Welcome to Luhmühlen. Tucked away in fairytale woods, the third five-star of the year wends its way past improbably teensy fairytale cottages, through dappled sunlight, and, presumably, around stray batches of nuns, because there are six – count ’em! Six! – nunneries in the area, all of which date back to the Middle Ages. (Everyone knows that the Middle Ages were an exceptionally naughty period in history – or they were in England, anyway, which wasn’t quite so distracted by Charlemagne’s riots and a few centuries of Mortal Kombat between battling popes. Nuns, in those days, took vows of poverty and kept themselves busy producing wine and ale, which sounds remarkably like being an equestrian journalist, actually.)
Anyway, once you’ve battled through a bunch of drunk nuns*, all of whom are busy ordering spicy fries with mayonnaise AND curry sauce, you make your way into the heart of the event – which is, frankly, no less bonkers than whatever I’ve just written.
*Probably just normal people who like eventing a bit.
Every five-star has its own distinct personality. Badminton is shrouded in a grandiose mantel of hushed awe, Kentucky is super-sized and colourful, glittering with a uniquely American jolliness. Burghley feels like the final month of school – the exams and the homework are the toughest they’ll be all year, but the end is near, and everyone’s feeling a bit cheeky as a result. Pau is marvellously French, like a Gallic shrug, a flicked cigarette, and then a no-seatbelts spin around a dizzying back road. Adelaide, I think, is judged by kangaroos.
Luhmühlen, for its part, is a Grimms Brothers fairytale writ large, except one of the Grimms is a bit drunk and can’t stop giggling, and the other one has given up trying to contain him. It’s a gorgeous venue – compact, well-dressed, and set in the improbably pretty countryside of Lower Saxony – and it’s incredibly relaxed and welcoming, with the sort of wink, wink, nudge, nudge humour that makes you think having a beer for breakfast is actually okay, all things considered.
The five-star got underway this afternoon amid splendid sunshine, with fifteen of the 34-strong field laying down their first-phase performances to thoughtfully curated soundtracks. (With 17 Brits in the competition, though, the resident DJ might have made a slight error in committing to an all-Beatles playlist for pathfinder Andrew James. Where do you go from there? Lionel Richie, apparently.)
In hugely exciting news for keen followers of #JapanWatch, Kazuma Tomoto set a high bar and will lead overnight with the Japan Racing Association’s Brookpark Vikenti (Master Imp x Tullineaskey Butler’s Simon). Although they’re consistently competitive, and certainly one of the favourites in this field, their score of 25.2 eclipses anything they’ve produced so far at the four-star level – which, all things considered, isn’t too shabby in the eleven-year-old’s five-star debut. For a little while, too, it looked as though it might not come together today.
“I can’t believe it, by my own self,” says a delighted Kazu, his trademark smile lighting up his face. “He was quite tense this morning, so I tried to make him just relax. He’s got very good movement – it’s soft, and it’s big, basically – so I just had to try to get him to relax. He’s quite sharp, so that, to me, is always the goal.”
It paid off. The pair produced a fluid, focused test, scoring particularly highly in the extended walk and second medium walk, where the gelding showed off his naturally prowling movement.
Brookparkpark Vikenti, who was originally produced by Ireland’s Michael Ryan, picked up his first international win last month, taking a CCI4*-S section at Chatsworth. As far as prep runs go, it’s ideal: Chatsworth, though a short four-star, is a serious stamina test, with relentless hills that make the time nearly impossible to get. It’s also a test of agility and footwork, with enough technical questions to trip up anyone who dares lose focus. Though Luhmühlen is considerably flatter, with just a handful of slopes, dips, and mounds, it’s a racetrack of a course, and will require quick thinking, quick footwork, and a horse and rider who can continue to fire on all cylinders mentally until the end.
“I’ve walked it twice – it’s a typical five-star course,” says Kazu. “It’s twisty, and there’s not huge fences, but it’s technical. He’s a very quick horse, and very good on cross country, but he’s sometimes very naughty! I’ll just have to do my best.”
