If Le Lion d’Angers hasn’t made it onto your eventing bucket list yet, let this serve as your sign: it needs to go straight to the top. I can’t quite call to mind any event that isn’t a 5* that attracts the crowds and buzz around these top young horses coming to the biggest challenge of their careers in France. The atmosphere is palpable, even while covering the event remotely as I am this week, and it feels like you’re getting a sneak preview at horses we’ll be seeing on future World Championship or Olympic squads (want proof? Many of the horses from the 2018 Le Lion are now household names now that they’re of 5* and Championship age — check out the results list and see how many names you recognize). Add in a gorgeous, impeccably decorated cross country, beautiful French fall weather, and enough to do for even the more non-horsey members of your party, and you’ve got yourself a quintessential eventing experience.
The idea behind a 6- and 7-year-old World Championship is a tricky one, isn’t it? On one hand, you want to separate the cream from the crop, providing a true championship-caliber challenge that also bears in mind the fact that, with any hope, there’s much more yet to come for these horses. The atmosphere here takes care of a good chunk of that task, as it’s more than most of the horses here will have ever seen with its tight roping and packed-in crowds. And while stalwart French course designer Pierre Michelet may have earned himself somewhat of a polarizing reputation, he’s popular in France — heralded for its young horse development system for generations — for a reason.
Liz Halliday-Sharp described the track best yesterday, noting that Pierre had left “room for interpretation” on his 2* and 3* tracks. A fundamental part of every event horse’s education is learning to acclimate — quickly — to changing terrain, to go away from each fence in pursuit of the time, to read and react quickly and seek out the next pair of flags.
“There’s a lot to do, but it’s not always about jumping,” Phillip Dutton elaborated after his clear round today inside the time aboard Denim in the 7-year-old class. “It’s about accelerating and turning and different angles coming to the jumps. Certainly it’s different style than what a lot of American horses are used to. I think it’s got to be the right kind of horse, but it’s a good experience for all involved.”
Of course, not every horse will come here and grow from the experience. Most riders here will be quick to tell you that it’s a certain type of horse that will excel here, and if you can coax them through three solid phases you’re sitting on a horse that’s well-prepared for the next steps in its career.
Certainly setting himself up as a definitive One To Watch™ early on this morning in the 6-year-old 2* division is Caroline Martin‘s HSH Connor (Connor 48 – Galwaybay Merstona, by Mermus R), who added no penalties and came home nearly 30 seconds under the optimum time to retain the lead earned in the dressage phase on a score of 25.2. Caroline left the box on a mission, putting to good use the old adage that if you ride the horse like it’s a seasoned campaigner, they’ll learn to step up and answer the questions as such. And like a knife through butter, Caroline carved her way through the track easily, shaving off seconds with her ability to kick for the next set of flags and trust in the boldness of the Irish gelding owned by Caroline and Sherrie Martin as well as Luanne McElduff.
“Connor was absolutely unreal,” Caroline told me. “He was so bright and brave and on it, there wasn’t really one question I was worried about. He did slip through one turn, but that was more my rider error than him. He was just absolutely class. I have such high hopes for him for the future. He felt like he could run four more minutes.”
If you’ve talked to Caroline at all this year, gratitude is the first thing you’ll hear from her — thanks to the support of her wonderful owners — who came onboard for these two horses after they were originally sourced to be sold by Kelly Hutchinson, and very nearly were sold two times — the Wilton Fair Grant provided by USEF and funded by David Lenaburg, and the mentorship of Rolex Grand Slam winner Pippa Funnell, she’s had a banner year basing in the UK and capping off with this event followed by one last hurrah at Pau next week with Islandwood Captain Jack.
“Coming here last year, I was completely a fish out of water and out of my element,” she explained. In 2021, she competed in the 2* here with Kings Especiale, finishing in 20th overall. “It’s the reason why I thought it was so important to move over here eventually, and the Wilton Fair grant couldn’t have come at a better time. All the thanks goes to the Federation, everyone who gave me that grant and David [Lenaburg], who provided the grant. If it wasn’t for that, there’s no way I would be in the position I am today. I think we have to come away from this weekend so far with how good my horses were and I think the future is bright for them.”
