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We meet again, Michelet the Menace. Pierre Michelet, the designer of Pau’s CCI5* track, can always be counted upon to bring a smorgasbord of technical, tough questions to the table, and this year’s renewal of the French five-star certainly delivered, creating significant influence throughout this afternoon’s action and playing snakes and ladders with the post-dressage leaderboard.
45 horses and riders left the start box today following the overnight withdrawal of Australian duo Hazel Shannon and her three-time Adelaide winner Willingapark Clifford, who were making their European debut this week, and just 36 of them will go on to tomorrow afternoon’s final horse inspection and showjumping finale after a spate of retirements and eliminations on course. One of those came late in the day from Great Britain’s Izzy Taylor and Fonbherna Lancer, who sat tenth after dressage and looked to be making light work of the course until a nasty rotational fall just a handful of fences from home knocked them out of contention. We’re pleased to report that although Izzy was knocked unconscious by the fall, necessitating a hold on course, she hasn’t suffered any serious injuries and was conscious when transported to the local hospital for further observation, while Fonbherna Lancer was uninjured and walked away from the fall without issues.
That was certainly the most frightening moment on course today, but there was plenty of harmless drama too, with a number of top contenders running into trouble out on course. That included Brazil’s Carlos Parro and Calcourt Landline, equal eighth after dressage, who retired at the tail end of the course after a 20 at 27B, and debutants Bubby Upton and Cannavaro, who picked up an early 20 at the influential angled hedges at 5AB and called it quits. All three combinations who’d sat in equal 11th after dressage — William Fox-Pitt and Oratorio, Ailsa Wates and Woodlands Persuasion, and Madison Crowe and Waitangi Pinterest — completed with jumping penalties, and William, who sat third overnight with second ride Little Fire, would also notch up a late 20 at 27B with the gelding, dashing his hopes of a win here on the tenth anniversary of his last.
But the man at the very top of the leaderboard remained steadfast in his dominance, despite not actually expecting to achieve a clear inside the time today. New Zealand’s Tim Price has plenty of faith in his debutant, the small but perfectly formed Falco, but he came to the event with a pragmatic mindset about what was to come: though undeniably talented, the gelding has had some little wobbles across the country, and a first five-star always comes replete with a big question mark, no matter how consistent a horse is.
“I wasn’t sure if I’d be sitting [in the top three] or anywhere near here after yesterday, because this is an unknown department for my horse at this level,” says Tim. “But he really just delivered everywhere, including looking after me a couple of times, which is what we all want in five-star horse. They need to think for themselves from time to time, and he certainly did that.”
Tim was one of many people — including course designer Pierre — to be surprised by how achievable the time was, even for these inexperienced horses. Yesterday, he’d mentioned in the press conference that he thought he might add time along the way — “Jonelle has already pointed out the different places where I was incorrect with my predictions, and that was one of them,” he says with a laugh.
“The time was a little easier than we expected or anticipated — it’s one of those things where you just don’t know until you know. I just thought the horses would be a little more tired with the rigours of the course behind then and we’d be nursing them home a little bit more,” he says. But, he says, the ‘typical Pierre course’ was fairly built and made the best possible use of the small space its situated within, and “the ground was very good — it was just a smooth round and the horse met the fences well.”
Sometimes, horses seem to wait in the wings for their moment to shine, and today, Falco decided the eyes of the world were on him and he could deliver the goods. The pair executed a masterful clear inside the time, with the extravagant jumping horse tucking his knees like a showjumper over every fence — a hint, certainly, of what we can expect tomorrow from the gelding, who’s one of the most consistent showjumpers in the field.
The scoreboard after the first phase saw a Price family domination at the business end, with Tim’s lead closely followed by wife Jonelle Price and her own debutant, the former Mark Todd mount McClaren, in second place. But although Jonelle and ‘Mac’ produced an excellent clear round to well and truly put their 20 penalties at Aachen behind them, their 4.4 time penalties would drop them down to overnight sixth, opening the door for the some of the eleven combinations who delivered clear rounds inside the time to make their way into the top spots.
