Once, years ago, I described Pau’s course designer, Pierre Michelet, a man who looks like the sweetest French grandpa in a butterscotch-yellow cardigan, as such:
“There’s a rumour that suggests that if you stand in front of an arena mirror and say “zut alors, zat is a short four!” three times he’ll appear, red-eyed and spectral, and make you jump a curving line of skinny fences as penance for disturbing his slumber. “Non,” he will say, “zat is a long three. 20 penalties.”
Others say that you can summon him by putting pointed studs, a triple espresso, and a man in a horse suit in a circle and singing the French national anthem, which is Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes, we think.
Michelet the Menace, as he’s been affectionately dubbed, is the man responsible for one of the most consistently interesting courses in top-level eventing. Lacking the sheer space of venues like Badminton, Burghley, and Kentucky, Pau is best known for its serious twists and turns as it snakes its way between the gas stations and garden allotments of the city’s fringes. It’s not a galloping track, despite the fact that it takes place at a racetrack — instead, it’s rather more akin to go-karting-meets-crazy-golf.”
Honestly, my opinion hasn’t changed, and my writing hasn’t improved enough to better this, and nor has my time management, which sees me finishing this thing up with, like, not that much time to go before cross-country starts, so this year, I’m sticking with it. Mr Burns GIF and all. He might look sweet and innocent, but he’s not. He might have a corgi, but you cannot trust him. (He is, admittedly, very clever, though.)
THE TECHNICAL DETAILS
Jumping efforts: 45
And here’s a look at how that 6322 meters gets crammed into a teeny-weeny surface area, tucked into the north end of the city of Pau:
Cross-country gets underway in just over an hour, with our pathfinding combination, Jesse Campbell and Cooley Lafitte of New Zealand, leaving the startbox at 11.30 a.m. local time/10.30 a.m. BST/5.30 a.m. EST. You can find the times in full here, and follow along with the live stream here — but for now, let’s get this beast of a course walked.
EN’s coverage of Les 5 Etoiles de Pau is brought to you by Kentucky Performance Products.
The first three fences are, ostensibly, just the usual sort of run-and-jump profiles that you’d expect a course designer to set to get horses and riders off the ground, but with a twist: the startbox is situated right next to the warm-up and the lorry park, and so some horses may well feel a bit off the leg as they move away from the safety of their pals to the first. Then they’ll pop the second on flat ground – but the third, a stacked log table, is right at the crest of a steep artificial mound, and not only will they be taking a leap of faith – one of the most frequent elements of this course – with a downhill landing, they’ll also stare down the busy road outside as they take off, which is a lot for a fresh horse to take in without losing focus.
Better get used to the feeling of going down, down, down: at the first combination at 4AB, there’s a beefy log drop to start, followed by a left-handed corner at B. There’s some options there for how you can execute that line, but in any case, it’s a classic Pierre Michelet distance. He tends to build things that walk, at first glance, on a half-stride, and on second glance, as a ‘long something’ or a ‘short something’ — and generally, he’s hoping to see you take the long something. This is an attacking three, by that logic, and it’s enough to really let you know you’re at a five-star. There’s actually an alternative B element here, which is quite poky and takes you back on yourself, but if you already find yourself needing a long route at the very first combination, you might be in trouble.
Then, it’s a bit of a hustle down to fence 5, an upright, wood-topped, concrete wall with plenty of foliage to create a friendly groundline, but the solidity of this fence means that you want to moderate your pace a bit on the approach. There’s also changing light to think about: our competitors will be jumping right into the woods here.
The second combination features two of Pierre’s favourite type of fence: achingly long, breath-holdingly narrow skinnies. There’s four of them, but just two to jump, with a big of a mix-and-match selection, route-wise. Riders will need to have a plan and ride this positively to make the distance — both between the A and B elements, and over their jumpable top spread.
