Luhmühlen Leaderboards Are All Change After Dramatic Cross-Country Day

Felix Vogg checks the clock as he clears the penultimate fence with Colero, en route to taking over the lead in the CCI5*. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Woe betide anyone who dismisses Luhmühlen as a ‘soft’ five-star, because it certainly isn’t that — and today’s cross-country action, which was run over a course that was largely the same as last year’s, once again proved that point. Though it’s not a dimensionally enormous, stamina-sapping track like Badminton or Burghley, it veers more towards the other end of the spectrum, at the far end of which is Pau’s twisty, technical track: it’s a mental challenge, with tight lines through Lüneberg Heath’s woods and a plethora of questions that require an analytical approach, which means both horses and riders alike are asked to maintain their focus from start to finish. Add to that the late June German heat, and you’re faced with a question that’s worth every inch of its five-star designation.

Like last year’s test, which was run behind closed doors, we saw Mike Etherington-Smith’s track exert considerable influence on the leaderboard, particularly in the early part of the day, when competitor after competitor failed to cross the finish. Among them, we saw a number of notable pairs fall by the wayside: pathfinders Tom McEwen and Braveheart B, 15th after dressage, took a tumble at fence 11B, the second of three upright gates, followed by Ireland’s Mike Ryan and Barnahown Corn Hill, who finished thirteenth here last year but fell today at 16B, a brush-topped drop fence. Though Tom’s fall was innocuous and saw both horse and rider quickly up on their feet, Mike subsequently withdrew his second ride, TR Kaygraff, further thinning the field of 36 starters.

The trouble would continue on apace throughout the day. Dressage leaders Bubby Upton and Cannavaro also fell at fence 16B after an enormous leap over the first element, an upright rail, skewed their line, which in turn led to the gelding landing short on the drop and tripping up in a slight lip in the ground close to the fence. The sole German entrants, Boekelo winners Sophie Leube and Jadore Moi, relinquished their seventh place after dressage at the first water complex, which was also the first time competitors were met with large crowds of spectators: after jumping over fence four, a rolltop on a downhill approach, and popping the upright brush into the water at 5A, the mare looked almost to bolt forward out of the water complex, missing 5B entirely, and Sophie wisely opted to put her hand up and save her horse for another day. Later on in the morning’s action we saw two further major surprises: Tom McEwen‘s second debutant ride, Houghton winner Bob Chaplin, left the start box looking inexperienced and occasionally sticky, but as he progressed through the course, Tom’s sympathetic guidance paid dividends. By the latter third of the track, the gelding had gained an enormous amount of confidence and was travelling in a decent rhythm, too — but a further climb from their ninth place after dressage was precluded at the penultimate fence. As they approached the final strides ahead of fence 29A, a wide brush corner, a spectator’s dog ran onto the track, causing the horse to spook left off his line — and though Tom made a quick effort to recorrect his trajectory, the eleven-year-old gelding wasn’t quite able to complete the arc of his jump, and the pair fell.

“This is basically why I hate extendable leads,” says Tom. “Bob had been as honest as can be, and had grown in confidence on the way round, and he was jumping really well, actually — sort of cruising around. But then I got on the line to the corner and heard this extendable lead extending, and this lady screaming at the dog, and sadly, the line’s so tight that it pushed him further out to the left, which put him into the corner. At that point on the course, horses are tired, and they’re also unbelievably honest and love what they’re doing — so Bob being Bob just went, ‘oh, I can do it!’ and jumped in. But sadly for him, we went straight to the widest part of the corner, all because a dog came flying. It was the first time I’ve been properly angry in a long time, but I just felt so gutted for the horse and the owners, because he didn’t deserve that.”

The second of those two late major surprises came from the last out on course, Ireland’s Cathal Daniels and LEB Lias Jewel, who finished ninth here last year. Though the first few fences on the course are wholly unchanged from that course, the ordinarily enormously consistent mare misread fence three, a wide white oxer, and came down on the back rail, activating the MIMs clips but falling nonetheless. Both horse and rider were back up immediately.

The day’s dramas allowed an open door at the top end of the tightly-packed leaderboard, and the remaining competitors certainly made the most of it. We saw just over two-thirds of the starters complete the course, giving us 24 remaining combinations going into tomorrow’s final horse inspection, and an impressive nine of them came home clear inside the time – and just two of the 24 finishers picked up jumping penalties along the way, though we saw several flag queries through the day that were ultimately dismissed.

