This week’s coverage of Pau on EN is brought to you with the support of Kentucky Performance Products. We couldn’t do much of what we’ve done these last few years without the support of sponsors such as KPP — which, by the way, is a horses-first, women owned and operated company based in, you guessed it, Kentucky — and without you, our readers! So as we head into this final hurrah of our season, too, we thank each and every one of you.
Yesterday’s short dressage session at Pau, which saw just 17 of the 50 combinations make their way around the main arena, served as something of an appetite whetter – and today’s jam-packed line-up truly was the full meal. There are just two five-star winning combinations in this field, which set up a match race of sorts, and at the close of play, both are within inches of one another — but it’s this year’s Luhmühlen winners, Felix Vogg and Colero, who reign supreme on a score of 24.2.
But although the fourteen-year-old Westphalian gelding is a stalwart campaigner for the Swiss rider, who has piloted him around the World Championships in 2018 and also finished sixth with him at Kentucky in 2019, he’s still thrown a few surprises Felix’s way this summer.
“I was really nervous, because since Luhmühlen, he’s been really nervous in tests, like at Strzegom two weeks ago,” he says. “I think it’s because he did the prizegiving at Luhmühlen, and that’s not his thing at all! Yesterday, he completely freaked out in here.”
Despite a rather sparkly preparation, though, Colero cantered down the first centreline with his professional hat firmly in place.
“When it matters, he stays with me,” reasons Felix. “Usually he’s always too calm — he’s not usually allowed to do familiarisation, and I didn’t do that in Luhmühlen at all, but he needed it here!”
That meant that, despite a couple of lost marks in the halt and reinback due to tension, they were able to execute a valuable clear round and impress the ground jury, who have proven to be tough nuts to crack this week.
“All the way through was quite okay, and the walk was quite good for him — sometimes he’s a tiny bit nervous. The medium canter was very good, I think,” he says.
Though his five-star win at Luhmühlen was a milestone moment for him, and for Swiss eventing, which hasn’t seen a five-star winner since the 1950s, Felix is remaining level-headed under the weight of expectation this week.
“It starts from the beginning again — it’s like before Luhmühlen. Probably some other people expect something, but for me, he’s done enough.”
A perfunctory glance out at the schooling arena yesterday yielded a bit of excitement, if you happened to have that glance when Izzy Taylor was riding her Bramham CCI4*-L victor Monkeying Around: the exceptionally talented dressage-bred gelding spent a fair amount of time demonstrating his extraordinary athleticism, in a way that Izzy no doubt hoped he’d avoid in the main ring. But, as Izzy explains moments after her musical, fluent test, part of getting to the bottom of this tempestuous talent has been letting him have his ‘moments’, so that when the real deal rolls around, he’s ready to crack on and give his best work.
“He’s a character, and you have to work with that,” she says with a grin. “He likes to have fun, and everything’s very easy for him, so you have to make the preparation harder so that when he’s in the ring he’s like, ‘oh, this is easy!’ and he’s happy, he’s smiling, and he loves life.”
That joie de vivre was evident in his work today, which had none of the extra dance moves we’ve sometimes seen in four-star tests — and in his hotly-anticipated five-star debut, Monkeying Around pulled it out of the bag, putting a 24.4 on the board and taking a close second place at the culmination of the first phase.
“He’s a very characterful horse, so if I can bring the character into the ring, then it’s great — but I need to make sure we’ve had our chat beforehand,” says Izzy, who, despite her gelding’s relative experience at this point, hasn’t yet ridden him in an atmosphere of this scale. “I suppose Bramham has an atmosphere,” she says, “but he’s never really been anywhere because of Covid and life, I suppose, so he did come in here and go ‘ahh!’ I was like, ‘you need to breathe!’ and then he grew and smiled the whole way through. I was very pleased with his brain.”
Just one tiny error precluded an overnight lead: the first change came a touch early, earning them 4s at H and B.
“It’s annoying with the change — he went early in front because he was so eager to please, and you can’t fault them for that,” she says. “But I’m so proud of him; he’s a beautiful horse, and it’s special when you have them from the word go.”
2019 Pau champion Tom McEwen goes into cross-country with two horses in the top ten: his day one pathfinder, Braveheart B, sits ninth on 28.3, while today’s ride, the exquisite grey Bob Chaplin, takes third overnight on 24.6 after a real clear round test.
“He was a really good boy,” says Tom, who opted to scale back the gelding’s schooling prior to his test, with great success. “Harriet [Fettes, my fiancee] has hacked him; he’s been out looking at the racehorses every morning, and he did ten minutes of arena familiarisation and that’s literally all he’s done. He can get a bit bored and irritated if you kick him around a school, so however much you want to work on bits and bobs, you’re better off leaving him alone.”
Both of Tom’s horses come to Pau with a point to prove after an unlucky week at Luhmühlen in June, where Bob Chaplin fell at the penultimate fence as a result of an errant dog on the course, and Braveheart, too, took a tumble. Tom, though, is a stoic soul and a lifelong learner, and while he’s not dwelling on the past this week, he’s certainly found things he can improve upon from that week — namely in that warm-up routine.
