Pau, Day Two: Tom McEwen and Toledo de Kerser Dance to Dressage Lead

Tom McEwen and Toledo de Kerser. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

And so the sand-dancing comes to a close, and the wine-quaffing begins in earnest – and at the culmination of a day and a half of closely-fought competition, a French horse sits in the top spot. But Selle Français Toledo de Kerser doesn’t wear the tricolour – instead, with Tom McEwen in the irons, he’s one of Great Britain’s brightest stars, though his 2019 season hasn’t afforded him quite as many golden opportunities to shine as it could have done. Selected for the European Championships, he was sidelined at the eleventh hour after slipping on the yard – and now, at the tail-end of the season, he proved that his brief break from the spotlight hasn’t done his form any harm. He and Tom scored an unsurpassable 24.9 to take the lead going into cross-country.

“It’s great to be in the lead going into cross-country – for me, it was just a nice, elegant, fluent, uphill test, which is what the judges have been looking for all week,” says Tom, who has never led the dressage at this level. “It’s definitely nice to be in the lead against such stiff competition – I’m looking forward to tomorrow.”

Tom will certainly have his work cut out for him over tomorrow’s cross-country course, over which he’ll need to pilot two distinctly different horses: Figaro van het Broekxhof, who sits eleventh after dressage, will act as the pathfinder of his two horses.

“You come here expecting a twisty track just because of the dimensions of the setting, but for me it’s really fluid – though there are big fences and clever lines, and a lot to be done,” he says. “I’ve got two completely different horses here, and it’s basically a course of three parts. Toledo can do all of it – the twisting parts, the open bits. He’s fit and ready to run, and he’s not coming here to just get round any more. Basically, he’s a good French-running horse!”

Tim Price and Wesko. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Tim Price, already in seventh place with first ride Ascona M, certainly gave Tom a run for his money aboard his 2014 Luhmühlen winner Wesko today – and although his score of 25.6 would relegate him to second place overnight, he gives Tom just a second in hand over tomorrow’s time-sapping track.

Ros Canter and Zenshera. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

The World Champion has been on superb form since her return to competition after having her daughter, winning three internationals from four starts and adapting remarkably quickly to life as one of eventing’s myriad supermums.

“I’m trying not to let [my eventing life] change at all, really – you’ve kind of got to stick to the game plan, and my desire to win hasn’t gone at all,” says Ros. “That’s all I want to do, and I really want to gear up for next year and have a good crack at getting Olympic selection. But it obviously is very different; fifteen minutes before I got on today, I was breastfeeding! There’s an awful lot to contend with, but I’m very lucky that I’ve got so much support – I’ve got my mum here this week, and my partner, Chris, who will take Ziggy whenever I need him to, so it’s all good so far.”

Today, she rode 15.2hh Zenshera – a horse she’s described as being quiet enough to work in a riding school – to equal third and a score of 27.2. For Zenshera, this looks to be the start of another successful week in the Pyrenees – he’s finished 5th and 7th here on his two previous visits, proving that sometimes, small really does equal mighty.

“It’s very special – we didn’t actually know until last week if I was going to come here, and I felt a little bit rusty at times since coming back, so we’ve played it a bit by ear,” she says. “But Zenshera’s a real professional by now; he’s fifteen, and we’ve known each other since he was four years old, so if I was going to come back on anything, I wanted it to be him.”

Gemma Tattersall and Jalapeno. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Gemma Tattersall made good on a fledgling partnership with Jalapeno who, like other ride Chilli Knight (13th), is by Badminton winner Chilli Morning. But unlike Chilli Knight, who Gemma has produced through the grades, Jalapeno has spent the formative part of her career under a different flag, being piloted by Belgium’s Karin Donckers. Though the eleven-year-old mare only changed hands at the end of last year, the pair have enjoyed several high-profile successes in their young relationship, including second place in Bramham’s CCI4*-L, 9th at Chatsworth CCI4*-S, and a win in the Event Rider Masters series finale at Lignières. But that doesn’t mean that it’s always been plain sailing, as Gemma explains.

