By the time Germany’s Michael Jung and fischerChipmunk FRH left the start box today at the FEI World Championships of Eventing, 73 of the 88 competitors had already done so before them — and that meant that former World Champion Michi was more than aware of the issues that extraordinary hills and tough questions were causing for even the most experienced competitors.
He’d seen Badminton winners and Olympic team gold medallists Laura Collett and London 52 pick up a shock run-out at the second skinny at the bottom of the Pratoni slide, pulling the Brits out of gold medal position and themselves out of individual silver; he’d seen 2017 Seven-Year-Old World Champion Alertamalib’or do the same with France’s Astier Nicolas, starting a day of seriously mixed fortunes for the French.
He’d seen Tom McEwen very nearly take a flag penalty; he’d seen Australia’s Kevin McNab drop from ninth to 56th after his rein broke on course and he’d had to stop for a whole minute while trying to tie the broken end to the bit’s cheekpiece.
He’d seen safety devices activated in droves — nine of them, in total, which no doubt gave him a twinge of deja-vu back to Tokyo last year, where he was one of many riders to pick up expensive frangible penalties.
He’d seen drive-bys, he’d seen misses, and he’d seen rider falls — but if the knowledge that this was a real Championship challenge fazed him in any way, he certainly didn’t let on. Instead, he did what Michael Jung does best, and he rose to the occasion. Now, he’ll go into tomorrow’s final day still sitting atop the provisional podium, and still sitting on that extraordinary first-phase score of 18.8.
“I feel very happy,” says Michael. “fischerChipmunk is an amazing horse, like yesterday in the dressage and today in the cross-country. He’s a machine. He was so — how do I say in English — motivated in the warm-up and playing right, left with the flying changes and it’s just an amazing feeling for the rider when you have such a powerful machine and still, in the end, he’s so super galloping. You have the feeling he can do everything again, and this is just a great feeling.”
With those safety devices in mind, Michael opted to play it cautiously in a few places, which he knew he could afford to do after seeing a number of other riders catch the time. Still, though, they had a ‘nearly’ moment at a small single fence at 15, and made quite hard work of the second pass through the water.
“Everywhere I did “whoa, whoa, whoa”, stay quiet, stay quiet, not too much, not too much,” he says. “I always stay a little bit on the brake. But he was so motivated and so powerful. I just tried to keep him relaxed because we have a few more minutes. It’s amazing, how he can gallop, how he can jump and also in some difficult situations how quick he can think and this big horse with the big strides, quick reaction. [The slide] was fun — you can jump the two hedges with a little smile. So this was this was just really, really good from him.”
Before his round, Michi had been a vocal critic of the course design here, which didn’t use as much of the property as he’d hoped for — and after, he doubled down.
“I have to say, sadly the ground wasn’t perfect, what we said before is that this is not great for championship, but in the end the course is tricky,” he says. “The beginning is nice: you have a nice open gallop, but then the middle part is very, very tricky. Turn left, right, forward, collect, up the hill, down, angle — and this is very difficult for the horses, with this speed and gallop, to still be so quick in the reaction and concentrate and keep the brain on. And you get a little bit the feeling when you get out of that and you have a longer gallop and then the horse thinks, ‘Okay, now we’re finished’, but then you still have to do two or three minutes. You definitely have to try to keep the motivation and the power in the horse that they don’t think too early that they are finished and that’s a bit the tricky thing here.”
Michi, though, was buoyed by an enthusiastic crowd — not just of German supporters, but of fans from the eventing world over.
“I hear [the cheers] everywhere,” he smiles. “They were really, really super crowds and super spectators. It’s nice to have the spectators on the competition, and also, when you warm up here and when you look out there, so many people are there and behind the sport and interested and that’s nice.”
25-year-old rising star Yasmin Ingham was just the second Brit out of the box today — and one of the first riders to come forward for this phase — but the British individual competitor rode it with an almost innate understanding of the questions being asked. That smart, quick-thinking approach — and the exceptional gallop of her 11-year-old Selle Français, Banzai du Loir, allowed her to cross the finish line with just 1.2 time penalties. After the influential day came to a conclusion, that was good enough to push her up one spot into individual silver medal position.
