Luhmühlen Day One: Bubby Upton Takes the Five-Star Lead; Young German Talent Eyes National Title

Bubby Upton and Cannavaro tick all the boxes to take a decisive day one lead in the CCI5*. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

We might be biased, but last year’s fairytale Luhmühlen victory by young Brit Mollie Summerland and her Charly van ter Heiden set an enormously high standard for the sort of heartstring-puller of a story we want to see in the hallowed grounds of Germany’s only five-star. This year, though, we’re just one day into the 36-strong CCI5* line-up’s dressage performances, and we’ve already got another enormously impressive young British talent heading up the roster: 23-year-old Bubby Upton, who’s busy balancing her final year at Edinburgh University with competing at the top levels, soared into a decisive lead with her 15-year-old Cannavaro, delivering an excellent 24.9.

“I’m so proud of him, honestly — everyone knows how much he means to me, and he’s come so from the tense show jumper he was,” says an emotional Bubby, moments after her test with the Dutch-bred gelding. “Today he showed that he’s learnt to dance. He was amazing; I couldn’t have asked for more.”

Though Bubby and Cannavaro, or ‘Joey’ as he’s known at home, have been a partnership for over five years, today was the first time that all the pieces of the puzzle really came together in the ring — and as she turned onto the final centreline, Bubby admits she felt a lump in her throat.

“I was like, ‘we’ve just got all four changes!’ I’ve never got a left-to-right change with him in an arena,” she explains. “He used to do this skip behind — he just couldn’t do it. Over the winter I was so determined to get it, and I spent hours working on it — we did counter-canter, and then I’d just like, trick him into doing it, because he’d anticipate so much and then just do the little skip. And one day I did one and I was like, ‘oh my god, we can do this!’ and so we did it day in and day out, and now he’s really started to get them.”

The work paid off, earning them consistent marks of 6 to 8 for the four changes within the test. Throughout her time spent producing the gelding, with whom she became the under-25 National Champion at last year’s Bramham replacement at Bicton, Bubby has found him endlessly willing to try, despite his conformational limitations: “It’s always a relief when the training pays off,” she says, “and he really is the teacher’s pet; he genuinely is always like, ‘what’s next? What’s next?’ He finds it really hard, because he’s not naturally engaged — he’s quite long, and if you see him walk, he twists his legs, but the one thing he’s always had is a heart of gold. That came through today. He was getting a bit tired and I was like, ‘keep going!’ He was really incredible.”

“He’s always exceeded our expectations” – Bubby Upton tops the board with Cannavaro. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Cannavaro was originally produced for the showjumping ring, and Bubby admits that when she first went to try the gelding, who was previously owned by Lucy Morgan, she wasn’t initially wholly impressed by what she saw.

“He came with the nickname ‘Fat Joey’, because he was so fat,” she laughs. “I remember when I went to try him for the first time: I looked over his door and he was popping out of his little Thermatex with his head in the haylage net. I thought, ‘that horse doesn’t need haylage!” But he was so adored by Lucy, and he’s so adored by us — you can’t help but love him. My mum is fully obsessed with him — we don’t have favourites, but she literally loves him! I think it’s that he’s always been the underdog. In our eyes, he’s never been in anyone’s shadow, but on paper, he has: he was in Eros DHI’s shadow for Juniors and then he was in Cola’s shadow for Young Riders, but he’s always exceeded our expectations.”

Now, though, he gets to be the star of the show this week, as Bubby’s other two rides, Clever Louis and Jefferson 18, are contesting the hot CCI4*-S class. Though she’d considered taking him to Badminton alongside her other top-level horse, Cola, she opted to stick to her guns and give him a run over flatter European terrain first — a plan she’d first put into action at Pau’s CCI5* last October. There, she pulled him up after an unlucky error at an influential combination early on the course, which she owns as rider error, saving him instead for another day.