“Karin has done the most wonderful job on her and everything was installed, but we’ve had to fine-tune it for me,” she says. “We’ve had a few blips on the cross-country, but in the dressage, up until Lignières we were doing superb tests, but we weren’t doing clear rounds. We were still late 20s, whereas at Lignières and Millstreet we were right on the money getting low 20s, which she’s so capable of doing every time out. I wouldn’t say it’s been straightforward; it’s just a case of her getting to know what I want and me getting to know what she wants.”

Their test today saw them score a 27.2, putting them in equal third place overnight.

“It’s our first five-star test, and we’re still finding each other out,” she says. “I’m really pleased with that – the changes can be better, but I had four clean changes. We’re doing really good, straight changes at home, but sometimes when we’re in the arena she’s so laid-back that she just drops behind my leg and I have to force them a little bit. Then you lose the straightness. Instead of being potentially an 8, they then drop to a 6.5 or a 7. But she’s got so much ability in this phase – it’s just about getting the best out of her now. She’s so rideable and trainable – you could have set fireworks off in there and she’d still have done it. She’s got an amazing brain on her.”

Sarah Bullimore and Conpierre. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Sarah Bullimore rounded out a near clean-sweep for the Brits to sit fifth overnight on Conpierre, who made his five-star debut at Luhmühlen in June, finishing eighth. Today, he scored a 27.7, despite a dramatic spook as he entered the main arena – a dance move that’s not entirely outside his usual oeuvre.

“I’m chuffed to bits with him – he’s a lovely, lovely horse, but he’s quite cheeky,” says Sarah with a smile. “He’s got a real sense of humour, and he can have a little squeal and a squirt and spook at something at just the wrong moment. But he was fabulous [in the ring] and so rideable, and what’s really exciting is that there’s so much more to come from him.”

Improvement in some of the trickier movements certainly proved that point, with ‘Toby’ expertly navigating the test – which features as many twists and turns as Pau’s cross-country track – with balance and ease.

“He finds the changes really quite difficult; he can almost be a little bit too extravagant, but only in front, and then just a little bit wrong behind,” says Sarah, reflecting on the highlights of his test. “But he was much more symmetrical front and back today. The lateral work is always quite easy for him. I was so pleased with the trot work – there’s a lot of changes of bend, and when I was watching yesterday I saw so many people missing the centreline, because it’s quite hard to judge it with the sand, so I hope we got that right!”

Though Toby has been rather overshadowed by stablemate Reve du Rouet, it turns out that he’s an essential part of the latter’s life.

“We call him the social worker,” laughs Sarah, explaining that turning Reve du Rouet out with Toby has taught the formerly reclusive horse to open up. “He never used to want to be around people, or around other horses, and we turned them away together and by the end of it, they’d stand at the fence scratching each other. Now, we let ‘Blou’ loose on the yard and he goes from box to box, scratching everyone – even the mares, who aren’t always so sure about it, but they let him because it’s Blou.”

Now, though, it’s Toby’s time to shine – and possibly to help Sarah to her first five-star win, which she lost out on here two years ago by a matter of less than a second.

Chris Burton and Quality Purdey. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Chris Burton sits sixth overnight on Quality Purdey, who makes her five-star debut on a score of 27.8.

“We’re very happy with her – she was a naughty girl last time at Lignières and she got very feisty in the dressage, but she was a good girl today,” says Burto. But even the fastest man in the world is aware of the challenge that tomorrow will present: “What Pierre Michelet does is a lot of turning back and twisty turns to slow the riders down. But we’re going to give it a good go.”

Yesterday’s leaders, Tim Price and Ascona M, move down to overnight seventh on their score of 28.1, while Alex Bragg and Zagreb sit eighth on their 28.8.

Andreas Dibowski and FRH Butts Avedon. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

We’ve enjoyed many years of watching Germany’s Andreas Dibowski and FRH Butts Avedon at this level, and we’ll be paying extra attention this week – because it’s likely to be the last time we’ll see the experienced gelding, who was second here in 2014, 12th in 2015, and ninth at Luhmühlen in 2013, among his myriad accomplishments. But the last few seasons have been trickier – in fact, the last five-star the horse completed was Badminton in 2016, and on his four attempts since then, he’s failed to complete. But now, off the back of a win at Strzegom’s recent CCI4*-S, Andreas is hoping that his late entry to Pau will allow the horse to bow out on a high.