“It was hard work actually — it was very intense,” says Yaz of the course. “I think it was the terrain more than anything. You’re just constantly on the camber, up and down. But as I’ve said from the beginning, I’m just so glad that I’m sat on Banzai — he just really took it all in stride and just felt like he was really at home up in the hills.”
One of the benefits of going early was that Yaz didn’t have too much outside influence to think about: she’d watched just a couple of riders on course before mounting up herself, and was thus able to stick to her guns and the plans she’d made while walking. That paid off with a ride that very nearly went exactly how she’d expected it to.
“All the combinations I rode to my plan A, apart from the last water which it was just quite steep so we just didn’t land quite as far outside as I would’ve liked. And we just picked up the five strides instead of the four, so I think if I’d maybe been a bit quicker there we might have made the time — but I’m just delighted with him. He was incredible the whole way around, and grew in confidence the whole way. He was just looking for the flags.”
Yaz found herself down on the clock early on in the course — a problem that many riders found themselves subsequently unable to overcome, but she very nearly caught back up in the latter stages.
“I would say I was down on my first three [minute markers] at least. And then I made it up more where we had the single fences in the middle of the course. And then as we got down to the flatter land, it was easier to try and keep in a rhythm. Obviously when you’re up and down the hills, you’ve got to really get them back and prepare for the combinations on flat. It was a lot easier, so I think I definitely made up time throughout the middle and towards the end of the course. I was really pleased with how we managed to claw that back.”
For Yaz, even just coming to Pratoni at all is a dream come true. And to do it with her Kentucky runner-up and horse of a lifetime, Banzai? It’s almost beyond words.
“Honestly, I could never have even dreamed of being in this position,” she says. “I know the horse is more than capable: I think so much of him and he just certainly deserves it so much, he’s just such a incredible all around horse in the dressage and show jumping. And touch wood, tomorrow he’ll show everyone that he really is the ultimate animal.”
When the USA’s Tamie Smith crossed the finish line, she knew she was a second off the optimum time — but it wasn’t until she joined us in the media mixed zone that she realised that was one second inside, not outside, with Mai Baum.
“That feels even better,” she laughs. She and 16-year-old ‘Lexus’ had enjoyed a career-defining round, showjumping their way through many of the tough combinations on course and leaning on one another to make decisions and get the job done.
“He and I have such a great partnership now. This is a hard course for those horses, and I said to Eric Duvander the other day, I think it’s going to be hard for our five-star horses because the jumps aren’t big, but they’re super technical and twisty and you lose rideability,” says Tamie. “But he’s such a good jumper; the striding kept getting shorter and shorter and so I had to wrangle him in a couple of times but he was right there. He was just on it and super. I’m really pleased.”
Tamie credited US cross-country coach Ian Stark — and a healthy dose of denial — with helping her to make a plan of action that would stick.
“We had spotters at the beginning of the course, and we had a really good meeting last night with Ian [Stark],” she says. “We’d walked the course, and we had our ideas, and if it rides this way, great, if it doesn’t ride that way and the rider didn’t mess up, let me know. But it rode the way we had planned, the Slide particularly — obviously I’d never done anything like that, and I only got to watch the video from like, 1853 where they were trying to kill themselves. And I was like, ‘well, they’re not gonna have that, they won’t put that one on the course’. So then when I got here [and saw it], I was a little bit pooping my pants — it had my heart racing a little bit this morning again! But it rode great — and what a great thing for the Americans to have Ian. He’s a legend. So we have confidence and he’s showed us how to ride fast.”
Tamie and Lexus, who ordinarily deliver very pretty, correct stride patterns — sometimes to the detriment of the clock — got a little agricultural at the Pratoni slide, leaving a stride out from element A to element B and gaining in confidence from the flyer they took there.
“I didn’t really want to get six going down that slide that, but the six was right there and he’s just got a massive stride and he saw it and it was phenomenal,” says Tamie. “I’m actually glad he did it — it’s always fun to leave one out and have it work!”
There are few better horses to head into the final phase on than Mai Baum, who’s an exceptional show jumper — but for now, Tamie’s revelling in the moment, and in the joy of being part of a US contingent that absolutely nailed the brief across the board today.
