The Cream Stays on Top in Le Lion Cross-Country Challenge

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France’s Alexis Goury encourages the vocal crowd to cheer even louder as he tackles the latter part of the CCI3*-L course with Elastic Girl Blanche. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

The French get a lot of stick for their military prowess, but actually, many historians agree that the country has mounted the highest number of successful military campaigns in European history — and frankly, it’s not hard to see why a passionate throng of 25,000 French people might yield the combined power to take over the whole world, if that was the sort of thing they fancied doing. That’s how many spectators descended upon the World Championships for Six- and Seven-Year-Olds in Le Lion d’Angers today, and after a year away from their favourite venue, which ran behind closed doors last year, they were eager to double down on their vocal support of each and every competitor.

This is what makes Le Lion really, inimitably special. Yes, it’s a World Championship, and that would be enough of an accolade to make all of us who are so deeply entrenched in the heart of the sport sit up and take notice — but ultimately, it’s all about the atmosphere, which is unlike any other event in the world. And for these young up-and-coming horses, some of whom will become the Olympic medallists of the future, it’s their first chance to come face-to-face with cheering fans in their tens of thousands, pressing themselves against the ropes and screaming their support well before the horses even lock onto the fence.

For some, it’s all a bit too much to handle, and they back off and lose focus. For others, it’s the impetus they’ve always needed to add that extra degree of sparkle and attack. And for most — if not all — it’s an essential education that changes them for the better forever. But woe betide the person who needs to move swiftly through that crowd, who always seem to be on the cusp of starting a full-blown mosh-pit next to the fences. How Napoleon ever lost the Battle of Waterloo is totally beyond us.

20-year-old Anna Lena Schaaf maintains her lead in the Six-Year-Old World Championship after a foot-perfect round with Lagona 4. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Course designer Pierre Michelet delivered, as always, two masterful tracks for today’s cross-country challenge, which ran in the opposite direction to last year. Le Lion certainly doesn’t aim to host the toughest, biggest, or most technical of CCI2*-L and CCI3*-L tracks, because their difficulty level is increased by the influence of the crowds, but what it does aim to do is educate. Appropriate technical combinations are followed by long galloping stretches, and hills and mounds are used creatively to teach balance and adjustability, which tends to result in plenty of clears and lots of rounds inside the time — and once again, that’s what we saw today. Our top five in the CCI2*-L Six-Year-Old Championship remains unchanged, and just three of the 45 starters failed to complete the course — two of those as a result of falls on the flat when their horses slipped coming down a hill back onto the racetrack at the tail end of the course. 35 of the 42 finishers delivered clear rounds, and 21 of those did so without adding time penalties, helped along by the excellent going on course.

One of the decisive rounds of the day was delivered by Germany’s Anna Lena Schaaf, who piloted her own Lagona 4 to a faultless and wholly fun-looking round. At just 20 years old, the Young Rider Reserve European Champion is making her mark on the senior circuit in fine style, and will go into tomorrow’s showjumping on her dressage score of 25.8.

“It’s still a really crazy feeling being in the lead in such a competition,” she says, beaming in the afterglow of her superb two-phase performance. “It was a great feeling riding the cross-country today, she was really focused and I had the feeling that she really enjoyed the crowd. I’m really excited for tomorrow; usually she’s a great showjumper, but we have to see, because it’s her first two-star long, so maybe she’s a little tired after the cross-country today!”

Tom Carlile’s Fair Lady des Broucks shows off her sire’s signature jumping style, which carries her safely home to remain in second place overnight. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

She’s certain to feel the pressure from France’s Tom Carlile, who remains in second place on a score of 26.5 after delivering a faultless round with Fair Lady des Broucks, a daughter of his former top horse Upsilon. Though she might not have inherited the great grey’s physical attributes, she’s certainly got her daddy’s jump: she cruised around the course today throwing his signature bascule over each fence, giving a super performance for Upsilon’s debut as a Le Lion sire.