“[Doing too much before dressage is] the mistake I made at Luhmühlen with him, when he feels a little bit perky — but he’s also been on the road for two weeks now, so he’s seen enough,” says Tom, who brought both horses to Le Lion d’Angers with him last week so he could keep them in work as he competed his young horses. “He does very limited stuff at home, too — he does twenty minutes of schooling and then goes hacking, so we can keep him nice and happy and fresh.”
Though Tom is sitting on a horse with a very low 20s score within him, he tempered his expectations in the ring today, instead focusing on laying firm foundations for all that’s to come with Fred and Penny Barker’s eleven-year-old.
“I knew he could do a good test, but apart from the first change, which we messed up, it was a clear round,” he says. “I know he’s expressive and he can go and do all these amazing things, but he’s just not yet strong enough to do that in a test. So for me, it’s more important to go and do that nice, clean test, rather than worrying about how expressive he can be, because we know it’ll come.”
As one of just four riders with two rides here, Tom had the rare opportunity to feel out the difference in the arena surface, which was watered heavily overnight and had a noticeably shallower cut underfoot today, resulting in easier, more fluid rides and, arguably, a slightly less taxing route to great marks.
“It’s good that they listened to feedback, but it’s a shame it couldn’t have happened a day earlier,” says Tom. “Realistically they’re beaches that are maintained with water, and yesterday, there wasn’t enough water, so it was like the tide had been out for a good couple of hours — whereas today, it’s back to a normal Pau surface.”
The ground jury certainly hasn’t been giving marks away freely today, and never was that more keenly felt than in 2021 Luhmühlen champions Mollie Summerland and Charly van ter Heiden‘s test, which was wholly mistake-free and elegant but just saw them slip out of a potential lead on a final score of 25, just 0.8 off first place.
“He felt really rideable, and it was nice that they’d just rolled the arena, so there was some spring to it,” says Mollie, who trains on the flat with dressage supremo Carl Hester and is reliably a force to be reckoned with in this phase. “He did everything I asked, and maybe one change wasn’t as expressive — I think I rode it a bit safe, but I was really happy with the way he went. He had a good brain in there, and he didn’t take much work outside, so it’s nice to know that I’ve got some left in the tank for tomorrow.”
There was a very jolly scene in the chute after Emily King‘s test with Valmy Biats, who remains under the ownership of France’s Philippe Brivois, who also bred the gelding, but is also ‘co-owned’ by the successful Event Horse Owners Syndicate, which provides affordable micro-syndicate memberships for eventing enthusiasts, many of whom turn out at events near and far to watch their horse strut his stuff. Today, they were rewarded in kind with one of the 13-year-old’s best-ever tests, which demonstrated his burgeoning strength and earned him and his rider a 25.5, slotting them into fifth overnight.
“He’s just getting better and better, which is so nice,” says Emily. “You don’t really know where the end’s going to be with him, because every time he goes out, whether it’s a one-day or an international, he just keeps getting better. He’s got a really good brain on him, and he finds the lateral movements very easy, it’s just that he can get a little bit hot in there, so it’s all about keeping him calm.”
Though he’s thirteen, Valmy is still learning his job — and one of his big learning curves has been the flying changes, which didn’t just look good in the ring, but also looked newly well-established in the schooling ring, where EN’s roving journalist admired him earlier on in the day.
“He’s only just started doing the changes properly this year, so they’re getting more and more established, but they’re not quite beautified — but this is one of the first shows where he hasn’t missed many in the warm-up, so everything’s getting more consistent,” says Emily, who is supported this week by mum Mary King and boyfriend Sam Ecroyd, and returns to Pau for the first time since finishing fourth in her five-star debut here in 2016 with Brookleigh.
This is the gelding’s second five-star: he made his debut at Badminton this spring, where he was one of several good horses to be caught out late on course at the Mars flower boxes — but already, Emily is seeing a huge improvement in his work as he begins to understand the nuances of what he’s being asked.
“He’s very supple naturally, and the changes, he can jump them a bit — he knows what he should do, and he tries to do all this extra stuff to help him, which actually doesn’t,” she explains. “So it’s just been about polishing the changes and getting him really rideable — all those little things that’ll step him up again.”
Valmy is a big, rangy boy to look at, rather than the whippet-like French horses that we so often see on the continent, and that, too, has contributed to affording him a touch more time to establish himself at the upper levels.
“He’s quite a chunky monkey, so he doesn’t get the elegance factor quite so naturally, so it’s been about getting him through and showing him off but keeping the basics understood, rather than showing off and little mistakes creeping in,” she says. “That’s the thing as he levels up — as he gets more established, he can get more elegant.”
Japan’s shining star Kazuma Tomoto is never a man to throw a mark away in a test, despite picking up eventing just over five years ago — and today, he delivered a characteristically sparkling performance aboard Brookpark Vikenti to earn himself a very respectable 25.6, which sees him hold sixth overnight. That moves day one leaders, Ros Canter and five-star first-timer Rehy Royal Diamond, into seventh place on their 27.3 in this tightly-packed top ten.