“I have an unbelievable magical unicorn and all three phases,” says Tamie with a broad smile. “He’s a horse of a lifetime, and he’s made a lot of dreams come true. I will take care of him tonight. He felt great to the end, and I know his heart is as big as mine, so I know he’ll give me everything he has.”
British team anchor Oliver Townend had plenty of pressure on his shoulders as he left the startbox: second out, Laura Collett, had picked up an unlucky drive-by at the C element of the Pratoni slide combination, and third out Tom McEwen was still in limbo, awaiting a review of a flag rule contravention that would have pushed the British team right off the podium. But what better horse to be on when the going gets tough than 15-year-old Ballaghmor Class who, in seven CCI5* starts and an Olympics, has never finished lower than fifth?
It didn’t quite start out how Oliver would have hoped, though: as the pair came down the slide at 7ABC, Ballaghmor Class yanked off a front shoe, and skidded and slipped slightly around some of the course’s hairpin bends as a result. But after some clever rebalancing and an adherence to a rhythm, the pair were able to get themselves home clear and inside the time.
For Ballaghmor Class, though, who’s an out-and-out gallop-and-jump kind of five-star horse, Giuseppe’s style of designing didn’t come quite as naturally as the colossal fences of a course like Burghley do.
“It’s a different test to normal, but I think a very fair and cleverly designed test,” says Oliver. “I don’t think it particularly suits some of the older horses such as London, Ballaghmor Class, and Toledo de Kerser that have been around those big five-stars like Badminton and Burghley, because this is definitely smaller, dimensionally, and you’re up and down the hills and the terrain is tough. They want big open courses that they can attack. So the distances didn’t suit my horse, and he’s so genuine, even when he didn’t want to listen, he eventually did — and the one thing he does love is jumping between the flags, which makes my job a lot lot more relaxing. If he sees the fence, then you know he’s going to try and jump it for you.”
The cherry atop the cake for Oliver? After his round was complete and his own overnight fourth-place spot confirmed, the news wended its way back that Tom’s flag penalty had been removed, putting Britain back into bronze medal position overnight.
“She’s just an absolute fucking machine — like, for me, the coolest horse,” enthuses Germany’s Julia Krajewski, who came home six seconds inside the time on her Tokyo individual gold medalist Amande de b’Neville to move from 12th to fourth. “She’s got such a character and she’s super honest; genuine yet clever.”
That cleverness, and a finely honed sense of self-preservation, have helped the Selle Français mare grow into a seriously smart cross-country performer — and one that’s a confidence-boost for the sport to watch.
“That’s what I love most — she would never just run into a fence,” says Julia. “She’s not the genuine horse which you can just like, throw into the fence and they don’t manage because they’re too honest. She would pay attention, but she will always do what I point her at.”
Though ‘Mandy’ is an Olympic gold medallist, she took that title while still reasonably inexperienced — but over the year since, she’s developed considerably, gaining her first experiences of crowds and atmosphere and, most importantly, gaining in physical strength and speed. That was put to the test over today’s hills — and it was a test she passed with flying colours.
“I haven’t been here yet, so I didn’t 100% know how fit she would be, but I was quite confident that she by now is super fit and will be on it to the end,” says Julia. “After Sandra [Auffarth] had a super good clear, fast round I thought ‘okay, the horses are quite similar; we bounce off ideas about training. If her horse can do it like that, then Mandy is up to it as well’.”
The experience of riding the course at Pratoni was more enjoyable, Julia found, than riding in Tokyo — and she was much more effusive in her praise of it than some of her German teammates, who were largely critical of today’s track: “Yes, it’s a twisty course here — but it’s a Championship. Tokyo was, for me, more intense and more stressful to ride. Here, they were difficult questions, but you always had some time in between to reorganize yourself, to pet your horse. I gave her quite some pets and in Tokyo there wasn’t much time to do that! And I found the course built in a way that we as the more experienced riders have to work, but if you’re not quite up at the level you have the chance to get home because you can just slow down a bit in the end and the horses have the chance to jump and make it home in a good way. So I have to say, I know that some riders complain — but for my horse it was great.”
Though there’s still another phase to go, Julia has already begun to think about the next aims for her superstar mare — aims with roots that were planted much earlier this year, and which defined much of the mare’s early-season prep.