Nicolas Touzaint and the superb Fibonacci de Lessac HDC add nothing to their dressage score across the country. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Cheered on by loud whistles (how do people whistle so loudly?!) and cheers of “allez, Nicolas, allez!”, Tom’s countryman Nicolas Touzaint remains in third place and will head into showjumping on his dressage score of 26.8 with Fibonacci de Lessac HDC. Like Fair Lady, Fibonacci represents the Selle Français studbook, who look strong in their hunt for the studbook prize this week.

Julia Krajewski and ChinTonic 3 hold onto fourth placing going into the final phase. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Germany’s Olympic darling Julia Krajewski coaxed confident clears out of both of her mounts in the six-year-old class, but it was ChinTonic 3 who really shone, remaining fourth overnight on 27.9. The Hanoverian gelding, who’s a full brother to Julia’s 2018 World Equestrian Games mount (and the Tokyo mount of Michael Jung), was one of the first horses out of the startbox this morning, and the pair gave a masterclass in cross-country production.

Izzy Taylor and SBH Big Wall round out the top five. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Izzy Taylor and the sweet-brained Irish Sport Horse SBH Big Wall remain in fifth place and best of the Brits in this class after a solid clear inside the time. They’d shared this spot with Ireland’s Sarah Ennis and Dourough Ferro Class Act after dressage, and while both pairs remain on a two-phase score of 28, Izzy edges the lead for being one second closer to the optimum time of 8:44.

Caroline Martin’s King’s Especiale makes the most of his natural length of stride while recording a clear round. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Caroline Martin flew the flag for the USA in this class, piloting the lanky and talented King’s Especiale to a clear round, though their 6.4 time penalties pushed them from 20th to 30th place. For the Dutch Warmblood gelding, though, this experience is being used purely as an educational one en route to the upper levels, at which Caroline is confident he’ll be a consistent and competitive team horse for the US effort.

It might sound like this class was a bit of a staid affair, but there was enough drama to be getting on with: we saw two of our top ten slip out of contention throughout the course of the day, with tenth-placed Bill Levett and Shannondale Archie incurring elimination after a rider fall at 13B, a reasonably skinny paintbrush fence, and the Netherlands’ Merel Blom and Denim, seventh after dressage, picking up a 20 at 4B, an upright rail.

The top five at the end of the Six-Year-Old cross-country session.

Kevin McNab and Cute Girl head towards the course’s finale as an enthusiastic throng watches on. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

As in the six-year-old class, the Seven-Year-Old leaderboard remains unchanged at the top — but only as far as the leading two places go. Australia’s Kevin McNab remains at the top of the pack with his laser-focused, huge-jumping little mare Cute Girl, whose redemption arc continues after an unfortunate technical elimination here last year. They added nothing to their dressage score of 26.9 to remain unassailable — and in this class, that was a much harder prospect. 50 of our 58 starters remain in the hunt, and 33 of those were able to deliver clears, while 12 combinations managed to do so without adding time penalties. So tightly packed were the scores after the first phase that this offered more of a chance for climbing the leaderboard, a trend we’ll see magnified in tomorrow’s final phase, which tends to be the most influential here.

But let’s go back to Cute Girl for a moment, because she certainly deserves her time in the spotlight — particularly after captivating the gathered masses with her tight-as-a-tick jumping style and her palpable, fierce desire to hunt out the flags.

“She gave me a really good round, but I was actually surprised I didn’t lose more time towards the end,” says Kevin. “So I came in a little bit faster than what I’d planned earlier, but she felt really solid and had matured a lot from last year. There weren’t the crowds last year that there were this year, but there was still an atmosphere, and they mature from that.”

Laura Collett’s Outback remains in second place going into the final phase. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Laura Collett remains in second place with Trakehner gelding Outback, heading up a strong British effort that sees the Olympian and her countrymen make up eight of the top ten placings. A litmus test run in Aachen’s Ride and Drive competition, which Laura used as the deciding factor in whether the gelding was ready to come here, proved a savvy move; though the quirky gelding certainly took notice of the crowds, he was able to knuckle down and get to work, adding nothing to his dressage score of 27.2 along the way.