Chief among those was Ireland’s Padraig McCarthy, who began his week by posting his own best-ever international score of 24.9 yesterday with the five-star first-timer Fallulah, following it up with a catty clear that brought them home bang on the optimum time today. That allowed them to move up from fourth to second as we head into the final day.
“I was really thrilled with my mare today,” says Padraig of Fallulah, who was bred by former five-star rider and active eventing coach Ian Wills and produced to four-star by British rider Emily Philp. “I didn’t really know how she would cope with everything; I didn’t come with huge expectations, but she gave me a really great spin and kept fighting all the way to the end.”
Australia’s Kevin McNab is riding high on a well-deserved wave of self-belief after a major win in last week’s Seven-Year-Old World Championship, and today, he came ever closer to a much-deserved first five-star victory. The rangy Scuderia 1918 A Best Friend made his level debut here last year, and though his 20 penalties could have been a sign that Pau wasn’t his type of track, Kevin chose instead to use it as a learning moment — and today, the gelding showed just how much of an education he took from that day and his subsequent runs. He, too, posted a clear inside the time, boosting him from fifth to provisional third on his two-phase score of 26.2.
“My guy gave me a great round today,” says Kevin, who sits just a rail behind the leader as we look ahead to showjumping. “He answered all the questions really well, even if I didn’t always come up with the right response for him, so I was really happy with him. He actually found the time quite gettable as well, and I was expecting the time to be a lot tougher.”
Top of the Brits was Oliver Townend, who successfully trailblazer at the start of the day with Ridire Dorcha, adding 4.4 time penalties to move up from 15th to 12th place. But it was his second ride, the stalwart but notoriously tricky MHS King Joules, who once again made the greatest climb: his attacking round, which showed off the sixteen-year-old’s considerable experience, earned — you guessed it! — a totally penalty-free score, allowing the pair to step up ten places from fourteenth to fourth on 27.5.
Though she wisely chose to retire her second ride, Bicton under-25 CCI4*-L winner Cannavaro, after an early run-out, British debutant Bubby Upton made magic happen with her first round. Piloting long-time partner Cola, with whom she won individual silver at the 2019 Young Rider Europeans, she rode the course as though it was her twentieth five-star rather than her first, seeking out the forward distances that Michelet favours and attacking them without once sacrificing her sympathetic riding style. As she jumped the final fence and hugged her beloved gelding’s neck, it was a moment sweetened by the knowledge that she’d just come home clear and inside the time on her first-ever five-star round.
Pop quiz time, guys! When was the last time we saw a young British debutant deliver a penalty-free round at Pau? Ding-ding and a bottle of the fizzy stuff to you if your mind went straight to Molly Summerland, who did just that last year with Charly van ter Heiden and went on to win her second go at the level this summer. There’s no doubting that Bubby, who’s already an extraordinarily consistent competitor, has something just as big waiting around the corner for her, and she’s certainly not out of touch of the top spot today, either: her superb effort puts her in fifth place overnight, a huge leap from her seventeenth place after dressage on a score of 28.5.
Do you always feel like somebody’s watching you? Bubby might, with Jonelle Price and McClaren sitting a mere third of a penalty behind them on 28.8 after their 4.4 time penalties made them the only combination in the top ten to add anything in this phase. But she doesn’t have much of a buffer either: less than a penalty separates sixth-placed Jonelle from seventh-placed Tom McEwen, who overcame a nasty case of the flu to give debutant CHF Cooliser an excellent ride across the country.
They’d deliver yet another clear inside the time as the feisty chestnut mare — who’s often called Queen Elizabeth at home, due to her tendency towards royal-level demands — proved she’s a worthy second string to Tom’s 2019 winner and Olympic silver medallist Toledo de Kerser.