Caroline says she has to pinch herself as she comes to the finish line these days, where Pippa’s almost always waiting for her. “It’s not often that a professional completely takes someone under their wing,” she said. “She’s given me so much of her time. I came to the finish and she started crying, and then I started tearing up. It’s just so special.”
As icing on the cake, Caroline also expressed her deep thanks for her receipt of the Holekamp/Turner Le Lion D’Angers Grant, which was awarded this weekend to 7-year-old HSH Blake, owned by Caroline and Sherrie Martin alongside Molly Hoff, who along with HSH Connor rose up via the USEA Young Event Horse Program. “It’s proof that the pipeline we have in America is working,” she said.
Moving from 16th into 11th and well within range of a top 10, or better, finish are Cornelia Dorr with DHI Qyaracolle Z (Quinar Z – Celiacolle Z, by Chellano), who finished clear inside the time today in the mare’s first 2*-L effort. This is a horse originally sourced for Cornelia as a four-year-old by Kevin McNab via Ian and Heidi Woodhead. Cornelia purchased the mare off video alone, a gamble that’s paid off especially with Cornelia’s decision to go over to the UK and base with Kevin.
“It’s been my plan to take her here to Le Lion since I decided to come over for the year,” Cornelia said. “She’s really, really straight and really amazing brave horse. She’s actually braver than Daytona, I’d say, so I wasn’t terribly stressed about the course. I was curious how the crowds would affect her, and they didn’t affect her at all…so that was really cool and exciting for the future.”
“I’ve learned a lot about her this week, but specifically I think it’s been more confirmed to me that she’s a serious horse for the future,” Cornelia continued. “It’s been really great to know what she will be like going forward in an atmosphere like this. There was a huge dressage atmosphere, and cross country I think there were thirty thousand people and it’s just really great to have that confidence in her. And the fact that she’s so brave about the jumping — she reads everything so well, she’s just a little baby genius as I like to say.”
Canadian pair Kelly McCarthy Maine and Cooley Cardento (Cardento – Viranda, by Furore) picked up two refusals on course, one early on at fence 4B and a second at fence 18 but finished with more experience and knowledge to take home with them.
Also holding onto her dressage lead in the 7-year-old 3*-L division are Germany’s young prodigy Anna Lena Schaaf, who aims to pick up a second consecutive championship win here at this event with Lagona OLD (Lavagon X – Ile de Cartina, by Cartani 4), last year’s 6-year-old winner. The quick and nippy mare learned much in her first trip here, Anna Lena says, which served to benefit the pair out on course today.
“I think she learned a lot here last year,” Anna Lena said. “It was good that she was already here — she knows the crowd and she knows all the different jumps. I think some horses are a little bit spooky, but for her it was just like, ‘okay can we do this now?’ She was so straight on our line and so focused, and she really wants to run. I don’t have to push her after a jump. It was really easy for me. She is a small horse with not the biggest canter, and she always lands directly after the jump which is really easy for me because I can be quick and add one more stride between the fences. She has really quick reactions.”
Tomorrow will tell us whether or not we’ll see the 6-year-old champion come back to win the 7-year-old championship for the first time since 2014, when Tom Carlile’s Tenareze added another trophy to his 2013 Le Lion title. “I had a bit of pressure, but today I don’t feel this — I’m just so so happy with how it went today and so proud of Lagona,” Anna Lena said. “Tomorrow we will see — I think then I have a bit more pressure but I hope I can handle it.”
It’s mostly been a banner weekend for the strong American contingent, and heading into tomorrow’s finale it will be Phillip Dutton with Ann Lapides, Caroline Moran, and Neill Sites’ Denim (Dinken – Celia II, by Ibisco xx) as top-placed for the U.S. in the 3*-L, adding nothing to their dressage score of 26.3 to move up to 10th. Believe it or not, this is one event the well-traveled Phillip has not been to before, so it’s a bit of a bucket list tick for him, too.
“There’s not many events I haven’t been to!” Phillip told me. “And [Denim] is a very exciting seven year old, so it’s good to mix in with the other top seven year olds in the world and his owners were excited for the opportunity to come over.”