Kazu pinched the lead from World Number One Tim Price, but just barely – riding his Tattersalls CCI4*-S winner Ascona M, he put a score of 25.8 on the board. Like Brookpark Vikenti, eleven-year-old ‘Ava’ (Cassaro x Naomi) is undeniably talented, but can be mercurial, too.
“She’s an extremely talented mare that can sometimes be a little bit extreme,” he quips of the German-bred mare, owned jointly by Sir Peter Vela, Suzanne Houchin, and Lucy and Ben Sangster. “It’s sometimes just about turning the volume down, and then she’s still good enough to be right up there. She can lose focus and then things can go wrong – but she stayed with me today. Maybe she could have been a little more up in the trot work, but you have to strike the balance.”
Ava made her five-star debut at Pau last year, and though she failed to complete, it wasn’t for lack of talent – in fact, it could be argued that her talent was the catalyst for her unlucky stumble. She made an exuberant leap into the water, just losing her footing on landing, and sending her unfortunate rider for swimming lessons. Since then, though, we’ve seen this clever, gutsy mare learn from her mistakes – she jumped considerably more economically into the tough final water at Tattersalls, and historically, she’s very quick – she’s never added a time penalty in any of her long-format runs.
“I think it’s quite difficult, and stamina will be a test,” says Tim of Mike Etherington-Smith’s cross-country course. “The ground is better than it’s ever been here, and while that will look after the horses’ legs, it’ll also be a little bit more draining on their way of going. I think that’ll make the time difficult.”
The CCI4*-S podium at Tattersalls feels achingly recent, and all the more so when you realise that today’s top three each stood atop it. (Kazu, admittedly, was riding a different horse, but bear with us here.) Once again, we see Alex Bragg and Zagreb occupying third place, with the fifteen-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Perion x Renera) back to his best in sunnier climes. They scored 29.7 – not quite a personal best, but not far off, either – displaying Zagreb’s incredibly powerful extended gaits at their very finest. Their score puts them less than a penalty ahead of Germany’s first competitors, the enormously experienced Andreas Dibowski and FRH Butts Avedon, on 30.5.
What’s better than one of our #JapanWatch heroes taking the lead? Two of them squeezing into the top five, of course. Yoshiaki Oiwa rode his 2017 Bramham winner Calle 44 to a score of 31.3, taking fifth place at this early stage despite some minor fussiness in the contact. Yoshi, who is based in Germany with Dirk Schrade, is one of the Japanese team’s most experienced riders – cast your mind back to the London Olympics, if you will, where you may just recall him leading after the first phase. He’s a serious competitor, and a huge hope for next year’s Tokyo Olympics, but with The Duke of Cavan off games, all hopes rest on Calle’s broad shoulders.
We doubt Yoshi minds. Calle is a consummate competitor: his score today sits a few marks higher than his average, and he’s a very good jumping horse, as proved by his recent form. He’s only been out of the top 20 in an international three times since the beginning of the 2017 season – that’s fifteen top twenty placings, and eleven of those were top ten.
The first of our American gals on tour took to the main arena today. Allie Knowles and her seventeen-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred Sound Prospect are no stranger to foreign shores – they finished just outside the top twenty at Pau in 2017, making nothing of the most difficult course we’ve ever seen there. Now, propelled by a second-place finish in the Jersey Fresh CCI4*-S, they’re back for more. Their score of 38.5 sees them sit in eleventh place at the end of the first day of dressage, but as a Thoroughbred, Sound Prospect will enjoy an enviable advantage here. We look forward to watching the climb.
The second batch of tests commences tomorrow at 2.00 p.m. local time/1.00 p.m. BST/8.00 a.m. EST, and once again, you’ll be able to live-stream it in full – just click the link in the footer to find out how. Sneaking in some Team USA cheerleading on a coffee break? Schedule it for 2.56 p.m. local time/1.56 p.m. BST/8.56 a.m. EST – that’s when Frankie Thieriot Stutes and Chatwin will make their five-star debut.
We’ll be back tomorrow with more content than even we know what to do with – stay tuned for more five-star news, a full report on all the action in the Meßmer Trophy dressage, and a course preview from the World Number One himself.