Pau 2018: Dissecting the Cross Country Course with Joseph Murphy

Joseph Murphy and Sportsfield Othello at Pau 2018. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Pau is known for a few things: swimming rats, French stereotypes, abundant day-drinking, and course designer Pierre Michelet, who spends most of his time zooming around the course on a scooter, cackling and twirling the ends of his moustache, or so we’re led to believe. There’s a rumour that suggests that if you stand in front of an arena mirror and say “zut alors, zat is a short four!” three times he’ll appear, red-eyed and spectral, and make you jump a curving line of skinny fences as penance for disturbing his slumber. Others say that you can summon him by putting pointed studs, a triple espresso, and a man in a horse suit in a circle and singing the French national anthem, which is Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes, we think.

Michelet the Menace, as he’s been affectionately dubbed, is the man responsible for one of the most consistently interesting courses in top-level eventing. Lacking the sheer space of venues like Badminton, Burghley, and Kentucky, Pau is best known for its serious twists and turns as it snakes its way between the gas stations and garden allotments of the city’s fringes. It’s not a galloping track, despite the fact that it takes place at a racetrack — instead, it’s rather more akin to go-karting-meets-crazy-golf.

There are three distinct sections to the course: the first and the last sections run just about parallel to one another, and they’re the business ends, with constant turn-and-burn action and swathes of people bunched up against the close roping. There’s very little margin for error in these parts of the course, and the minutes are slow ones here — there’s no opportunity to get ahead of the clock at the beginning of your round, and nor could you plan to shave off the seconds once you hit the final section. Instead, riders will need to plan to pick up the pace quite considerably when they hit the middle section of the course, which takes them out onto the racetrack and offers up some slightly longer galloping stretches. But even so, there’s nothing like Burghley’s infamous Winners’ Avenue here — it’ll take tactical riding and a forward stride into each and every fence to make up the seconds.

Pau cross-country essentials:

  • Length: 6320m
  • Optimum time: 11:06
  • Fences: 38
  • Jumping efforts: 45
  • Potential double-clears: 8 to 10, according to Joseph Murphy

EN walked the course with Ireland’s Joseph Murphy, who rides his eventing warhorse Sportsfield Othello and first-timer Fernhill Frankie this weekend, and is known for his gutsy, get-it-done approach to cross-country. He’s also the king of the hat-cam video, and we’re very excited to report that he’ll be wearing a camera for both of his rounds today — stay tuned for the videos and your chance to ‘ride’ the Pau course for yourself.

“The more I walk it, it’s probably starting to look a little bit better, because at the beginning it was very difficult to see a flow, but after a few walks you can start to get it into your head and figure out where the quickest minutes are,” he explains.

The course begins a little further along the back-stretch than it did last year — rather than starting in the gateway of the main arena, competitors will leave the start box behind the collecting ring, giving them plenty of hustle and bustle nearby to contend with. But that’s fine — the first couple of fences are straightforward ones, designed to give the competitors a chance to establish a forward, confident rhythm as soon as possible.

Fence three.

The first fence is the Bac de Châtaignier Audevard, a table with a sloping profile and a generous floral groundline, heading into a sweeping hairpin turn to fence two, the Tronc tordu Locexpo, a simple hanging log. Fence three, the Table de pique-nique Noa, gives us Vietnam-style flashbacks of last year, when we suggested that perhaps the families of beaver-sized swimming rats made use of Pau’s colossal tables for family dinners — this year, the course builders have kindly left a selection of plates and bowls out for them to use.

William Fox-Pitt considers the idea of a dinner party with the rats, and finds it lacking.

But aquatic vermin and a real risk of rabies aside, there’s not much to do here but bowl on down and jump the fence out of as forward a stride as can be managed. Then it’s onto the Château de Pau, a castle on a hill, which used to be the first part of a combination, but is now just a single fence and a disappointing Ed Sheeran song.

Fence four.

Next up is fence 5AB and our first combination, the Oxer ajouré – pointe Freejump, which is a table to a corner and can be ridden on four or five strides.

Fence 5A.

Fence 5B.

Quite an upright fence at six, the Mur de Pierre means that riders will have to waste a second or two setting up, but if they tackle the fence to the right of centre they’ll find themselves on the shortest route to 7AB and 8, the first water.

Fence six.

This was seriously influential last year, but it’s got a whole new look for 2018. Our intrepid competitors will have to pop over an elevated, brush-topped rolltop in the water, four strides up a big bank out and then one stride to 8, an offset hedge. There’s an alternative to 8 that takes you back around to the left, but riders will have to be sure to call out their long route early, as there’s not an enormous amount of space between the bank and the direct route.

Fence 7A.

Fence 7B to 8, combined driving bollards notwithstanding.

“You’ll be arriving here with a fresh horse, and you want them forward but thinking — and normally, fresh horses aren’t thinking,” says Joseph. “So it’s really a case of the rider’s being switched on there and in the right speed and the right forwardness. You don’t want them running through the bridle. The step up could be a looky sort of fence, or it might jump really well — we won’t know until we do it. The least pressure with the most forwardness is key here; I wouldn’t be trying to make too many adjustments.”