The youngest horse in the field, nine-year-old Greenacres Special Cavalier, gave us one of the most enjoyable tests of the week, posting a 27.7 for overnight eighth with Olympian and Burghley winner Caroline Powell in the irons. That puts her six-tenths of a penalty ahead of Tom McEwen and Braveheart B, yesterday’s pathfinders, who sit ninth now on 28.3.
“She’s been on it all week,” says Caroline, who gave the expressive mare a sympathetic, nurturing ride that yielded some serious ‘wow’ moments in the ring.
But, like many seasoned producers of young horses, Caroline wasn’t always sure if the step-up was the right step.
“She’s only nine, and so you wonder if you’re a bit silly bringing them here, but if she makes a mistake, it’s going to be a glance-off or something. She jumps so well, and she’s never scared herself; she just needs to learn how to do the lines.”
Though she came to Pau with the tempered expectations that come par for the course with a first-timer, Caroline always knew she was sitting on something that could produce a really special test — particularly as her mindset has shifted in the right direction over the last couple of seasons.
“She’s been doing some quite nice tests, and all week, she’s been with me. Once you get a mare on your side, you’re a wee bit further on. She loves her work; she’s a real workman, and that makes a real difference. Once she’s got something in her mind, she’s fine — but if she gets the wrong thing in her mind, then you’re in trouble!”
The pair go into cross-country tomorrow in an enviable position, just 3.5 penalties, or just under nine seconds, off the lead — but still, Caroline is maintaining a firm hold on her sense of pragmatism, because ‘Cavvy’ is a serious contender for big things in the years to come. Tomorrow, she reasons, will be an exceptional learning opportunity for the eye-catching mare, and whatever happens, she’ll benefit from the experience.
“She’s a big girl, but she’s getting better between the strings, and the more places she can go, the more she’s going to learn,” she says.
Today’s first out, Australia’s Kevin McNab, was one of several riders in the field to pilot a mid-teens first-timer — and fifteen-year-old Willunga certainly stepped up to the plate, delivering a 28.9 that puts him in tenth place overnight. But his workmanlike behaviour in the ring belies a rather wild frat-boy past: his former rider, young horse aficionado Nicky Roncoroni, fondly remembered his early years in a celebratory Facebook post ahead of his performance.
“When perseverance is key,” she writes. “The most characterful little rascal to start off, causing no end of entertainment to anyone who had the pleasure of working with him. The early days were not the most simple, from marching off with people on the long reins, changes in direction quicker than a jump jet, frequently clearing collecting rings, knocking my two front teeth out & the first 3 events reading something like E/R3 145.60 and E/AR & we’re talking about BE80(T’s) [US Beginner Novice] here!”
“He’s a lot more professional now than he used to be,” laughs Kevin. “He certainly was interesting in his younger years! I think Nicky got a lot of that out of him, but there was still some there [when I got him]. He actually thought he was a proper boy, so he’d call out in his tests and he had a few little tricks — but he’s settled down a lot, which he should do, because he’s fifteen!”
Time has been the key for Willunga, who paid that back in full today.
“We’ve just had to get to know him, and figure out what works for him and the set-up. We’ve had to go at his pace, rather than our pace, and that’s meant it’s been a bit slower getting there.”
Though the atmosphere, which was bolstered by low-flying planes and nearby firing practice, certainly added an extra pizzazz factor to proceedings, Willunga remained almost entirely cool and collected, showing some real highlights in the test.
“His trot work is really fun to ride, and it’s really solid, so it was nice to be able to show that off a bit,” says Kevin. “The walk is always a little bit of a thing if he’s tense, and it was a little bit today. That carried on into his canter, but once we got going, he was back again and he made a nice picture.”
We’ve got just one US representative in the field after the withdrawal of Caroline Martin and Islandwood Captain Jack from the holding box yesterday morning, and Matt Flynn, who’s been based with Tim and Jonelle Price in England this season, put in a solid effort with the stalwart Wizzerd to post a 35.7, which sees them go into cross-country in 34th place. That’s less than 12 penalties — or 30 seconds — off the leaders, and in a tightly-wheeled track like Pau’s, that’s a much smaller margin than it might sound.
“There’s always things you want to improve, but I was happy with the way he went,” says Matt sagely. “There’s still plenty to do this weekend, and we’ll give it a good shot.”
Tomorrow sees our competitors head into Pierre Michelet’s cross-country challenge, which will begin from 1.00 p.m. local time (12.00 p.m. British/7.00 a.m. Eastern). You can follow all the action live on Horse&Country TV, plus, stay tuned on EN for riders’ thoughts on how the course walks and what we might expect from the competition to come. These things are rarely dressage competitions, but with its abundance of corners and technical, analytical questions, Pau offers a particularly unique challenge, which should yield plenty of changes across our leaderboard and a seriously spicy day of five-star action. Keep it locked on EN — and until next time, Go Eventing!