“I think it’s maybe about time we do one of the bigger five-stars now — maybe we start at Burghley,” she says. “The original plan was to go to Kentucky, and that was the reason why I’ve been here [at boyfriend Pietro Roman’s Italian base] in March for galloping, because Germany normally is too wet, too cold, to gallop in February and March. So we’ve had her quite fit, then she knocked herself — it wasn’t dramatic, but she couldn’t go to Kentucky.”
As US team anchor Boyd Martin started his round late in the day with Tsetserleg TSF, our EN team group chat lit up.
“This might be the first time Boyd’s left the start box without any pressure,” mused one of my colleagues. And it’s an astute point: so often, the team stalwart has had to head out on damage control, with a view to putting a decent counting score on the board and salvaging a team effort that’s gone a bit awry.
Today, though, it was a totally different story: Boyd could have opted to dismount and do a handstand on fence one, or slowed down to a walk to politely explain to Pratoni’s wackier spectators that no, they cannot take their dog for a swim in the water complex while the competition is ongoing, or stopped for a quick panini at the lone food truck on course, and the US would still have been in absolutely grand form, such was its riders’ strength throughout the day.
He didn’t do any of that, of course. Instead, he and ‘Thomas’ delivered one of the rounds of their career, flying through the course’s toughest combinations and arriving home bang on the money, crossing the finish line just as the clock ticked over to the 9:50 optimum time.
“Boyd, you asshole!” shouted New Zealand’s Tim Price with a grin as his competitor arrived home. By hitting the optimum time exactly, Boyd had broken the dressage tie that the two had shared — because Tim, who had also added nothing in his round with Falco, had come home one second inside. That allowed Boyd to scoot ahead, putting him sixth overnight.
“I’d like to say that I just timed my round perfectly, but I was just going as fast as he goes,” laughs Boyd. “I thought I was right on the time or one second over, maybe one second under, so when I heard them announce that it was right on the time it was a big breath of relief!”
Although the pair made the hustle and bustle of Giuseppe’s course look flowing enough, it was actually a track that pushed the diminutive Trakehner out of his comfort zone, just as it had done for several of the British horses.
“It doesn’t suit him — he’s so suited to the five-stars, the Kentuckies that are just long gallops and I can get him settled in,” explains Boyd. “Here, it was sort of like Tokyo where it’s a bit sort of turning and stopping and starting ,and the sunlight was a bit weird by the end of the day. But I have to give the horse credit: he just tries and tries and tries, and it’s his best attribute with a horse that’s done as much as he has. He’s just a legend.”
Tim Price, for his part, might have rued that one second that pushed him into seventh with Falco, but we can’t imagine he spent too long dwelling on it: after all, he’d managed to catapult himself from 14th to seventh place with his 2021 Pau winner, and now goes into the final phase less than a rail off a podium place.
The fact that 13-year-old Falco, who had had a rather turbulent record previously, came into his own at Pau last year may well have been a bit of an indicator of what he’d do here. While the French five-star doesn’t have any terrain, bar a few man-made mounds, it’s an incredibly twisty, intense long-format track that’s fatiguing in much the same way as today’s track was. In any case, that turning point last season has heralded a new era for the freakishly talented jumper.
“He’s an out-and-out jumper, and he’s learned the job of cross-country,” says Tim. “There was there was points here when he was a Novice and I’d be warming up with Andrew [Nicholson] and we’d both be like, ‘no, this horse is not not gonna be anything beyond a Novice horse’, because he was the wrong type for the job. But he’s been very trainable, so he’s just gotten better and more honest and more clever as he’s got on.”
Though a few riders early in the day came close to making the time — including second out Sam Watson, who was just six seconds over with Ballybolger Talisman — no one had got it done by the time Great Britain’s pathfinder Ros Canter left the box. To unfamiliar eyes, the reigning World Champion’s oversized ten-year-old Lordships Graffalo might not have seemed the likeliest prospect to catch it — but catch it he did, romping across the finish line seven seconds inside the time with a smile on his face.