And so we come to the first water – and the first part of a twisty, turning, tumble dryer route around the wooded section that made me stop about five times when I walked the course because I was so lost that I wasn’t even totally sure I was within the ropes anymore. The photos don’t show any water, alas – that’ll have been pumped in for today’s competition – but here’s a look through the direct route at 7AB, which takes us over a big, brushy swan and then straight on down to a big old right-handed corner, before hanging a right and heading out of the complex. This, again, is a pretty aggressive line, with two big fences – and, pertinently, a huge amount of people hanging over the very close roping to get a glimpse of the riders. The atmosphere here will be huge, and distracting, so this will take major positivity.
There’s a big loop to get through, at the middle of which is fence 8 — a MIM-clipped upright gate on a modest mound. It’s not a tough fence in its own right, but riders are stuck in a few slow minutes here and will be trying to get a wiggle on around this loop. If they come too fast to this, though, there’s the very real risk of a clip activation and 11 penalties, so they’ll need to moderate the pace and rebalance the canter. It’s effectively placed simply to make it harder to catch the time. Naughty, clever Pierre.
And back down we come! This time, we’re passing through the first water complex from the opposite side, over this not-at-all-small, quite skinny brush-topped spread fence, and then down the ‘chute’ into the pond, where they’ll hang a left, jump up a step, and over an angled brush at C, which is basically invisible to the horses until they’ve touched down atop that bank.
There she is! This is, as you might have guessed, set on an open stride, and because the horses get such a late read on it, riders will need to make sure they’re being totally clear with their aids to keep them on a line, travelling boldly, and feeling confident. They’ll also want to execute a good jump up that bank, because if they land too short and close to the edge, they’ll make that long distance almost impossible.
After negotiating that tough water, it’s time to head in the direction of the racecourse — the much more open middle section of the course. En route to that, they’ll jump this big brush spread at 10, alongside one of the perimeter roads. Spectators stuck in a queue on their way in will enjoy getting to see a bit of sport through what looks like prison fencing.
Don’t get too comfortable with those single spread fences on flat ground, though: at 11AB, we head straight up a stiff mound to pop a log on top and land running — or tiptoeing — downhill to the B element, a skinny that’s so skinny that it might be worth skipping breakfast. This is a classic Pau question, and it’s also going to see plenty of action in the form of runouts through the day.
Yeah, sure, fine, no big deal.
After that technical effort, it’s time to cross the boundary line into the racetrack, find a bit of ‘allez, allez,’ and, after a short gallop stretch, leap this classic five-star fly fence. The ditch and brush combo might not be quite as dimensionally imposing as Burghley’s Cottesmore Leap, but it sure isn’t small. This is intended to be jumped from an attacking stride, and that sets the theme for this section of the course, which is where riders will want to claw back some seconds on the clock after a twisty, technical first section and a similar final section.
At 13AB there’s a combination that’ll invite the less on-the-ball to make a mistake and have a run-out. The first element is a timber oxer, which is MIM-clipped, and the second, which you can just see in the background of the photo above, is an open corner on a curving left-handed line — but it’s a totally blind turn, so riders will have to deliver on a very good plan that allows their horses time to see what they’re jumping. This isn’t a line where you can wing it: you need to know what you’re doing and prepare.
And if you don’t? Enjoy a run out to the right, or a MIM penalty.
Phew! A single fence at 14 — it feels like we’ve seen so few of these.
And another at 15, the farthest point of the racetrack, if angled trakehners are the sort of thing that floats your boat.
Fence 16, a brush fronted with white rails, might look pretty innocuous, but that brush is as wide as it gets — so once again, it’s all about pace and power here. Having had a few consecutive fences they can tackle in an open pace, though, riders will hopefully have a bit more of a handle on the clock as they come to next few combinations.
There’s shades of 11AB at 17AB, which once again features a stiff manmade mound, a log on top, and a skinny at the bottom on a left-handed line. The log’s a big skinnier here, and the skinny’s a touch less imposing, and the line — well, that’s typical Pierre, and requires a bit of French, forward riding. By this point, though, horses and riders should be well-versed in this sort of thing.
New on course this year is 18ABC, which we wiggle our way around to from 17. It’s a coffin complex, with perhaps the smallest ditch I’ve ever seen – it’s only revetted on the take-off side, and its neon blue on the inside, so that’s…interesting, I guess. With skinny elements at A and C, a curving left-handed line through the question, and forward distances, this could well see a few faulters through the day’s sport.