Felix Vogg and Colero add a big accolade to Switzerland’s sparkling season so far. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Top of the pack at the end of the day is Swiss Olympian Felix Vogg and his Tokyo mount Colero, who were fourth after dressage on a score of 29. They added nothing to it today, marking the first time the experienced fourteen-year-old gelding has made the time in a long-format since doing it in his second-ever CCI2*-L back in 2016. The hugely consistent pair, who were sixth at Kentucky CCI5* in 2019, took a bold approach to the course — bolder, perhaps, than even Felix had expected.

“The first water was a little bit…” Felix pauses, pulling a wry face. “I don’t know if I did five or four strides, but I think I did four, and I’d walked it on five. It just came like that and he did it — but everything else was really perfect after minute four or five. He decided then to calm down, which he’s always doing; he doesn’t really like to run further, but after one minute more he understood that he has to run longer today.”

Colero’s experience meant that even when he was at his sharpest, he didn’t get starstruck in the face of the enthusiastic crowds of spectators, and Felix was able to keep his focus almost wholly on the task at hand.

“He was really nice to ride. I think he didn’t really care [about the crowds], though around the arena he spooked a little bit and was a little bit surprised. But at the first water he wasn’t at all — it’s there that you really need an experienced horse, because it comes quickly out of the dark and there’s a lot of people. It’s difficult.”

With one phase to go, Felix remains pragmatic about what’s left to come — though a win tomorrow would give Switzerland another enormous reason for celebration in what’s been a bumper season for the developing eventing nation so far, and would mark the first Swiss five-star win since Hans Schwarzenbach and Vae Victis won Badminton in 1951. And, no less noteworthy, it would be a birthday win for the rider, who turns 32 tomorrow.

“Two weeks ago in Baborowko, before the showjumping I nearly couldn’t handle him — he was really, really on,” explains Felix. “It’s probably the most difficult phase, the showjumping and prize giving, but not because he cannot do it — it’s just because he’s nervous and then he gets a little bit more ‘on’.”

Tim Price’s Vitali steps up in a big way to move into second place. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Just one-tenth of a penalty point behind Felix is Tim Price, who also rides his Tokyo partner — but unlike Colero, Vitali is making his debut at five-star. Like Colero, though, tomorrow’s showjumping is his weakest phase; we saw him take three rails in the final phase at the Olympics, though a winter’s worth of hard work has no doubt sharpened his performance over the poles.

But tomorrow’s tomorrow, and we’re here to talk about today: although the twelve-year-old Holsteiner, who was previously campaigned at four-star by James Avery, is inexperienced at this level, he was all class on today’s course, which he’d previously tackled in parts when finishing sixth in last year’s CCI4*-S. But even with four seconds in hand to take the overnight lead, it didn’t quite come off — the pair finished five seconds over the eleven minute optimum time, pushing them into the optimal hunting ground tomorrow.

“He’s a first timer, and that’s where the time faults come in a little bit, because it’s sort of my policy to start them in a way in which they can find themselves at the bigger fences and bigger questions,” says Tim. “Then I build it from there. I do always hope to make up that time, but at this stage in their careers, I’m always very happy to accept a few seconds over.”

Vitali’s tendency towards spookiness ultimately helped him make the best of the course, particularly when he began to tire near the end — but Tim wasn’t always wholly confident that it would work that way.

“He was a bit highly-strung coming to the start — there was a horse that came flying through the water as I tried to get across to the beginning, and I got a bit worried because he turned around and wouldn’t go, but we got across and he settled once he started,” he says. “I think it’s a big ask for horses to go to the Olympic Games a ten-year-old as he did last year, and he was a young ten-year-old too, so more like a nine-year-old in my head. You do pay a bit of a penalty for that, where they’re just ready for atmosphere. He’s a highly-strung horse anyway, so that’s something for us to think about in the coming years — just to have him nice and relaxed so we can go through the motions of the job. [Right now] you land and there’s some plants on the ground or something and he’s giving them a little bit of attention, and then looks at the fence and jumps it beautifully — but that attention is a useful thing, and it’s really nice to have alertness like that all the way home, because then at things like the coffin with the tall rail, they’re really attentive and thinking on their feet.”

Oliver Townend’s debutant Dreamliner moves onto the podium and becomes best of the British after an influential cross-country day. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

The British contingent has a new frontrunner after a mixed day for the country’s representatives — though Oliver Townend‘s day was decidedly not mixed at all. He brought forward two five-star debutants this week, and though both had moments on course in which they showed their inexperience, Oliver’s determined riding ensured that both came home clear and inside the time — and in the top ten, to boot. First ride Lukas, who he inherited from Ireland’s Camilla Spiers last year, sits eighth overnight on a two-phase score of 34, while the Chamberlayne family’s homebred Dreamliner, who won CCI4*-S classes this spring at Burnham Market and Chatsworth, now lies third on 29.6.