“I couldn’t be prouder of him — he is just a phenomenal cross-country horse,” says Ros. “He’s only ten years old and it just feels like child’s play to him. He’s green and he’s inexperienced, but he just treats it like a big kid and he just plays with it and focuses when he needs to focus. He’s fantastic.”
Young though he may be, ‘Walter’ has already amassed a serious set of placings at the upper levels, including wins at Aston le Walls and Blair Castle’s CCI4*-S classes, second place finishes at Bicton and Blenheim’s CCI4*-L sections — and, most notably, a convincing second-place finish in his five-star debut at Badminton this spring. That gave Ros a robust indication of his ability to go the distance and how much, or little, help he needed to do so. As a result, he had enough left in the tank to rally in the final flat minutes, opening his stride up impressively and crossing the finish line looking fit and fresh.
“I was pretty confident after Badminton,” she says. “I haven’t done as much galloping work at home because of the hard ground and we only go on grass, but he experiences hills like this all the time at home, whether he’s hacking or cantering, so I knew he’d be able to keep his speed or accelerate up the hill. I think that’s key, because once you’ve done the hills, it gets very twisty — and if they feel a bit tired, that’s when they’re going to be hard to steer. So I was fortunate in that sense that he kept galloping.”
There’s a certain formula that everyone always seems to follow with the French team: we all head into a championship largely overlooking them, and then they come along and kick a few asses, making us all look very foolish indeed.
This week, though, the whole system has been rather subverted: though the French team is packed with relatively young and inexperienced horses, we’ve all put them up as potential medalists — and just one has come home clear. We saw rider falls for Olympic team gold medallists Nicolas Touzaint and Absolut Gold HDC and Bramham fourth-place finishers Tom Carlile and Darmagnac de Beliard, as well as a frustrating drive-by at the C element of the Pratoni slide for Astier Nicolas and Alertamalib’or — but the team’s morale was given a welcome boost by the round of senior squad debutant Gaspard Maksud. He stormed his way to a clear round four seconds inside the time with the nine-year-old Zaragoza, propelling them from 21st to ninth place on their first-phase score of 27.1.
“It was hard work, but the mare was very good,” says British-based Gaspard of the catty, quick-footed mare, who is owned by her breeders, Jane Young and Martin Thurlow. “She’s super class, nine years old, galloping in the World Championship. To do what she did, and be clear inside the time, and to be only nine years old do that, it doesn’t matter who’s on the top of them — they’ve got to be quite special to do it.”
Japan’s Kazuma Tomoto and Vinci de la Vigne JRA, who were individual fourth-place finishers at last year’s Tokyo Olympics, delivered yet another classy, speedy clear, adding just 1.2 time penalties and stepping up one spot into overnight tenth place. It’s not hard to imagine that the talented rider and the former Astier Nicolas ride, who finished eighth at the last World Championships with the Frenchman aboard, might yet inch up another few places.
Course designer Giuseppe della Chiesa considered the day’s sport, which saw an 81.8% completion rate and a 55.6% clear rate, a success, despite the mixed bag of rider reactions before and after riding it.
“Yes, in fact, it was exciting,” he says with a smile. “It was a World Championship! And I think at the end of the day the thing is that you have 88 competitors and horses, and so you must really ride 88 courses, and they’re all different. They all have come from different background experiences. And the idea was to try to, more or less, find a route for everybody. In general, I must say that I’m happy. Clearly the best ones had to work hard to get the time, but that was achievable.”
Eleven of the 88 starters caught the optimum time of 9:50, putting it roughly on a par with recent championships. Still, there were some areas on the course that Giuseppe had expected to exert more influence than they did, such as the corners at 11ABCD, which walked as a true five-star question but only saw five riders pick up penalties. One great victory of the day was that no horses fell, and the seven rider falls that happened on course all happened in different places, so there was no one part of the track that was unfairly weighted towards exerting punishing influence.
“I think that the conditions of the day were very good,” muses Giuseppe, “so the horses jumped well, and that is good. Maybe, I must say that riders are getting better and better — I thought that maybe the two corners up there would be a bit more difficult, a bit more demanding, but also there was a fair amount who did a fantastic job at it. So I would say it’s interesting.”