Before we get to the racecourse water, there’s another new fence — this time, a beefy enough elephant trap at 19. It’s a kick-on fence, but it’s also MIM-clipped, so there’s that. Kick on, but kick on wisely, and don’t miss, whatever you do.
This middle water is interesting; the direct route is an angled log drop in, the same as last year, and then two skinnies on a curving right-handed line through the middle of the pond. But those skinnies are separately numbered; the first is a B element to 20, while the second is 21, which offers a bit more freedom in how you’d tackle them, even though they’re very much on a related distance.
Like, you could technically circle between them without penalty. Although I don’t know why you’d want to. This whole thing walks, in Pierre striding, as a three to a two, but we’ll see all sorts of combinations of strides through here, plus a few long routes, no doubt, as well as some mix-and-match lines.
After that water, our competitors will head out of the racetrack and back into the twisty bit of the course, following much the same track as they did on the way out. They’ve got a little room to breath, regroup, and kick on before they come to fence 22, a brush-topped house atop a mound (are you sick of mounds yet? Hoo boy).
That can’t really be ridden as a single fence, though, because on a left-handed curving line at the bottom of the mound they’ll meet fence 23, a left-handed collapsible open corner.
Then, they’ll come down to the final water, which is just next to the first water, which was also the second water, and oh man, this course should be sponsored by TomTom, if that’s a company that survived the advent of iPhones. Anyway, 24A is a log drop into the drink — there will be drink, I promise — and then onward to an angled swan, with some choices to be made about how much bend to put in that line, and how to make a half-stride a full stride.
Then, they’ll hang a left, do a loop around the pond, and pop this single fence at 25, landing on a downhill slope. It’s a pretty nothing-y single fence to look at, but we always see some great saves here when people don’t quite give it the respect it deserves.
New this year is this very cute family of champignons, who live on the edge of the woods and are a herald for home. There’s just a few bits and bobs left to do on the way…
…and one of them, I guess, is a spot of trick or treating, which the kids of the lorry park did in fine style last night, as is tradition here at this spooky szn five-star. Horses, at this late stage, shouldn’t be spooking at decorations, and should make easy enough work of this rail, but they’ll need a touch of set-up so they jump it neatly and don’t hang a leg. Also, Ros’s Izilot DHI might not like these decorations — but she’ll be delighted that they’ve saved them for late, not put them in early on course.
As we bounded up the mound to fence 28A, we met up with one very, very famous face, who got off their e-bike, put their hands on their hips, glanced at the fence and then at what follows it and shook their head: “that,” they sighed, “is a m&$%£@f*£@$er.” There was no censorship, mind you.
This mound is always enormously influential at Pau, and always features a big, big jump at the top and a nearly blind right-handed line curving around the bottom of the hill, and that’s exactly what we’ve got again this year.
After jumping 28A, the direct line will take them down over the skinny that you can just see the top of in this photo, and then around to the right over a fence you can see a tiny bit of the base of, if you squint. There’s a long route, and a different, smaller A element, too, but for those guys who are fighting for the top spot and trying to overcome the super-tight margins of the first phase, they’ll need to make this work, because the gains on the clock will be so valuable.
Then, they’ll scurry up another man-made mound to a single fence — nothing hard, just something to respect on a tired horse — before heading into the arena, where three final fences await.
First up, as always, is this angled line, which infrequently causes issues but often causes not very pretty efforts, because horses are tiring and riders are gunning for the finish.
And that’s what they’ll find on the other long side of the arena, and they’ll be carried over it by the enthusiastic cheers of the home crowd, who love eventing with a passion and fervour that’s above and beyond that of any other country, really. There’s a lot to do out there today, but that much is certain: all our riders and horses, no matter which country they represent, will be buoyed along by tens of thousands of peoples’ worth of cheers and support.
Want to know what those riders think of the challenge to come? We caught up with plenty of them here.
Allez, allez, my friends – let’s Go Eventing.