Les 5 Etoiles de Pau has always been renowned for a few things: twisty, technical cross-country courses; ringside entertainment that borders on deranged; and showjumping tracks that eclipse any other in terms of difficulty at the five-star level. This year has been no different — if anything, the cross-country was somehow even twistier and even more technical than usual; the little chaps in horse costumes were joined by a truly arrhythmic flash mob clapping on one and three and sometimes no beat at all to Freed From Desire and a troupe of very patriotic parachutists, who somehow managed to land right in the main arena; and, though just 34 competitors came to the showjumping finale today, 59 poles had already fallen by the time overnight leader Ros Canter entered the ring with Izilot DHI.
Had she entered an equivalent ring at, say, Badminton or Burghley, it would have been to a hush that hangs like a blanket over the arena, and practically vibrates with silent tension. But this is France, a country that does eventing like other countries do festivals, and so instead, she entered to raucous applause and cheers and vocal support that were only amplified as the commentator egged his audience on, listing the European Champion’s numerous accolades and encouraging ever-louder shouts — despite Ros’s desperate attempt to signal to the grandstands that her quirky ten-year-old debutant could really do with a bit less noise.
And so, as she had on Friday, when Izilot DHI spooked repeatedly at a cameraman before beginning his test, and as she had yesterday, when dealing with a hold on course and the surprise distraction of another cameraman driving alongside her horse at the start of the course, Ros simply got on with it, and trusted that the foundations she’d laid with the KWPN gelding, who she co-owns with Alex Moody, would help him overcome the many bids for his attention.
They did — and even when ‘Isaac’ had to pass a particularly spooky arena decoration, which he’d shied away from in his opening circle, en route to the oxer at fence 6, the leggy son of Zavall VDL never faltered in his stride, nor his focus on the fences. They’d been gifted a rail and time in hand, thanks to a rail down from formerly second-placed Tom McEwen and JL Dublin, but in the end, they barely needed to touch it: they crossed the finish line clear and just three seconds over the 81 second time allowed to finish on a score of 28.7 and take the win — Ros’s second at the level this season.
“It’s absolutely amazing, but I don’t think it’s really sunk in, to be honest,” laughs Ros, who began her day as the first in the ring aboard Pencos Crown Jewel, who tipped two rails to finish in 24th place. In the 32 rounds between that one and her second, winning ride, Ros was militant in keeping herself focused on the task at hand.
“I think sometimes I don’t really appreciate it until it’s over, because I am very, very careful on days like this in how I manage myself,” she explains. “I don’t let myself dream — it’s bad for me to let myself dream. It’s very easy for me to chatter to everybody else about how they’re how they’re going to ride their horses, and then when I get on I think, ‘golly, I haven’t actually focused on myself’. So I had to be really strict today. I think particularly at this event, I’ve made the mistake in the past, because there’s nowhere really like grandstand-y to sit for us — we’re all very bunched here [by the ringside]. I did my round, obviously, and went and watched a few more, had a chat to Chris [Bartle] and then took myself away. I’ve made the mistake in the past of staying here for too long, and never really focusing on myself. So there’s such a big part of that bit for me that sometimes when I finish I’m just thinking, ‘Oh, thank goodness I didn’t mess up!'”
Perhaps one of the main reasons the glorious reality of the thing hasn’t quite hit Ros yet is that she never actually intended to try to win Pau this week with the famously quirky debutant, who also won Blenheim’s CCI4*-L last month.
“We just wanted to come here and give him a nice experience, but he’s absolutely amazing,” she says. “I was very open-minded today; I thought yesterday was kind of the dream for me and his owners. It’s what we came here to do — to tick that box of him going around the cross country — so it wasn’t really about today. But he’s an exceptional jumper, and now I can manage the spook and relax with the spook, hopefully, even if he’s off his line, if he knows he’s jumping a jump, he’ll go for it.”
Realistically, she continues, “even six months ago, this probably would have been a step too far for him, so I’m unbelievably proud of him. I mean, when you think back to Thoresby [at the start of the season], when we did an about turn at some pink haylage bales for about 45 seconds, and then Bramham when we spooked at fence 3 on the cross country [and had 20 penalties while in the lead], it was a little bit of a shaky start to the season! But then he’s been absolutely class. It’s all about me learning to ride him and learning to believe in him and just learning to be a partnership, is definitely what it is with him. I don’t think anyone else could just hop on straightaway and ride him, because he wouldn’t let you do that. But it’s all about the belief and the trust. I’m just grateful for him. I’ve learned so much more than I’ve learned from riding any other horse.”