“He’s a big horse and it’s very hot today, but he’s a very genuine horse,” says Oliver. “It’s very exciting for the Chamberlaynes, who own him and bred him — it keeps the breeding dream alive in England. Whatever happens tomorrow, they’ve bred a horse that’s got to five-star, and that takes some doing.”

Though Dreamliner has racked up some exceptional results since joining Oliver’s string in 2019, his record prior to that under a number of different riders wasn’t quite as inspiring. Over the last couple of seasons, though, we’ve seen the son of Jumbo come into his own, as he proved today.

“He wouldn’t be the ultimate athlete, but he’s a plugger — he sticks his head down and every time you ask him, he tries,” says Oliver. “If everybody sat on him, they’d be very surprised; he’s a two-seater, really, and a bit of a hunter, to tell you the truth, but it takes all sorts and at the end of the day, not many horses get to five-star and not many go around inside the time as easily as he just has. It’s more to do with the brain and the character; I try to give them as smooth a ride as possible, and as much help as possible, but they’ve obviously still got to give me a little bit back, and he definitely did that today.”

Oliver Townend and Lukas climb into the top ten after a clear round inside the time. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Though his first ride of the day on now-eighth-placed Lukas didn’t look quite as smooth of sailing as Dreamliner, Oliver still got the job done and gave the horse a formative education in the process: “He, again, was very, very genuine — he’s definitely not my production yet, but at the same time, he wants to go between the flags, and that’s all that counts. I’m very, very fortunate to be riding him for my new owners, Caunton Manor, so hopefully that’ll put a smile on their faces. It was a fact-finding mission, and to be competitive is a very, very big bonus.”

Kirsty Chabert guns for the finish with Classic VI. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

In fourth and fifth place, two British Badminton rerouters proved that they’d left their demons behind in the Gloucestershire countryside: Kirsty Chabert and Classic VI climbed from eleventh to fourth after coming home clear inside the time, and Kylie Roddy and SRS Kan Do, who’d retired after jumping through the bulk of Badminton’s most difficult questions because the gelding lost a front shoe, did the same, moving up from twelfth to fifth overnight.

Kylie Roddy and SRS Kan Do clear the last after delivering one of the rounds of the day. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

“There was a bit of swings and roundabouts out there,” says Kylie. “There was times when I helped him, and he helped me at the first water — I’d have liked a better shot in, and naughty Roddy, I got a bit in front of the movement and lost my stirrups! So I jammed my foot back down, got my leg in the right place, and carried on through there with no pedals. He was an amazing horse there — he really held his line and was looking for the flags, and it really shows the journey those horses go on, because two years ago, that might not have been the case.”

Lauren Nicholson and Vermiculus add some time but remain in the top ten with a gutsy round. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Though Lauren Nicholson and her experienced five-star campaigner Vermiculus couldn’t quite cling onto their first-phase second place, their 5.2 time penalties only dropped them down a handful of places: they now sit seventh going into the final day, just three-tenths of a penalty behind sixth-placed Jonelle Price and Faerie Dianimo, who found redemption after last year’s freak fall with an efficient clear inside the time.

“It’s very different to your Badmintons and Burghleys and Kentuckies — it’s my first time here, and it felt more like a racecourse,” says Lauren. “I was pretty annoyed the whole way around that I couldn’t make up the few seconds, and I kept hammering at it, but he was super. If we hadn’t trotted a few things, we’d have had a little less time, but he’s such a machine cross-country, and he’s so fun. I’ve ridden him since he was three, so I know him inside and out, and I’m just thrilled to have a good round for [owner] Ms. Mars — I’m so appreciative that she sent us here and put us on that flight.”

Vermiculus’s ability to jump five-star questions from a trot helps to make him enormously handy with his footwork — and that comes from plenty of time spent working on this skill as a young horse.

“I think I made a huge mistake with him as a young horse,” laughs Lauren, who has previously notched up top-ten finishes at Burghley and Kentucky with the fifteen-year-old. “He had a huge, rangy canter and couldn’t hold it for very long, so I trotted fences for a really long time — and I think it’s backfired on me, because he’s very confident trotting fences! When in doubt, he just breaks into trot, because he thinks it’s just fine. But on the flip side, you can do anything out of anywhere because he’s quite happy; he just throws in a trot step and gets it done. He’s got quite the fifth leg, but he’s not the fastest horse in the world. He never has been — he’s not the type you can kind of spread across a gallop stretch and make up five seconds, so when you’re down on the clock, it’s very hard to make up the time.”