After the water it’s a right-hand curve to fence nine, which is the Barrier d’attelage Octobre Rose, a simple but airy upright adorned, apparently, with the contents of a child’s dress-up box in honour of Breast Cancer Awareness month.

Fence nine.

Hallie Coon plans out her second horse inspection outfit.

After popping the rail, competitors will have to head back to that first water — just to confuse everyone a bit — and pop down the drop in. This could take some of the horses by surprise — they’ve seen water once already, but it’s still early on in the course. Then they’ll canter on up and out of the water to fence 11, a beefy corner on an incline.

“Once you get out of the water you’ll almost want to do the next three minutes at 600mpm. It’s going to be a fast part of the course, and the horses have had a chance to get into it, so it’s time to get down to business,” explains Joseph.

Fence 10 from the take-off side…

…and from the landing side.

There’s another straightforward — if enormous — table at 12, before another big question at 13 and 14. This one takes the place of last year’s contentious angled hedges and ditches, which were reminiscent of a couple of Vicarage Vees on an acute turn. This year, there’s still a big jump (13) at the top of the mound, but now the competitors will have to bowl on down to a serious skinny, which is separately numbered as fence 14. There’s an alternative route here — if they don’t fancy the idea of jumping a seriously tall and seriously narrow fence at this point (although why on earth wouldn’t they? It all sounds great fun. Pass us the Bordeaux, please), they can pop 13, gather steam down the mound, and then curve around to a straightforward little log pile.

“I’d be wanting to meet this on my stride, and lining it up a little bit right to left and coming down on three strides, jumping it as I meet it. I don’t think people should worry too much about this fence.”

Fence 14: pretty easy, tbh.

Once clear of 14, it’s time to head out onto the centre of the racetrack, and the goal now will be to continue to ride as forward as possible. After a few slow early minutes, this is the time to gain speed and try to catch up to the clock, so a high cruising speed will be needed here and competitors will be travelling at 600mpm plus to get the job done.

The first fence in the track is 15, the Haie de l’Hippodrome de Pau, a massive but fairly innocuous staggered hedge, with an obvious profile that encourages riders to jump out of stride. Then it’s onto 16AB, a maximum width white table at the four-minute point. It’s four or five strides — four if you want to save time — to another corner.

“That’s on a really generous distance, and you can almost slightly angle the table and just keep rocking on four strides. But you don’t really want to be adding there; even on a short-striding horse that won’t be a great approach.”

Fence 16A is probably the widest fence on the course, though it should ride well and encourage a forward stride…

…down to 16B, the corner. It’s not visible here, but the corner features a helpful angled groundling, which effectively does the work of bisecting the fence for the riders.

At fence 17 we find yet another table, and this one utilises width, rather than height, to test the horses and riders. A lower fence might seem like a nice breather, but actually, it can offer up a bit of a funny jump; it doesn’t give horses an awful lot to look at and they may not make the best effort here. Once again, the key will be power and pace.

The trakehner at fence 18.

A peek into the abyss.

As we turn around the furthest point of the course we come to fence 18, a seriously airy trakehner, angled over a yawning great ditch. Helpfully, there’s a wooden groundline and flowers to help the riders see the right angle to take, which is slightly left to right.

Next up is 19, the Haie de laurier, which is an impressively wide and square box hedge with white rails on the take-off side to make it more readable. At 20 there’s another very airy upright rail like the one we saw at 9, though this one stands solitary in the middle of the open expanse of the racetrack and is a real departure from the wide tables we’ve seen so far in this section. Without much in the way of a groundline —  though there is a bush tucked under the rail — it’ll require slightly more set-up, so riders will need to land kicking to make up that second or two before they loop back around to the right towards 21 and 22, two corners that are jumped on a related distance with some variable terrain in between.

“It’s always a little bit like this at Pau, that you hit a flat bit and you just gallop, but that’s what makes it a little bit difficult, too, because then you come to a combination and your horse is strung out and very forward,” says Joseph. “It’s in the rider’s best interest to put them together a bit. For me, you almost need to be coming into 21 in a forward frame of mind and on the correct line, but not so open. But I do think that whatever stride you meet that corner on, you have to take it. You just have to pick it off on the distance you find.”

The first of the corners at 21 and 22. In the background, you can see the second — but horses and riders will have to traverse a dip in the terrain to get from the first to the second.

Fence 23 is one of the new fences on course this year, and it’s a classic four-star profile — Le palois is an enormous ditch and brush of the sort we see at Burghley and Blenheim. It’s big, it’s bold, it’s inviting, and it’s going to give a great feeling in the air — that’s one hell of a ditch, but a horse who might be tempted to back off the fence will be given even more reason to do so by the bright white sand on the approach. Still, riders will know they’re on the home stretch now, and that positivity will see them tackle it with aplomb.