Ros has had the ride on mercurial Isaac since he was a five-year-old, and he’s always been a tricky character — but throughout, she explains, she never lost faith in the talent that rumbled beneath the weirdness.
“To be fair to him, he has always performed, all the way through,” she says, looking back over a career that’s already seen him pick up nine FEI wins in 20 runs, with wins at every level. “Yeah, there’s been bumps in the road for sure. But I don’t think I’ve ever thought ‘oh, he’s not going to do it.'”
Eventing success takes a village, and Isaac’s — and Ros’s — village is extensive, made up of myriad crucial cogs that keep the wheel in motion and help to architect the tricky days into dream-making ones.
“I’ve had a huge amount of help along the way: [dressage coach] Ian Woodhead obviously sourced him, so I think this is a very proud day for him, but he’s also been absolutely instrumental in teaching me how to ride him. [Dressage rider] Amy Woodhead, she lives down the road from me, and anytime I’ve had a wobble with him, or I’ve not understood him, or things have gone a bit wrong, she’s always been there to hop on and show me how to do it a little bit. Caroline Moore has also been a huge help; we go to Vale View a lot [to work with her]. We spend a lot of time with him, and everybody does, and Chris Bartle has been amazing as well. So a huge amount of people have been involved in this horse’s journey.”
A result like this, says the rider whose own extraordinary season has included a first five-star win, at Badminton this spring, and the European Championship title, both with Lordships Graffalo, is a reward for every single one of the people who ebb and flow in and out of the gelding’s orbit.
“It makes all the hard work at home worthwhile,” she smiles. “We have a few hairy moments at home, particularly in the winter, with him. I get a little bit nervous and I have to call upon the help of all my members of staff to help keep me on the straight and narrow. So, I think it’s definitely a team process here, and there has been hours and hours going into this. So it’s great that he’s been able to reward us!”
And, she continues, it’s a testament to working together to build something extraordinary.
“I think it’s amazing, really. My mum is is unbelievable; she works so hard. She’s just a farmer from Louth, and I’m just her daughter. We love horses, and we’ve managed to achieve this. So a huge amount of it is down to her, particularly now I’ve had [my daughter] Ziggy. My part in this story is riding the horse, and there are many other people that do all of the other jobs for me to enable me to have my daughter and be the mum I want to be, as well as ride the horses, and it’s really working. I think it’s just an amazing journey that we’ve been on.”
That one rail down for Tom McEwen and JL Dublin, who had sat in first after dressage and second after cross-country, opened the door for Oliver Townend and Tregilder to take the runner-up position after a round free of jumping or time penalties, which finalised a climb from first-phase fifth. It also put to bed any demons from the pairs run of bad luck, which saw them tumble at the penultimate fence while up on the clock at Burghley last year, pull up at two-thirds of the way around the course this year due to a broken rein, and then fall in their CCI4*-S prep for Pau at Little Downham.
“I’m incredibly proud of my horse and my team, and I’m incredibly happy for the owners, who have been with me for nineteen years,” says Oliver. “A podium finish in a 5* is a dream for them. He’s a genuine horse; always straightforward, and always doing his best in all three tests. This performance is the fruit of the work of the whole team that looks after him, especially at the stable, which enables him to achieve results like this.”
Tom McEwen, too, put “a shitty year” to bed with a super result with the former Nicola Wilson ride JL Dublin, and though he’s probably learned to be careful what he wishes for — he’d hoped to end his bout of ‘seconditis’, but probably didn’t intend for that to result in a third place finish instead — he was delighted with the Holsteiner gelding and the progression their still-fairly-new partnership has made.
“It’s been a great weekend, and probably the time to [have a rail] is when Rozzie is about to nail a beautiful round, and not to come second again,” he laughs. “He’s been amazing — he warmed up too well to be honest; he was fantastic and I just had a relaxed pole down, which was a shame in a very nice round, but we came to do we needed to do and he’s been fantastic.”
Though Tom’s troubles this year have been spread across events and horses, rather than just woven into the fabric of his partnership with ‘Dubs’, he did have a couple of tricky, prominent competitions midway through the year that he’s chosen to use as a springboard for improvement. Notable, and first, of those was at CHIO Aachen, where, just a couple of months after taking second at Kentucky CCI5*, they had a late run-out while fighting for the top spot; later in the year, at the European Championships, Tom suffered a surprise fall from the gelding in the influential final water at the European Championships, where many horses stumbled through the day.
