,” says Astier. “Where I am now, that is all thanks to him, so that’s a big thing. He’s a very happy horse, and he’s retired in a good state, happy and healthy, and now he goes back to his native land with Julie, who’s a very good friend of mine and was there from the beginning, when we were first starting at the upper levels. So there’s a lot of good vibes!”

All of us at EN wish Ben a long and happy retirement, and implore Astier and Julie to send us some photos of him hanging out with his cow friends.