There are a few things that are certain in life: death, taxes, and a extraordinarily tough showjumping course at Les 5 Etoiles de Pau. Of all six CCI5* events in the world, it produces the fewest clear rounds over its tricky track, which makes best use of tight distances interspersed with flyaway long approaches to big square fences, laughing in the face of anyone who tries to pick their way around for a steady clear. Like the rest of the competition, it rewards boldness — but boldness comes with increased risk, and a lead at the start of the day, even with substantial margin for error, doesn’t guarantee a thing.
Today, though, there was no margin for error to play with anyway: just a pole separated a world-class top five, and if you wanted to play the game, you needed to be sure of every step you took in the main arena. And it’s not just the track itself that plays a part here — the unique atmosphere of the ring, which is surrounded by an incomparably enthusiastic audience, creates a pressure cooker of an environment in which you’re never sure if the crowd will break its silence with a badly timed (though always, inarguably well-meaning) cheer after a particularly tough bit of negotiation mid-round. When sitting on an experienced veteran of the sport this is no less nerve-wracking; if you find yourself jumping for a top spot on a horse who’s never seen anything quite like it, it’s a whole different story.
But that’s exactly what our 2020 champion — the only five-star victor this year — had to deal with. Just 10 of the previous 33 horses had managed a fault-free round before Laura Collett rode into the arena, including those closest to vying for the top spot she’d held throughout the week. Even more tension-inducing? Her previous ride — the extraordinarily consistent Mr Bass, who’s known for finishing on his dressage score more often than not — hadn’t been one of them.
To bet against London 52, the eleven-year-old Holsteiner that Laura owns with Karen Bartlett and Keith Scott, though, would have been to ignore 18 months worth of an education for the horse that money and circumstance simply can’t buy. Laura had overcome a rollercoaster season in 2019, which saw her grapple with an inordinate amount of pressure as the world watched every move that her 2018 Blenheim eight- and nine-year-old winner made. This was the next big thing, a captivated eventing fanbase proclaimed, and though they’ve been justified over and over again in their conviction, it was all too easy to forget that the horse had only started eventing two seasons prior.
His early string of successes were signs of things to come, certainly, but so much learning needed to be done to marry that ability with a stoic understanding of his job. A CCI4*-S win at Chatsworth’s Event Rider Masters was followed by genuine young horse errors at Bramham, Aachen and the European Championships, all made in a determined spotlight — but through the emotional reckoning of the year, Laura and ‘Dan’ found the heart of the matter. By Boekelo CCI4*-L, Laura had taken Dan off the pedestal the world had put him on, and Dan had begun to learn where his responsibilities lay. A confident win on that run, which was only ever intended to be a productive and confidence-building close to the year for the horse, solidified the lessons learned, and Laura and Dan re-emerged after the winter — and a subsequent long lockdown — brimming with well-earned confidence.
And so the horse’s five-star debut was a hotly anticipated one: would he rise to the occasion as he had at Boekelo and this month’s Little Downham CCI5*, or would the week show that there was still more work to be done for the young horse? An easy dressage lead on Friday, when the pair set a new Pau record of 21.3, came as no surprise, but Dan had never tackled a course of the length or intensity of the Pierre Michelet track he conquered yesterday. When he sailed home clear and inside the time — and showed his newfound steely gumption in producing a fifth leg at the combination at 27ABC — he proved that he’d stepped up from a boy to a man, regardless of what happened on the final day.
If horses are meant to feel tired the day after a tough five-star run, no one told Dan about it. As Laura rode into the ring, the rain in her eyes, Dan pricked his ears and bowled confidently towards the crowds, soaking up their enthusiasm and looking for whatever challenge would face him next. Possessed of one of the best jumping records in the field, he’d still need every bit of the scope he’s shown off countless times in the past. One by one, the fences came up easily — though a solid tap on the way round left a pole trembling and a few stomachs doing backflips — and as he neatly popped the airy upright at the last, the world exploded around him.
“It’s going to take a while for this to sink in — I never actually believed that it would come off,” she says. “I knew the horse was capable, and I was walking the showjumping course this morning and [French eventer] Tom Carlile came up to me and said, ‘there’s no other horse you’d want to be sat on,’ and I thought, ‘no, there’s not.’ I wouldn’t have swapped him for the world. He’s an unbelievable jumper, and the way he came out today, having jumped around cross-country yesterday — I’m a very, very lucky girl to be sat on a horse like that on the last day at a five-star.”