“Now he’s sixteen, and I think it could be the last big competition with him,” he says. “The decision came only last week after Strzegom, and at Waregem and Strzegom he gave me such a good feeling that I decided to try it again.”

The week got off to a competitive start for the pair, who are consistent performers in this phase. They posted a 30.4 to hold ninth place overnight.

“I had a very good feeling; he was calm and he was with me,” says Andreas. “Only on the last change he was a little bit before me, but everything was fine.”

Felix Vogg and Archie Rocks. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Switzerland’s Felix Vogg had plenty to celebrate after piloting the American off-the-track Thoroughbred Archie Rocks to a personal best across all levels of 31.6, putting them into tenth place going into cross-country. Previously piloted by Maya Simmons, who bought the gelding – then named Smittys Messiah, but renamed for Maya’s grandfather, who served during World War II – from Chris Talley, and latterly competed by Buck Davidson, the gelding has never quite forgotten his roots, but today, that inclination to go forward worked for him, rather than against him.

“I did a few mistakes, sadly, and that always costs more than when the horse does it, but he was pretty good,” says Felix, who moved back to this side of the pond after basing in the States until just after Kentucky this spring. “It’s not always easy with him, because he’s still a little bit a racehorse in the ring, but he’s absolutely a trier. He tries really hard every day and I’m really lucky to have him.

The walk was really good for him; I’ve always had a few issues in walk with him. The centreline was good too, and in the medium canter he wanted to go a little bit too much, maybe, but overall it was a good test for him.”

Though Archie Rocks makes his five-star debut this week, he gained useful experience when stepping in for Felix’s top horse, Colero, at the European Championships this summer, where he romped home clear inside the time. Now, Felix is confident in his ability to read and tackle Pierre Michelet’s track, which has something of a dual identity: though it’s tight, twisty, and packed with dizzying turnbacks in the first and last thirds, the middle section opens up onto the racecourse and allows for a much more open, forward ride.

“He’s really honest, and he’s fast, and I wouldn’t want to be sitting on another one for a first five-star,” says Felix, who thinks the horse’s future lies at this level, rather than as a championship mount.

“I think this level will suit him more, because it’s not so much of a dressage competition,” he explains.

Holly Jacks and More Inspiration. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

We caught up with our sole North American competitor, who makes her return to Europe after four years. Canada’s Holly Jacks and her ex-racehorse More Inspiration sit in 29th place on 36, a personal best for them at this level.

“I’m thrilled with him,” says a beaming Holly, who has twice contested Kentucky with the gelding. “He’s been a difficult horse on the flat, and I’ve really changed my programme in the last year. Now, I don’t do a lot of dressage – I do a lot of it on my trots and my gallops. He hasn’t been in a dressage ring in about three weeks; I walk him around the ring to familiarise, and I don’t warm him up in the outside rings – I just canter, and then canter on down. I’ve done this in my last three events, and in each of them, we’ve had personal bests.”

For Holly, being here is the realisation of a plan shelved two years ago, when her father suffered a stroke and she changed her autumn season as a result. Now, with the experience of her last trip to Europe – and plenty of internationals on home soil and in the US in the following years – under her belt, she’s looking to give this week her all.

“We were both a lot greener [in 2015] – we’ve been around a couple of five-stars now, and we’ve been around Aachen, so I’m hoping to put the pedal down tomorrow and be a little more competitive than I have in the past,” she says. “I’ve always been told it’s a really tight, twisty, technical course, and he’s that kind of horse – he’s a good showjumper, he’s very handy, and he loves indoor eventing. I wanted to come overseas with him before I retired him, and I thought this would be a better spot for him than Burghley, for the type of horse he is.”

Tomorrow sees us look to the main event: Pau’s cross-country phase begins at 14.00 local time/13.00 BST/8.00 a.m. Eastern time, and will be live-streamed through Horse&Country TV. You can find ride times here, and we’ll be bringing you a close look at the challenge ahead tomorrow morning. Until then – foux de fafa, my friends.

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