The KEP Italia Target on the Pratoni slide at 7ABC was the most influential combination of the day, with thirteen runouts and one rider fall here, but nearly every rider opted to go direct down the slope to the two skinnies — a major turnaround from its last appearance in a championship, when most chose to take an alternative route.
“I designed here in 2007 at the European Championships, and on the Slide there was something that was quite similar, or slightly different but was similar to this. But after 15 years of skinnies, horses seem, more or less, to jump them much easier.”
One of the major criticisms that those riders less in favour of the course held was that Giuseppe had opted not to use the far backstretch of the course to give more galloping space. But the designer was steadfast in his decision, despite suggesting earlier this year that another loop would be added in there: “Clearly, there are different elements that come in the design of course,” he says. “And there are some technical elements, some elements that impact how difficult you want to make the course, how you make it spectator-friendly, you want to do television-wise, and also some technicality. You must also use, a bit, the characteristics of the nature of the place. So I think that yes, there is more land to use, for sure. You can design many different courses here. For this championship, this was the course that I thought I wanted to design.”
Even with the removal of 15 penalties for a flag for Tom McEwen and Toledo de Kerser, the loss of Laura Collett’s extraordinarily competitive first-phase score meant that Great Britain dropped from a decisive gold medal position in the rankings down to bronze. That allowed Germany, who had been in silver, and the USA, who had been in bronze, to step up one spot apiece with their clear rounds across the board.
New Zealand retains the fourth-place position they held after the first phase, while Ireland made a serious leap up the leaderboard, climbing from 12th place into overnight fifth — and giving their efforts to qualify for the Paris Olympics a real boost. Likewise, Switzerland rallied after a devastating blow when their pathfinder, 22-year-old Nadja Minder, fell at the end of the course while up on the clock, and each of their three remaining team riders delivered the goods, catapulting them up into sixth place.
The final qualifying spot for Paris is currently held by the Japanese team, who had three riders come home clear and dropped the score of the veteran pair, Yoshiaki Oiwa and Calle 44, who laboured from the midway point in the course and picked up 31 jumping penalties and 32.4 time. Australia has slipped well out of the hunt, from fifth to tenth, after the broken rein and subsequent penalties for Kevin McNab and Don Quidam, and two shock refusals on course for Andrew Hoy and Vassily de Lassos, a horse so consistent that in 30 FEI runs, he’s finished on his dressage score in 20 – and added just five seconds or less in a further five.
Effectively out of the hunt now are three teams: France, who had just one clear round and two fallers, sits 14th on an aggregate score of 1097.2 after having to count Tom Carlile’s elimination score, and Austria lag behind them on 1105.1 after one of their three-person team was eliminated. Spain carries a score of 1115.1 into tomorrow’s competition with just two riders remaining in their ranks.
Nabbing one of those top-seven places — and thus, a team ticket to Paris — is a huge goal for every nation here, none of which (with the notable exception of home nation France) have earned a spot yet, but just as fierce is that battle for medals. And boy, is it tight at that end of the leaderboard: we’ve got just a 1.3 penalty margin between Germany and the US at the moment, which gives the Germans just three seconds in hand but no rails at the moment, and Great Britain, for their part, is less than a rail behind the USA. New Zealand is just under two rails off the pace from the Brits, and while Ireland is a solid four rails behind the Kiwis, there’s still plenty that could change tomorrow.
One of Pratoni’s legacy features from its genesis at the 1960 Rome Olympics is its grass showjumping arena, which features a number of interesting undulations across its breadth, and the man who’s been brought in for tomorrow’s main job is equally likely to exert an influence. Uliano Vezzani had never designed an eventing showjumping course before this spring’s test event at Pratoni — instead, he’s best known for his work in elite showjumping, including the Global Champions Tour, and his raison d’etre of sorts has been putting courses back on grass. His showjumping track at the test event this spring certainly caused enough issues, and time was a factor, too – 30% of the field jumped clear then, but that was a much less intense short-format track, and horses were consequently fresher for the final day.
In any case, before we even get that far, we’ve got the final horse inspection at 9.00 local time (8.00 a.m. BST/3.00 a.m. EST) to get through. 72 competitors remain in the hunt and will be working hard overnight to get their horses there in the best shape possible — so we’ll see them, and you, in the morning. Go Eventing.