Fence 23 — big enough for all the Citroens in the south of France to park in.

At 24AB and 25 there’s another water question. 24A is a table on dry land, from which the riders will canter down to two offset angled hedges (24B and 25) in the water. There’s a time-consuming long route here, but we’re unlikely to see many people elect to take it — with positive riding, this direct route should ride well. It’ll certainly ride better than 26, anyway, which was on the course last year, too — a short, squat ditch and rail, it doesn’t look like much but is rather too small for horses to get a read on, and it can cause some awkward efforts, as can the sight of the sudden road landing.

The view of 24B and 25 from the take-off side of 24A.

There’s a straightforward pop over the gigantic hedge oxer at 27 to guide horses and riders back into the twisty final section of the course, but our competitors can’t get complacent yet — there’s still plenty to do before they arrive home, and at this, the eight-minute marker, there’s no more opportunity to make up time. Competitors will know their fate here already, at least as far as time penalties are concerned.

The Delta Cambox arrowhead.

The Delta Cambox arrowhead at 28 requires some attentive riding — it’s stuck at the top of the hill and it’s a skinny enough question, and for a tiring horse, it can lead to a less-than-ideal effort. The great Andrew Nicholson took a spill here last year — though it doesn’t look like much, anything can happen here. Then there’s another wide table, the Mur Médias concrete box at 29, to offer a bit of a mental break before 30 and 31AB, the final water combination.

Fence 30 is a hanging log drop in, just like last year, but this year there’s nothing to jump once they’re in the water. Instead, they’ll have to canter up and out of the water and make an acute left-handed turn to two brush swans on a one-stride line.

“I was struggling to find a line for this, but I’ve found it, on reflection,” says Joseph. “You have to jump into the water normally, and as you come out, there’s actually a bit of a muddy patch that’s painted green — I was always planning to come slightly inside of that to keep the flow, but now I realise that’s a bit risky at the last part. I’m going to come one stride more out, thinking about the left turn after the B element — if you turn a bit too early into the A element you’ll find yourself almost parallel to the B element.”

The view from fence 31A to 31B.

Another straightforward table at 32 and a bit of a gallop precede the painter’s palette at 33. Although it’s just a single fence, this very upright skinny is splattered with paint and sits in the dappled light under the trees — last year, this meant that many horses seemed to struggle to read it and left a leg. This year, with a demonstrable lack of actual sunlight, it may give better results.

Fence #33 on the Pau CCI4* cross country course, “Palette de peintre L’Eperon.” Photo by Leslie Wylie.

The final major combination on course — though not, notably, the final combination — comes at 34AB and 35. Here we see the skinny brushes from last year’s enormously influential first water put to a new use — 34A is a big brush atop a mound on a downhill dogleg turn to the first colossal skinny brush at 34B. Because 35 is separately numbered, there’s the option to circle between the two brushes, and there are alternatives, too, but this close to home, many will chance the direct route, and many will have expensive mistakes here, especially if they fail to get a good jump over the first element.

“The first part is big, and they’re going to land a little bit on their heads,” explains Joseph. “So I’m going to jump it from the right to the left to land with a little bit of room so I can do a bit of manoeuvring, and then I’m going to just come down to those skinnies. I’m not going to try to think about it too much, but I’ll do a lot of preparation to the first part so I can land in the correct place and get to the skinnies from the right place. Your eye will tell you the distance, but I think if you come down in three strides it’s a bit risky and your horse will be running blind. If you come down in four, you’ll get the two between the skinnies well. I’ve jumped a good few fences down that hill over the years on both sides, and one thing I know is that they always land from the first fence with absolutely nothing.”

The final skinny brush at 35.

Fence 36 is the final fence before the atmospheric main arena, and it’s a simple one — just a nice, big, steeplechase-style brush to encourage horses home and see them into the roaring crowds and final fences. 37AB is a double of angled hedges, but they’re slightly shorter and with a kinder profile than last year, so shouldn’t cause any issues, and then it’s back around to the other long side and over the huge but sloping final fence.

And that’s your Pau course for 2018 — it’s long, it’s tough, and it’s a serious four-star track. The heavens have opened this morning in France, though the rain looks set to stop by about 1.00pm. Cross-country begins at 1:30pm local time/7.30am EST, and will be live streamed at the link below, or with English colour commentary via the Les Etoiles de Pau free app. There, you can also watch the previous days’ action back, with guest commentary from competitors and slightly hungover Eventing Nation correspondents alike. We’ll be bringing you live updates throughout the day as well as a full dissection of the day’s action later on. We’re wishing safe journeys around the course to all our competitors here today, and sending plenty of lucky vibes to our American contingent, headed up by four-star debutante Hallie Coon, who sits in eighth place overnight.

Want an even more in-depth insight into the course? Check out the CrossCountry app preview, where you can watch Joseph walk the lines in the combinations and discuss some more of the challenges the course presents.

Go Pau, and Go Eventing!

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