“I messed up at Pau on him, which I’ve analysed a lot and learned from, and have worked very hard to hopefully not let happen again. But with his lack of blood, Bicton CCI4*-L [where he won the under-25 class] was the first time we really though, ‘wow, he might do a five-star.’ I wanted him to do a continental five-star before putting him around Badminton, because he’s never done that trip and he’s never jumped fences that size, so I didn’t think it was a logical decision to take him there for his first real run at the level. I’m really glad I didn’t, because it knackered them. The last thing I ever want to do is break his heart, because he’s a giver every day of the week, and he’ll give 120% when he’s got nothing left. I don’t want to push him that point too far, so it was always going to be a case of doing a continental one first, and then if he does well, it’ll be Badminton next year.”

Bubby’s weekly schedule is enough to make anyone’s eyes water: she runs a full string of exciting horses most weeks around the UK and beyond, and flies back and forth from her East Anglia base to Scotland to complete her studies. But, as she points out, none of that would be possible without the enormous support of her family and home team, helmed by head groom Katie Dutton.

“It’s a massive team effort,” she says effusively. “I get to ride him, so obviously I’m the lucky one — but everyone has helped me so much with him. I nearly gave up on him a few years ago, and god, I’ve never been happier to be proved wrong.”

Lauren Nicholson delivers one of her best-ever tests with the sparky, cheeky Vermiculus to take second place overnight. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Just two combinations in today’s line-up managed to crack the 30 barrier, and both did so by some margin. Second place overnight is held by US representatives Lauren Nicholson and Vermiculus, who posted an excellent 26.7 — the exact score they delivered at a very tough Burghley in 2019, where they went on to finish ninth. But horses certainly aren’t machines — particularly when they’re fifteen-and-a-half hands of Anglo-Arab spice and sass.

“He’s been, let’s say, very cheeky the last eighteen months,” laughs Lauren. “I feel like that happens a lot when they get to that kind of, fourteen- or fifteen-year-old stage and have been and done a lot. They get a little bit like that — so it was nice to pull back the test he knows how to do and not have any pony moments and kicking out at the judges or whatever he does! He feels very fresh, so I was super happy to just get in and do our job and feel like he’s consistent again.”

Though Luhmühlen’s busy main arena, which is packed to the hilt with decorations and cross-country fences, tends to add a bit of buzz to proceedings, ‘Bug’ got down to business and Lauren was able to channel the extra atmosphere to add expression and sparkle to the movements. One of the highlights of the test, which best demonstrated the power and pizazz he had on his side today, was the extended canter, which showed arguably the clearest transition into and out of the movement that we saw all day and earned them very good marks from all three judges.

Lauren wasn’t completely convinced beforehand that the test was going to go in the right direction, though.

“He felt pretty cheeky in the warm-up,” she says. “You can always tell when he’s starting to think about it, because he’ll keep twitching his head in the canter and act like he has something in his ear, and you get a little like, ‘oh, crap!’ But there was enough atmosphere that he was like, ‘oh, I’m at a proper party finally! You’ve stopped dragging me around to stupid stuff!’ He needed something worth it.”

So what’s the secret to getting a talented, pony-brained superstar on side? It’s all about compromise, says Lauren.

“I promised him that he could stick his head straight in the air the rest of the weekend,” she laughs — and he did exactly that the moment the test was over, gaily marching out of the arena with his nose to the sky.

Though this is Lauren’s first trip to Luhmühlen, she’s already got the place sussed out as something that might perfectly suit a pocket rocket like Bug: “Everybody kept saying it would suit him — though honestly, I haven’t ridden anything that didn’t suit him! He likes to run and jump, and I really like the track from walking around it. It’s such a beautiful venue, and I was just so excited to get here — it’s the one place, I think, that Veronica didn’t get to, so I’m excited to finally be here!”

Austria’s Lea Siegl once again proves that she’s one of Europe’s finest young competitors with a super test aboard Cupido P. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

It’s hard to believe that Austria’s Lea Siegl is making her five-star debut: after all, she finished fifteenth in her Olympic debut last year, and sixteenth in the European Championships, firmly establishing herself as one of Europe’s most formidable young stars. But the five-star box remained unticked until today, when the 23-year-old made her debut aboard the expressive 13-year-old German Sport horse, Cupido P. They produced an impressive, mistake-free test to put a score of 30.8 on the board, which was enough to earn them overnight third place as the competition stands.

