One year ago, Tim Price was busy running a string of young horses at England’s Nunney Horse Trials. In a break between classes, he dashed to the organisers’ office, just in time to pull up the Luhmühlen live-stream and watch wife Jonelle take the victory riding her feisty grey mare, Faerie Dianimo. This year, the tables were turned, and Jonelle, who runs her own string at Nunney this weekend, was the one running for the nearest iPad.
“At least, I hope so,” laughs Tim, who delivered a clear round with 3.6 time penalties to take the win with his own feisty grey mare, Ascona M. “Maybe she’s just riding her horses and will find out later and tell me what I should do better!”
It’s a fitting touch that Tim’s win – his third at this level, and his second at this venue – should fall on Father’s Day. After all, it was fatherhood that brought the eleven-year-old mare to his string. For Tim and Jonelle, who have mastered the balancing act of parenting their young son, Otis, and scooping up a plethora of major wins as they do so, it’s all part and parcel of the day job – but the newly-crowned World Number One still feels the thrill, and the disbelief, of finding himself on top.
“It’s quite special coming back here; it’s like coming home,” he says, praising the efficient organisation and inimitable hospitality of the German showcase. “I still feel like I’m trying to make my way in this sport. I know that sounds silly because I’ve become Number One, which was also a surprise. It’s a great place to be, but it also feels like you’re carving your way. To come to somewhere where I’ve won before [at the five-star level] is a new feeling for me – a good feeling! This was the home of my first-ever five-star win, and no matter which one you go to, they’re so hard to win. These days don’t come around every day, or every year, or every half-century! It’s been a long, hard road – we have to invest so much time and faith into every horse, but then when you get there, it’s so much fun for everyone.”
Tim has certainly invested his fair share of faith in Ascona M, who is jointly owned by Sir Peter Vela, Suzanne Houchin, and Ben and Lucy Sangster. Talented but unconventional, she’s never been the most straightforward of rides.
“She’s wildly talented, and sometime’s she’s wildly wild – but she’s incredibly good, and now she’s learned to deliver that talent at the top level. It’s all still new discoveries with her, but it’s been a joy to bring her here and see that she’s very capable,” Tim explains. This is the mare’s second five-star: her debut came last year at Pau, where she sat in the top five after dressage but went for an early swim after an exuberant leap into the water. Nevertheless, Tim prevailed.
“This is her first time at this level, properly – we had one go before, unsuccessfully, and it lasted about one-and-a-half minutes on the cross-country! She’s now completed, which is job number one, and to complete with consistency in all three phases is something we all strive for, particularly with a green horse. It’s something I’m really proud of for her.”
As he rode into the arena today, he knew he was up against the real deal: fuelled by pickled herring sandwiches and incomprehensible German disco bangers, course designer Martin Otto builds a notoriously colossal course for the final phase at Luhmühlen. By the end of the 22-strong class, only two would manage to complete without adding penalties. Life, as the Germans say, is no pony farm – and nor is showjumping.
Tim’s 3.6 time penalties might seem slightly drastic, but the time was among the tightest we’ve seen at this level – and after Alex Bragg and Zagreb knocked an unfortunate rail, Tim had over five penalties in hand. He could have had a rail, sure, and he could have had time – but to have both would have been to play with fire. Although Tim was once rather adept at juggling flaming batons, allegedly, his fire-playing days are well behind him, and so he rode a tactical round that allowed the mare, with her unique form, to record a steady clear.
“Today, I put myself into a mode that I was in for Burghley last year – [Ringwood Sky Boy] is a fairly similar horse,” he explains. “He’s much more experienced, but he’s lanky and not the most careful, so I tried to go to that place where I could just be relaxed and methodical and bring the jump out of her in the warm-up. I was a little bit slow, but she certainly jumped really well the whole way around, so I just need to find a little bit more time, maybe cut a few more turns and get a little bit closer, but I’m really pleased with her.