Cathal Daniels has a day of two halves, but moves into the placings with the exceptional Rioghan Rua after an easy clear. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Cathal Daniels and his own feisty pony Rioghan Rua made light work of the track, coming home exactly on the optimum time of eleven seconds to move up from nineteenth to ninth — no surprise to longtime followers of the game, hugely consistent cross-country machine, who previously earned the individual bronze medal at the European Championships here in 2019.

Liz Halliday-Sharp and Cooley Quicksilver tackle the tough first water. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Rounding out the top ten is Liz Halliday-Sharp and Cooley Quicksilver, who delivered a bold, educated round but picked up six time penalties, pushing them down from fifth place but keeping them well in the hunt tomorrow — there’s just one rail separating the top seven, and Liz and ‘Monster’ sit 6.1 penalties, or a rail and five seconds, behind Felix and Colero.

All our North American pairs crossed the finish line in style today: Canada’s Karl Slezak and Fernhill Wishes notched up a steady clear for 19.6 time penalties, which boosted them from 24th to 17th, while Matt Flynn and Wizzerd overcame an early stop at fence four, which brought horses to that busy first water complex, to complete with no further issues and, like Karl and Fernhill Wishes, 19.6 time penalties. That puts them in twentieth place, down from sixteenth after dressage, as we look ahead to tomorrow’s showjumping finale.

The top ten after a dramatic cross-country day in Luhmühlen’s CCI5*.

Michael Jung and Highlighter take over the lead in the CCI4*-S. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

This afternoon’s CCI4*-S, which incorporates the German National Championship, was hardly any less exciting: of the 51 competitors who completed dressage over the last two days, 46 left the start box today — and while 41 of them would go on to complete, and 34 would do so without jumping penalties, we did see a new leader in the clubhouse. Dressage leaders Will Coleman and Chin Tonic HS executed a classy clear, but added 11.6 time penalties to drift down to eleventh place, opening the door for last year’s winner, Michael Jung, to step into the top spot aboard Highlighter with one of the day’s three clears inside the time.

“He’s a very good horse, and in the cross-country, he gives me a very, very good feeling — the fitness was very good, and he’s had a few very good competitions before on hilly places, which has been perfect for the fitness training,” says Michael. “He’s very easy to ride at the jumps, and that’s what you need to be fast on a course like this — he doesn’t need a lot of adjusting.”

Though we’re sure some of his competitors would disagree with his assessment, Michi the maestro found the course a straightforward one: “I think it was not too difficult, but for sure there were some things everywhere where you need to pay attention. For me, everything works like I walked it; I watched a few riders in the beginning and then the course was clear to me. I had a good plan, and Highlighter made everything easy for me.”

24-year-old Jérôme Robiné moved from sixth to overnight second after adding just two time penalties with Black Ice, who he began riding at the start of the pandemic.

“He’s getting faster and faster, and he has a big stride, but it’s not that he’s always naturally fast — you have to go for it, and he has to stay focused and in good form,” says Jérôme. “Then it’s possible, but it’s not his natural. But he’s pretty scopey, and he can do a little, quick jump, or he can take off from a few meters away from the fence — he can do pretty much all of it, which is what makes him that good. Even with that big stride, he always tries to make the best out of it. We still have a lot to improve to get it even more competitive — when you see Michi and his round, it was just fluent everywhere, and that’s where we want to get to.”

An extravagant round from Dirk Schrade and Casino 80 puts them in podium position ahead of the final day. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Dirk Schrade and Casino 80 sit in third place after a bold, occasionally extravagant round that saw them leave their dunking at Baborowko CCI3*-S a few weeks ago well behind them. They added 3.2 time penalties, which allowed them to stay in the same place they’d held after dressage.

“He did a spectacular jump into the water, which made me really happy — he really flew in the air and was so confident,” says Dirk. “The rest of the course was probably a little bit too much pressure from me where he didn’t need it, but here at the German Championship you want to make it happen. But he was super.”

Will Coleman and Chin Tonic HS record a steady round to slip from first to eleventh place after cross-country. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Both classes will head into a final horse inspection from 8.30 a.m. local time tomorrow morning (that’s 7.30 a.m. BST or 2.30 a.m. EST, if early-morning trot-ups are your sort of thing). After that, we’ll see the CCI5* class showjump from 10.15 local (9.15 a.m. BST/4.15 a.m. EST), followed by the CCI4*-S at 13.10 local (12.10 p.m. BST/7.15 a.m. EST). We’ll be bringing you full reports from both inspections, plus the jumping finales, and as always, you can follow along throughout with Horse&Country TV‘s live stream. Until next time, folks: Go Eventing!

The top ten after cross-country in the CCI4*-S.

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