For Lea, it’s an emotional milestone as much as it is a competitive one.

“It’s a special relationship — I produce all my horses by myself, so they’re at my stables for a long time, and of course getting up to a new class is always a special feeling,” she says. “It’s a different connection between the horse and the rider if you know each other for such a long time.”

That well-established partnership, which goes back a decade between Lea and Cupido, helped her to keep him confident in Luhmühlen’s atmospheric arena today.

“He was a bit spooky, but the test suits him quite well, and in the training I had a good feeling with him,” she says. “He was a bit spooky in the trot, but I’m very happy with the canter, and with him. He’s a very nice horse, and he’s very handsome and easy to handle, so he’s a nice dressage horse.”

Though Lea is pragmatic about making her five-star debut — “we’ll see,” she says, “but I’m excited about the cross-country!” — her competitive record with the gelding would suggest that we could well see the pair at the business end of the leaderboard through the weekend, too: they’ve tackled three CCI4*-L competitions together, finishing in the top ten in all of them.

Kirsty Chabert and Classic VI navigate the stretchy circle – always an influential portion of this test – en route to provisional fourth place. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Great Britain’s Kirsty Chabert made the most of a tight turnaround from last week’s Bramham International, where she finished third with Opposition Loire, by closing out today’s competition with a 31.1 and overnight fourth with Classic VI. This comes as the first stage of a reroute from Badminton, where the 13-year-old British-bred mare ran well around much of Eric Winter’s tough track as pathfinder, but was retired two-thirds of the way around after two run-outs at a double of corners — but a win in Millstreet’s CCI4*-S last week proved that the wheels are still very much on the bus ahead of this weekend’s challenge. The pair began their week with a steady, classy test without any errors.

“She was very good, and very serious — she’s been known to be a bit flamboyant, but she’s now done three tests on the trot, and feels much more reliable,” says Kirsty. “She’s been out a bit more consistently this year; we haven’t had the stop and start of Covid, where we’d get horses fit and then just let them have a nice time. We’re able to get their heads back in the game now, the same as us riders.”

Tim Price and debutant Spartaco round out the top five on day one. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Tim Price has twice been a winner in this class at Luhmühlen, first in 2014 with the excellent Wesko, and again in 2019 on the extravagant grey mare Ascona M — and this week, he comes forward with two exciting debutants who could give him another shot at the title. The first of those, eleven-year-old Spartaco, ends day one in fifth place on a score of 31.4 — though their trot work saw them average much lower in the mid-20s.

“He’s coming along — he’s cool, and he’s really coming out of his shell,” says Tim, whose lost marks came in three of the four flying changes. “The quality of everything else is coming along so well; in the past, I’d really be honing in on those changes and slightly lose everything else a bit because he’s a bit under pressure, so I’ve decided to work on the quality and have him with me everywhere, in the hopes that that’ll bring the changes on a bit. One out of four’s okay, though — I could easily have had none! And he’s a first-time five-star horse, and everyone’s got their thing, haven’t they?”

Though Spartaco’s record has been a bit up and down, with learning moments intermingled with great successes at four-star level, Tim is a great believer in the process — and unlike the rest of his rides, Spartaco is owned by himself and wife Jonelle.

“I’ve got probably my most difficult owner in Jonelle, which is tough at times — especially when I keep cocking it up,” he jokes. “But we’ve always believed in him, and we’re invested not just in riding him. We’ve wanted to get him to five-star, and we hope we can demonstrate what a good horse he is this weekend.”

The top ten after day one of dressage in Luhmühlen’s CCI5*.

25-year-old Hanna Knüppel takes the day one lead in Luhmühlen’s enormously competitive CCI4*-S with GEKE Equigrip’s Levinio. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Though the CCI5* at Luhmühlen tends to command the most global interest, the CCI4*-S competition tends to be the feature class for the home nation — not least because it also incorporates the German National Championship. For that reason, there was no doubt a universal sigh of relief when a German rider took over the lead after it was held by much of the morning by pathfinders Will Coleman and his reigning Aachen champion Off The Record, who posted a 28.2 to set the standard for the day.