“What you feel in the moment is assertiveness from her, and determination, and then the athleticism through the questions. Then I watch it back and she’s upside-down, she’s throwing her head on landing, and I’m like, ‘ugh, that’s not as pretty as it felt!’ But I think the fact remains that she’s been very determined, and that’s why, despite not jumping every jump quite the same out here and sometimes doing something funny with her legs, it’s all through her desire to leave the poles up and get to the other side. She’s a stern mare.”
Competitive success is all well and good, but the real question on everyone’s minds was this: why had Tim been so conspicuously absent from Luhmühlen’s party scene all week?
“Focus is a 24/7 thing for me, I think,” he explains, finally – and mercifully – parked in front of a drink for each hand. “It’s the whole process, from when you arrive until the moment you leave, so that I can feel good within myself and comfortable. Then it’s the closest I can get to feeling like I’m riding at home. That, with a little bit of the juice that the adrenaline gives you in the moment, is the recipe I’m looking for.”
A clear round with just 1.2 time penalties allowed Tom McEwen and Figaro van het Broekxhof to climb from fourth after cross-country into second place. Although Tom is best known for his partnership with the spectacular Toledo de Kerser, he’s been quietly creating a superstar out of the fourteen-year-old gelding, tactically picking out the best of what’s been left behind by his several previous riders and adding his own touch to the recipe, too. One of the crucial elements has been his ability to gallop – and this season, it’s clear that he’s finally learned how to trust in, and transition within, the gait.
“I’m absolutely delighted with Mr Fig,” says Tom, for whom this is a career-best finish at this level. “Cross-country he was spot on the optimum time, and although he made me work towards the end, he’s so honest and true. He’s got an amazing heart in him, and an amazing, kind character that just wants to please you. Even though he’s tired, if you get him there with the right energy, you know he’s getting to the other side. I’ve never been past ten minutes [on cross-country] with him, so to feel him actually getting a bit tired yesterday and then to come out and jump a super clear today, well, I couldn’t be happier with him.”
It’s been a bittersweet week for Alex Bragg, who has skated so close to the top spot from the word go, but whose pole today stopped him from taking his first-ever five-star victory.
“It cost me the win, so it was pretty expensive,” he says with a sigh. But after a spring season of uncharacteristically lacklustre performances, he knows all too well how fleeting success can be – and to have his fifteen-year-old partner back to his very best is the first step on his committed campaign to taking the win he’s due.
“Zagreb felt amazing after cross-country, and he trotted up well. I was probably thinking after the treble combination that the bulk of the work was done, and the one thing I needed to do was put some pressure on Tim,” he explains. “The time was tight, so I needed to make the time to put that pressure on. I cut across the upright, thinking that it was an easy fence for the horse to jump so I wouldn’t have to waste time, and unfortunately he touched it with a back toe and dropped the rail. Where I was trying to grab an inch, I actually lost a place.”
“It’s very unfortunate – we’re all here to try to win, and obviously I’m thrilled to be here and on the podium today, the horse has done a great performance. But I’d love to be sat in Tim’s spot as the winner, and that’s what I’m always going to try to do. But it was no fault of the horse – it was just enthusiasm from me to try to put that pressure on so he would make a mistake. And he didn’t – he went steady, and he had the time in hand that he needed. I’m not going to leave here disappointed, that’s for sure.”
Amid a top ten filled with enormously experienced five-star competitors, a debutante pair made a profound mark. Frankie Thieriot Stutes has been waiting a long time – fifteen years, to be precise – to compete at this level, and just to start this week with her phenomenal partner Chatwin was a dream come true. To finish in fourth place after jumping clear and adding just 0.8 time was something beyond dreaming.
“He’s just such an amazing horse – he’s pretty tanked today,” laughs Frankie. “In the warm-up, I felt like he was a little tired, and he went in and as always, he just tried his hardest. All the way to the last fence, he gave me everything he had.”