Great Britain’s David Doel doesn’t get enough credit for his masterful cross-country riding, but he certainly should: he was one of several two-horse riders today, but was the only one to bring both home clear and inside the time. The first of those was his diminutive chestnut Carneyhaugh Rua, who has now done just that in both his runs at the level, and was able to climb from 46th to 23rd place as a result of today’s excellent effort. The second, though, propelled the rider straight into the top ten, despite a tricky situation halfway through their round. As David tackled the twisty, circuitous middle section of the racetrack with Galileo Nieuwmoed, he was pulled up on course as medics tended to Izzy Taylor after her crashing fall. Though the hold would stretch over seemingly endless minutes, David quickly settled the inexperienced gelding back into his previous positive rhythm, and while he was initially awarded a smattering of time penalties, these were quickly removed at the end of the day. Now, David and the ten-year-old Dutch gelding, who fell on his debut at Bicton last month, go into showjumping in eighth place on a competitive score of 29.7 — a great leap from their initial 21st place. This is a reliable showjumping horse, too, so we could be about to see David’s second five-star top-ten finish of the year — and, finally, a chance for the rider to be heralded as the top-notch competitor he is.
Speaking of top-notch competitors — and all-round nice blokes, too — we were all very sad to see the news that Alex Bragg had opted to retire the great Zagreb recently. The seventeen-year-old gelding notched up an impressive four top-five finishes here over his ultra-consistent career, and in stepping up to the first string, young King of the Mill had some seriously big shoes to fill. And today, he was game for the challenge — and we wouldn’t have held it against you for a moment if, squinting through the rain to catch them galloping through the trees, you’d thought for a moment that Alex was back aboard his horse of a lifetime. After a green mistake on his debut here last year, King of the Mill obviously took a tip or two from his stablemate, and this year we’ll see him go into tomorrow’s finale in ninth place on his two-phase score of 30. Not too shabby at all, we reckon.
France’s Maxime Livio rounds out the top ten and heads up the home effort with Vitorio du Montet, with whom he finished eighth here last year on the horse’s debut. The Selle Français certainly isn’t your typical stamp of an event horse: he’s angular and a touch inelegant in his conformation, but once again, he proved today that he’s incredibly game and absolutely full of ‘allez!’ For the second year in a row, he added nothing in this phase, and if he can go clear again tomorrow, we could see him match or better last year’s placing.
“My horse is a great strider and so he needs a little bit of space at the beginning of the course,” says Maxime. “So I was a little bit behind the time at the three-minute mark and I had to ask the horse to gallop a little bit more — and when I do that, he doesn’t come back so easily. That makes him a bit more tired than I would expect around this course, but he was very generous the whole way around.”
It’s been a super day for our sole US representatives Liz Halliday-Sharp and the striking Cooley Quicksilver, who put the frustrations of yesterday’s dressage behind them and made easy work of the gelding’s second-ever five-star track this afternoon. Like several of the top-ranked horses in this field, ‘Monster’ demonstrated how productive an imperfect debut can be: he’d had a green mistake at Kentucky this spring, but looked classy and mature on course today, adding 8.4 time penalties to leap from 35th to 21st place.
Similarly, Canada’s Mike Winter had run into trouble in El Mundo‘s five-star debut at Bicton last month, and opted to retire on course so the gelding could be rerouted here. That decision paid dividends, and the pair produced a steady, confidence-building clear with 24 time penalties to move from 33rd to 26th place going into the final horse inspection tomorrow.
The Sunday schedule feels quite civilised, particularly after that sunrise horse inspection on Thursday; because the marathon phase of the CAIO4* combined driving competition takes precedence in the morning, we won’t actually head into the final horse inspection until 12.45 p.m. local time tomorrow (that’s 11.45 a.m. UK time or 7.45 a.m. Eastern time, because the clocks go back on this side of the pond tonight). Then, we’ll dive into the showjumping from 2.45 p.m. local time/1.45 p.m. UK/9.45 a.m. Eastern. As always, you can catch all the action on Horse&Country TV — and we do recommend following along if you can, because Pau’s showjumping phase always proves hugely influential here. Plus, you’ll get to catch the sheer madness of the prize giving, in which they send fit event horses and out-of-control combined driving horses on the most chaotic joint lap of honour you’ll ever witness. It’s beautiful, and it’s totally, uniquely Pau. Catch you there, pals.