Late in the session, though, 25-year-old Hanna Knüppel rose to the challenge and stepped up into the top spot, delivering a 27 with the huge-moving GEKE Equigrip’s Levinio — their first time ever breaking the 30 barrier at four-star. That huge movement has been part of the challenge thus far for the inexperienced nine-year-old, who has had to learn to contain and control his extravagance and pair it with balance and accuracy.

“We didn’t expect him to trot this big, and every dressage trainer is like, ‘if you don’t want to event him anymore, I can take him!’ Now, though the dressage is actually quite fun,'” laughs Hanna, who trained at the German Federation’s Warendorf centre before heading to university to study Media and Communications. Now, she’s working on making a tough decision: to finish her studies, or to continue riding full-time.

“I was riding in eventing since 2012, and did a couple of European Championships with a former horse at Juniors and Young Riders, and then I was studying the last two years. But then Corona hit and I was able to do a bit more work with the horses, and now it’s the question of if I go back to university or do more in the stable. I’m not quite sure yet, but at the moment I prefer the stable!”

Certainly, topping the leaderboard in this prestigious class is a compelling reason to stick at it — particularly because she’s produced the gelding, who she describes as ‘a little cuddle buddy’, since he was a five-year-old.

“He’s like my best friend — he’s always really relaxed and calm, and it’s just really nice to have him around,” she says with a smile.

Will Coleman tries out a new tactic with Aachen winner Off The Record. Photo by Libby Law.

Though Will Coleman relinquished his lead with Off the Record, his test this morning wasn’t intended to be a competitive one: he’s just here to put in the miles between the boards before a return trip to Aachen in two weeks’ time, where he’ll be putting a change of kit to the test.

“He’s not going to run here, but I’m trying a double bridle on him, and it was a good opportunity to feel it out in a proper competition setting, and in his first outing, really, since Kentucky,” he explains. “This’ll be my fifth or sixth time riding in it; it was just an idea that [dressage coach] Ian Woodhead had, and surprisingly, the horse really took to it quite well. It allows me to ride him a bit lighter and makes him present a hair better.”

Will, who jokingly described ‘Timmy’ as ‘a kitchen table with a Ferrari engine’ at Aachen last year, tells us that that won’t ever quite go away — “but he’s a bit more of a foldable table now,” he laughs. “It’s progress, and he tries very hard. I love the horse in his attitude; he’s a real brawler, just a fighter. He’s a good boy.”

While we’re disappointed not to see Timmy fight for a title here, Will returns to the ring tomorrow with the ten-year-old Chin Tonic HS — and as far as his more experienced mount goes, he’s delighted to get the chance to return to the site of their coup last year: “Anytime you get to go to Aachen, no matter the circumstances, you’re very blessed,” he says. “It’s a very special place, and I’ll go every year, if I’m allowed! I absolutely love it; whether it goes well or it doesn’t, it still just inspires you for the rest of the year. It’ll be surreal to see my name on the wall there, but 2021 was a long time ago now, and I’ve got to look forward.”

German riders hold three spaces among the top five, with Vanessa Bölting sitting third aboard the ten-year-old Ready to Go W on 28.6 and Nina Schultes holding fifth on 30.8 with Grand Prix iWest, while Bubby Upton sits fourth overnight on Jefferson 18, who she inherited in November from former rider Chris Burton, on a score of 30.1.

Tomorrow sees another full day of dressage competition, with a further 29 competitors in this class and 21 in the five-star — and some serious heavy-hitters among both line-ups, including Michael Jung and Highlighter in the CCI4*-S, and Tim Price and VitaliLiz Halliday-Sharp and Cooley Quicksilver, Sophie Leube and Jadore Moi, and 2018 winners Jonelle Price and Faerie Dianimo among the strong CCI5* contingent yet to come. We’ll be back with a full report, plus a deep dive into Mike Etherington-Smith’s cross-country track, tomorrow. Until then: Go Eventing!

The top ten after the first day of dressage in the CCI4*-S.

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