Despite balancing her competitive pursuits with motherhood and the running of her own marketing business, Frankie takes a decidedly focused approach to how she prepares for her runs. As a result, she was able to ride into the main arena today without feeling the weight of intimidation when she saw the tough course towering over her.
“I’ve been practicing a lot, actually, at home with Erik Duvander and my showjumping coach, so I was lucky to have set up a 1.30 course in our practice ring last week with Erik,” she says. “That was so helpful. It helped me, too, that there weren’t a tonne of related distances, so I could just keep it coming through those turns. I think it was a big track where you had to keep coming – we had a tiny little bit of time, sure, but those are things to work on for the future.”
The future is something Frankie talks about a lot, and always as something to be worked towards. Despite her incredible result this week, she’s already begun to dissect the elements she can improve upon, ready for her next run.
“I knew he was capable of producing the result. One of the judges came up to me in the prizegiving and said ‘we really thought you and your horse were going to make the time [yesterday]’,” she says. “I thought so too, but we learned so much – this is a different track than anything we’ve ever experienced, and I know how to be a little quicker through the trees next time. I’d walked very careful lines through the trees, and every single turn, but it comes up very, very fast in there – you just end up in survival mode around those turns!
“I think we have some really good homework, and I’m elated with how things turned out, and so, so proud of my horse. I’m so grateful to have had Kelly [Prather] and Tamie [Smith] here, too, and Allie [Knowles], and Sherry [Stewart], and everyone from the US – I think it’s just really special. My mom and my boys are at home, holding down the fort, and today’s Father’s Day – it’s hard to miss those things, but I’m so lucky to have an amazing family that lets me run off to Germany to do this.”
Frankie has made her way to Germany with the support of the Rebecca Broussard grant, a legacy fund set up in honour of its late namesake, a prominent member of the US eventing community.
“I wouldn’t be here without that grant,” says Frankie. “When you’re a Rebecca Broussard recipient, it’s a tremendous honour, and it means that people believe in you – sometimes more than you believe in yourself! I really wanted to come here and show them that believing in me was worth it. I hope we did that.”
Sarah Bullimore might be one of the most underrated event riders in the world, but don’t be surprised when one of these days, she storms in and takes every available spot on the leaderboard. She finished in the top ten aboard both her horses – top ride Reve du Rouet tipped a single rail to finish fifth, while the sharp, spooky Conpierre produced one of the two fault-free rounds of the day, finishing eighth. A remarkable feat, sure, but this isn’t the first time we’ve seen Sarah quietly dominate a five-star – she took three horses to that famously tough Pau in 2017, missing out on the win by a tenth of a penalty and completing with all three horses clear and in the top thirteen.
Though the chance of a first five-star win for Japan was scuppered by the unfortunate retirement of Kazuma Tomoto yesterday, the hugely experienced Yoshiaki Oiwa made sure that his home nation maintained a presence in the top ten. He finished sixth with his 2017 Bramham winner Calle 44 after knocking a rail but adding no time penalties.
Two time faults and a knocked rail from the second element of the double saw 2014 Badminton winners Sam Griffiths and Paulank Brockagh finish seventh. Remarkably, this means that Frank and Paula Cullen’s sixteen-year-old mare (Touchdown x Calendar Girl) has now had a top-ten placing in all four of Europe’s five-star events.
Becky Woolven enjoyed her best-ever result at this level, which she ordinarily frequents with Charlton Down Riverdance. This week, she rode five-star debutante DHI Babette K, who climbed from nineteenth after dressage to eventual ninth, toppling one rail today but remaining in situ. Rounding out the top ten is Denmark’s Peter Flarup and the exceptional Frankie, making it a double of top-ten finishes for the pair.
That’s all from us for now from what has been a truly weird, wonderfully vibrant week of sport at Luhmühlen. We’ll be back shortly with a full image gallery from the five-star and a report from the CCI4*-S Meßmer Trophy – but in the meantime, we’ll be dealing with our end-of-event Kummerspeck – that is, the excess weight we’ve put on from all our emotional eating. Literal translation? GRIEF BACON.