Though the final phase plays to London 52’s biggest strengths, Laura’s a stalwart campaigner at the top level now, and so a healthy dose of pragmatism helped her keep her cool before she rode into the arena.
“I just had to believe that if it was meant to be, it would be, and if it wasn’t, I knew he had a five-star win in him at some point,” she says.
Laura also had to put aside any worries about previous trips to the venue, which haven’t quite gone her way: “I’ve been here twice before and not had a very successful time, so it’s definitely third time lucky!”
Despite her rail earlier in the afternoon on first horse Mr Bass, Laura credits the consistent and experienced gelding, who was second at Luhmühlen in 2018, with helping her create the perfect recipe for her first-ever five-star victory — and the best CCI5* finishing score since 2008 — this week.
“They’re two completely different horses, to ride, in personality, in everything,” she says, “but I would say him being here has made the difference in the way I’ve ridden London 52, because Mr Bass gives me all the confidence in the world. I know him, he’s like my best friend, and I’ve had him since he was a four-year-old; he grabs my hand, and I have to hold London’s hand, so Mr Bass shows me the way and then I can show London the way. Mr Bass has as big a part to play in this as London does.”
Though today’s victory is the product of several years of hard work from Laura and her team at home, plus an unshakeable faith in the horse held by the rider and his owners, there’s a little bit of extra magic to be found in dreaming — and now, Laura’s embracing the magic of the moment.
“I actually can’t believe it; it hasn’t sunk in yet,” she says, teary-eyed and emerging from a scrum of equally emotional supporters. “That horse — I have no words for him. He’s phenomenal. There’s no other horse that deserves a win like he does. To come out and lead from start to finish is what dreams are made of, and I still can’t really believe this is happening.”
Second place, too, went to a debutant horse and one of seven to finish on their dressage score this week. Piggy March‘s Brookfield Inocent has been posited as her next superstar, set to fill the big shoes of former mount Quarrycrest Echo has her next team horse — but although the talented gelding, owned by John and Chloe Perry and Alison Swinburn, had won Blenheim on his CCI4*-L debut, a step up to five-star is an entirely different ballgame.
But like London 52, he left no scope for any doubt about his class this week. He was the first horse of three to break the Pau dressage record when he posted a 22.2 on Thursday, and much like Laura and London 52, he posted a clear round inside the time with one fifth-leg moment at the corner combination at 14AB that proved he has the heart and will of a true five-star horse.
“I said yesterday that I was just really interested in how my horse would jump today and how the whole week was going to go, and I’m just immensely proud — as well as being so excited — to have such a lovely horse competing for his first time at this level and to have done it as he’s done it,” she says. “He felt absolutely top-class and so professional in how he went about it.”
That first-phase performance was a particular highlight for Piggy who, like all the riders and support teams here this week, was full of gratitude for the huge effort that went on behind the scenes to ensure that a CCI5* could run this year.
“Being so close to Laura and London after dressage — I think we all look up to and aspire to that in that phase,” she says. “I’m buzzing from that, but also so grateful to everyone here at Pau for getting this up and running and allowing us to have the performances that we’ve had all week. It goes for all the riders; we’re just so grateful for all the work that’s been done.”
Though Piggy isn’t the sort of rider to count her chickens before they’ve hatched, she’s understandably excited and brimming with positivity about the extraordinary future the eleven-year-old gelding, who was produced to CCI4*-L by fellow competitor Kevin McNab, looks set to have.
“He’s a very special horse, and an incredibly beautiful horse — he’s naturally talented, and he’s grown up a lot this year to be able to cope how he did this week with the low miles that he has. Now we just hope that he stays in one piece and continues on this path. I’d like to say that if I do my job well, hopefully he’ll take me somewhere. In my eyes, I think he’s very special,” she says with a smile.
The day wasn’t entirely the domain of newcomers to the level. Tim Price and his 2014 Luhmühlen winner, Wesko returned to Pau after an unfortunate mishap last year saw them come down in the final water while riding for a top spot — but this year, nothing could stop their easy-looking trajectory through the week, which saw them finish a single second over the time on yesterday’s cross-country and two in today’s showjumping.
“I’m just delighted with my week — it’s not quite as nice a taste to go home with as Laura, but it’s not far off on my end, with three horses that have all gone well after a very testing year for all of us,” says Tim, who also finished thirteenth after a clear round on Xavier Faer and fourteenth after knocking a pole with Ringwood Sky Boy — a true reversal of fortunes from previous years, which saw him take a tumble in the water in 2018, too, with Ascona M.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in that wooded area with the two waters chasing my horses around as they gallop free and I’ve got water in my boots and wondering whether I should just hide under a tree,” he laughs. “So it was nice to get three horses home clear, and I can be satisfied for our quieter time coming up.”