“Aachen is basically a 5* short on steroids: you go flat out,” says Tom. “I went for learning experience. I know I could have gone and hidden away at Aston le Walls and done really well there, but I wanted to go and find out a bit more about him, and that’s what I’ve done. When you put them under sheer pressure at speed, speed causes problems, and if you’re okay, hacking around and doing things in your time, then actually you can get most things done and resolved but actually, speed just catches out those little things that you haven’t quite covered or haven’t understood about each other. It shows the brainwaves that you’ve together. We’d had a fantastic round up to that point at Aachen and I never expected that, so it’s just learning bits and bobs. That’s come to fruition here — he was one of the quickest horses that didn’t get stopped on course yesterday, and I think that was a massive influence. His dressage was just fantastic, and for me, it [deserved] a lot better mark than his 23. So it’s all come together really, which is very good.”
It was a good day in the office for former rides of the 2021 European Champion Nicola Wilson, who was supporting from afar while coaching, demoing, and mentoring in the Isle of Man over the weekend, and for Jo and James Lambert, who co-own Dubs with Deirdre Johnston and own the fourth place finisher, too. That was the ride of Piggy March, the five-star first-timer Coolparks Sarco, who jumped a faultless round to move up one place from last night’s standings, and three from his first-phase placing.
“I’m thrilled, but I also feel a bit lucky — I was only a little bit in the time, even though I didn’t feel like I was hanging around!” says Piggy, who won Millstreet’s CCI4*-L with the gelding earlier this year. “He jumped really very well, but I probably was a quarter of a second in the air more than I meant to be. He was really getting up in the air and flicking his tail, which was very nearly a rider error. But god, he felt fantastic! What a lovely horse; I’m very lucky. Hopefully we did Nic-Noc proud, too, because it’s been a big weekend here for her with both Jeremy and ‘Dubs’. We’re in the same camp; it’s very good.”
Kylie Roddy and the Fox family’s SRS Kan Do made good on the gelding’s return to the event where he made his five-star debut — and took eleventh place — two years ago, finishing fifth with a faultless round today to complete their climb from sixteenth after dressage and add a second five-star top-ten finish to their resume.
“You work so hard year-round for days like this,” beams Kylie. “And not just for me — for the team at home; for the owners — it’s a magic day. And it’s the last event of the season, so we’ve finished the year on a high. You can’t ask for more.”
For Kylie, who used to sweep up hair in her mother’s salon to make money to ride and stepped up to five-star in her forties, every great result is a beacon for riders who can relate to her – but even this ineffably positive and much-loved mainstay of the upper levels has had her darker days, wondering if the high points will come again
“Sometimes you stop believing it can happen. I think Austin [O’Connor] said that about his horse [Colorado Blue at Maryland],” she says, reflecting on her Badminton run with ‘George’ last year, where they had to pull up during a great run due to two lost shoes. “You start to think, ‘what is it that I need to change? Am I not riding well enough? Is it that my management’s not good enough?’ But sometimes you do need a bit of luck on the day, and as the horses get older, they get stronger — I’d like to think he’s coming into his prime, now. He’s always been a fabulous horse, but I really think he’s an absolute superstar.”
Kirsty Chabert dropped from third to sixth after tipping two rails with the excellent Classic VI, who had sped home with just 0.8 time penalties yesterday, while Jonelle Price was the highest-place non-Brit in seventh with the debutant Hiarado, who climbed from first-phase 13th with a fault-free round.
Boyd Martin, too, added nothing to his scorecard with the Goodwin family’s Fedarman B, moving them up to a final eighth place from first-phase sixteenth, and giving the horse his second top-ten finish in as many runs at the level. Maxime Livio‘s Carouzo Bois Marotin did the same, but in his case, it’s now three for three where top ten placings and five-star runs are concerned. The top ten was rounded out by Kiwi James Avery and his smart first-timer MBF Connection, who tipped two rails but nevertheless completed their rise from an initial 30th place.
Both Allie Knowles and Morswood and Cosby Green and the former Buck Davidson ride Copper Beach had a smattering of poles but retained top twenty places thanks to their excellent efforts across the week’s competition; Cosby took sixteenth in her debut at the level with three fences down today, while Allie took eighteenth after tipping four.
And so, windswept, whiplashed, and a little bit waterlogged, we arrive, skidding, at the end of the 2023 five-star season — and the end of my season, full stop, of reporting on events. It’s been a wild ride this year, and its memorable quirks — endless rain, mostly — were crystallised so well into this emotional, turbulent final event. We’ll bring you more from behind the scenes at Pau over the coming week, but for now, with tired eyes and a heart full of horses, it’s adieu from us. Go Eventing — even when there’s no more to go to.
EN’s coverage of Les 5 Etoiles de Pau is brought to you by Kentucky Performance Products.