Phillip calls the learning experience here “eye-opening” for young horses, and while he admits this wouldn’t have been his ideal cross country track, he does acknowledge that it’s all to play for in terms of the development of the horse. “Certainly the atmosphere and the intensity and pressure on the horses is unique,” he elaborated. “I’m not sure the cross country was that educational, it’s not my ideal cross country course, but it’s all part of the horse growing up. I think it’s got to be the right kind of horse you bring here, but it’s a good experience for everyone, including the owners, and it’s a fun event to be at.”
Next for the U.S. are Liz Halliday-Sharp with Ocala Horse Properties’ Shanroe Cooley (Dallas VDL – Shanroe Sapphire, by Condios), who also showed his top class on cross country today to add no penalties to his starting mark of 27.3.
“He was unbelievable,” Liz said. “He’s kind of a freak of a horse, he just finds it very easy. He was 16 seconds inside the time, which wasn’t really my plan but he has such a huge stride, he found it all very easy.”
Yesterday, Liz expressed some frustration with the dressage scoring on Thursday — despite a mistake in the medium canter during her test with Shanroe Cooley, she felt the marks she received were lower than the quality she showed. It’s an interesting phenomenon, to track scoring when a division runs over multiple days. Friday’s tests saw no test rider intended to align the judges’ scoring, and one could make the argument that the scoring rubrics trended somewhat differently on the second day. Liz’s score put her well further down than she would have liked to begin, and with good going today on a track that won’t typically eliminate a ton of horses (remember the concept of development here — you wouldn’t want to see a ton of eliminations, but sometimes this makes it difficult for riders to climb even with double clear jumping efforts), Liz was unable to move up the standings as aggressively as she would have liked to. She and “Dallas” still leap from 16th to 12th, however, just over two poles out of the lead with a formidable show jumping test yet to come tomorrow.
“Walking the course, I thought everyone might make the time,” Liz said. As I mentioned earlier, a track like this is a fine line and a unique challenge — test the horses, make your mark as a championship combination, but don’t punish. Liz says she felt an additional combination or question to slow the horses down on the way home could have at least made the time less gettable. “For me, it was a softer track than I rode in 2019 and the time was very easy. I feel like there could have been something to slow them up after the last combination. It’s a fine line, I’m sure, for Pierre Michelet as well because they are young horses.”
Time in Europe is about to become more the norm for Liz, who sat down with Chris and Rob Desino of Ocala Horse Properties and coach Erik Duvander after the Maryland 5 Star to map out the next year. That plan includes a couple of 5* events that begin with a B, to name a couple. The Desino brothers, who first entered into event horse ownership with a younger Deniro Z, have built up their string of Halliday horses to the point where the goal is to have several qualified for the Paris Olympics in two years’ time.
“It’s a sport that you can actually get around and understand, and take an interest in and care about,” Chris described when asked how eventing became the Ocala Horse Properties home. “On a Thursday, you can be up, on a Friday you can be down, but you can talk to the same people who really care about each other. It’s just a sport that’s very small but means a lot to everybody who’s here. Everyone here is so supportive of each other.
Caroline Martin is right behind Liz, moving to 13th with another double clear effort aboard HSH Blake (Tolan R – Doughiska Lass, by Kannan), adding no additional marks to her dressage score of 27.4.
It was sadly not the weekend for Lucia Strini and Plain Dealing Farm’s Keynote Dassett (Vigo d’Arsouilles – Bubble Gum, by Cardento), who came to grief on cross country today with two refusals and an eventual retirement at the final combination on course, a tricky downhill bank made to feel like you’re jumping off a roof to two angled brushes on a camber (Tilly, I hope you’re reading this and are proud). While their overseas adventure ends here, I hope some valuable experience and exposure was nonetheless gained and that we’ll see this pair back out smashing it soon.
Sunday will bring the final horse inspection as well as show jumping, which begins at 11:00 a.m. local time / 5 a.m. EST for the 2* and 2:30 p.m. local / 8:30 a.m. EST for the 3*. I’ll be back with one final missive from France (or, well, from my living room, which is currently operating on French time — which is admittedly way less enjoyable than actually being in France) tomorrow. Until then, Go Eventing!