That seventeen-year-old Wesko — who Tim has always considered his superstar horse, and who took two years out of the sport with injury in 2016 and 2017 — should finish on the podium is particularly special.
“This is the icing on the cake. Wesko is just a through-and-through trier for me; he’s obviously got talent and ability and experience, but he’s old and he just does it out of pure desire to do what I want him to do,” he says. “For that, I’ll always be grateful to him and enjoy him while I’ve got him at this level.”
The hugely consistent Alex Bragg and his sixteen-year-old Zagreb finished fourth for the second year running, but this year, they broke their string of five-star rails with a superb clear round that saw them celebrating voraciously before they left the ring.
“You haven’t won it yet!” laughed Jonelle Price as Alex thrust his fists in the air — an understandable reaction from the the rider after the heartbreaking two rails of last year that pushed him down the order.
Though a repeat win eluded them this year, Tom McEwen and Toledo de Kerser produced masterclasses in both jumping phases to finish fifth on their dressage score of 27, climbing seven places through the week and affirming their remarkable prowess and consistency. Below them, World Number One Oliver Townend piloted MHS King Joules — who returns to international competition after nearly two years on the sidelines — to a very commendable sixth place after adding just 2 time penalties yesterday to his 28.3 dressage.
25-year-old Alexis Goury and Trompe l’Oeil d’Emery finished seventh — and best of the home nation — after finishing on their much-improved dressage mark of 30. 7. This is the same placing they found themselves in on their last trip to the event on their five-star debut in 2018, but their performance throughout the week showed considerable progress and maturity: their first-phase prowess is noticeably more finessed, their final phase was a clear, rather than their two rails of 2018, and though they finished inside the time on both occasions on cross-country, some of the debutant naivety had been taken out of their run this year to be replaced by a formidable conviction.
Had their 2020 performance come two years ago, they’d have found themselves on the podium — but, laughs Alexis ruefully, “there was, like, two British Olympic teams here. It was very difficult to compete with them, and so I was a little bit further down than I’d have been in previous years, but the cross-country did its job. I’m very pleased with my horse; he’s jumping better, his dressage is getting better, and he proved today that he’s a very careful horse.”
Fellow Frenchman and former Pau winner Maxime Livio took eighth place with the eleven-year-old stallion Vitorio du Montet, climbing from 31st place after dressage to finish on his first-phase mark of 32.4, while ninth-placed British five-star debutant Richard Coney, just 21 years old, enjoyed the biggest climb of the week, skipping up from 34th after dressage on the strength of his two superb jumping rounds with the tiny Mermus R Diamonds.
The top ten was ably rounded out by 23-year-old Mollie Summerland, who impressed throughout the week in her debut with the exciting eleven-year-old Charly van ter Heiden, a horse she’s produced herself from a five-year-old. Their highly watchable dressage test earned them a 25.5 and eighth place, and they finished bang on the optimum time yesterday after an effective and hugely promising round that showed the strength of their exceptional partnership. Two rails down today precluded a higher placing, but the maturity and promise of their performances through the week, paired with Charly’s obvious fitness and freshness today, should ensure great things from the duo in the future.
And so we come to the end of a remarkable week in the southernmost part of France: a week that’s brought the far-flung eventing family back together again, masked up and merry, to celebrate the sport that we’ve all missed so much in this strange year. The competition, which combined top-level eventing with the Singles Driving World Championship (not a speed-dating contest, we’re reliably informed), is a credit to organiser Pascal Sayous — who described putting the event on as “a difficult birth, rather like a C-section” — and his hardworking team. To be able to sally forth to the south of France and drink wine in the fickle sunshine with our friends is always a special treat; this year, it’s made us all feel nearly as lucky as Laura Collett.
Though so much has changed, some things remain steadfast and true: there will always be ups and downs in life and horses, but so often, time, trust, and a little bit of stubborn patience can create the perfect environment for the kind of hope and joy that everyone can share in. The off-season beckons for us all now, and what might follow it is anyone’s guess, but for this week, at least, life has felt a little more like normal for us all. And that’s powerful enough to propel us forth into whatever awaits us on the otherside.
For the final time from Pau, and as always: Go Eventing.