“He was quite scared of the crowds, but he stayed very honest and kept answering the questions. It’s an awful lot for them to come here; they don’t have very much experience with seeing so many people and the fences, although they’re beautiful and very well built, are spooky for them, so it’s an educational day,” says Laura.

Tomorrow will thrust the gelding — and his fellow competitors — back into the thrum of a serious atmosphere, but however he deals with it, Outback has already ticked all the right boxes for his rider.

“It’s always a big atmosphere, and tomorrow’s another day, so what will be will be; he’s already exceeded all our expectations this week, and fingers crossed he can do the same tomorrow, but so far he’s been fantastic,” she says.

Selina Milnes and Cooley Snapchat move into podium position after a foot-perfect round. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Selina Milnes and Cooley Snapchat move into bronze medal position, taking the spot previously occupied by Hayden Hankey and Heads Up, who added 2 time penalties and moved to seventh place.

“He’s taken everything in his stride — he did a super test yesterday, and I was really pleased with how he took to it, but I thought today would be a really big challenge for him,” says Selina of the Irish Sport Horse son of Kannan. “He’s never seen crowds like this, and the two Intermediates he’s done have been quite straightforward, but I ran him at Cornbury, which was strong, and he won that. So I brought him here hoping he would take to it, and he just took everything in his stride — he pricked his ears, and although he was a bit spooky at the first, I gave him a shake-up and off he went.”

Sarah Bullimore’s Evita AP makes tidy work of the toad in front of a packed out crowd. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Fellow Brit Sarah Bullimore climbs into fourth place with Evita AP, who will go into showjumping on a score of 27.9 — the same as fifth-placed Oliver Townend and his 2020 Six-Year-Old Reserve World Champion Cooley Rosalent, who produced a quicker round but finished further from the optimum time, giving them the short straw in the tiebreak.

Oliver Townend and Cooley Rosalent add another completely penalty-free cross-country run to the mare’s spotless record. Photo by Tilly Berendt. 

Cooley Rosalent, for her part, now has a remarkable seven consecutive FEI runs under her belt with no time or cross-country jumping penalties added in any of them, and while Oliver is likely still kicking himself for an expensive error of course in yesterday’s dressage, which pushed them out of the top spot on the leaderboard, she remains one of the firm favourites to deliver in the ring tomorrow, particularly with the experience she amassed here last year. Though the event was run behind closed doors, the atmosphere was barely diminished, and riders, connections, and media representatives were able to pack out the grandstand and provide a final-day education for competitors. That’s certainly an appealing advantage as we head into tomorrow, where the crowds will be the real deal once again.

Cole Horn and MBF Cooley Permission To Land climb 13 places. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Our two US competitors in this class delivered solid rounds with their impressive horses, both of whom are here to gain experience for the top levels. Holekamp/Turner Grant recipients Cole Horn and MBF Cooley Permission to Land climbed from 43rd after dressage to 30th, adding just 4.4 time penalties along the way but picking up a frustrating 15 flag penalties at fence 21, an angled brush near the end of the course.

Avery Klunick and Pisco Sour record a steady clear round to further the gelding’s education for the future. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Avery Klunick and her own Pisco Sour delivered a steady clear, adding 30.8 time penalties and climbing from 45th to 41st place overnight while Pisco pricked his ears and romanced the crowds all the way around.

Tomorrow morning takes us into the final horse inspection, followed swiftly by the showjumping finale for the Six-Year-Old World Championship from 11.00 a.m. local time/10.00 a.m. UK/5.00 a.m. Eastern. The Seven-Year-Old Championship will commence from 2.30 p.m. local time/1.30 p.m. UK/8.30 a.m. Eastern. We’ll be bringing you the full story and plenty of photos from throughout the day, so tune in tomorrow for the final showdown.

Until then: Go Eventing!

The top five after cross-country in the Seven-Year-Old championship.

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