And so the 2019 Longines FEI European Championships came to an end, not with a bang, but nor with a whimper, but with the sound of several dozen speakers pumping out aggressive Euro-pop and many thousands of happy Germans cheering on their countrymen.
“There won’t be much excitement this afternoon,” Ireland’s Sam Watson warned us after jumping the course, which he – and several others – described as being ‘too easy for Luhmühlen’, which is known for its imposing, tough showjumping courses. He wasn’t entirely wrong – 21 out of 53 competitors adding nothing in this phase – but he wasn’t entirely right, either, as a fierce battle ensued for team medals and we saw changes across the individual podium.
But before we dive too far into how the team competition played out, let’s start by talking about the golden girl. A foot-perfect clear round from Ingrid Klimke and SAP Hale Bob OLD – and an unfortunate rail for overnight leaders Michael Jung and fischerChipmunk FRH – saw her retain her title as the European Champion, and become just the second person ever to win back-t0-back European titles on the same horse. (The first, of course, was Pippa Funnell, who won in 1999 and 2001 with the exceptional Supreme Rock.)
There couldn’t possibly have been much more joy in the main arena than there was today, and Ingrid’s eclipsed even that of the ecstatic crowd, who had ridden each and every stride of her round with her. But such is her love for her horse – and her sport – that watching them perform sometimes feels like stepping into a private conversation; it’s all nuance, finely honed over years of knowing one another, a slow dance in the kitchen with the curtains open. It’s hard not to fall in love with ‘Bobby’ when you see the enormous enthusiasm he brings to each and every phase, and even more so when you see how much Ingrid herself adores him. They would do this, and they would love it, even if no one ever came to watch.
“I’m so thrilled with Bobby; he is so amazing,” she enthuses after her round, a smile lighting across her face as she talks about the fifteen-year-old Oldenburg gelding (Helikon xx x Goldige). “He was just so wonderful – even in the warm-up, he was jumping so well. My showjumping trainer walked the showjumping course with me at Strzegom [Europeans], so I said to him ‘there’s one Sunday in 2019 that you must book off!’ He came yesterday for the cross-country and he helped me so much today; it made me feel so secure and so safe.”
It’s easy to imagine that these untouchable talents experience the same turbulent emotions that we mere mortals do, but even Ingrid couldn’t quite make sense of her victory today.
“The difference of being in my home country, when we’re being cheered on by so many people – it’s so special. I never thought it would be true, that we could win two individual medals against so many great horses and riders. But Bobby is just the best, he’s so wonderful, and he jumps really well…but I can’t believe it, I still don’t know if it’s true!”
A first-phase score of 22.2 saw them sit second after dressage, while a fault-free round across the country kept them there behind Michael Jung. It would all come down to the wire in the main arena – and for Bobby, who was predicted to have a rail, nothing would be certain. But the dynamic pair produced the goods once again, capping off an incredible week for the Germans.
“It was very close – sometimes you get lucky, and sometimes not,” she says, referring to the final rail that rolled in Tryon and cost her and Bobby the World Championship. “Today, luck was with me, and Bobby has done such a good job for so long. For me it’s hard [to name a highlight], because I really liked all three phases,” says Ingrid. “He did such a good job in the dressage, and I really enjoyed the ten minutes on cross-country a lot – and today, the showjumping was so exciting. But we were laughing [at home] last week, like, ‘yes, now I’m European Champion, but we’ll see what happens when we come home on Monday!”
Now, all eyes are on the long game: Tokyo, more medals, and, well, total world domination. But Ingrid, with sparkling eyes and a ceaseless smile, only wants to talk about one thing.
“I’m really proud and happy to have Bobby as my favourite friend,” she says, and one thing is very clear: Ingrid Klimke has found life’s sweet spot, and as we’ve long suspected, it’s on the back of a good horse.
Though Michael Jung set an almost unsurpassable standard throughout the first two phases of the competition, he had to forego the chance to become the first rider ever to win four European titles when he and fischerChipmunk FRH tipped a rail at 10B. But a silver medal isn’t too shabby an addition to his enviable trophy cabinet, surely?
“I think I need maybe five minutes more,” says Michi with a rueful laugh. “But it was a fantastic week, really – he was fantastic in all three disciplines. Today he jumped really great, I was just a bit too fast. This is a little mistake, and it doesn’t make the whole week bad – we have one more year now to work on the little details, and we’re all well prepared for the next season. For sure I’m not happy about the mistake, but I’m happy about the week.”
All the more impressive is that this week’s performance comes after just nine months with the horse, who was produced from a youngster by fellow German rider Julia Krajewski, and who was sold over the winter. But would a longer-term partnership – like that of Ingrid and Bobby, or even Michi and La Biosthetique Sam – have ensured the gold?
“Of course, if you know the horse better [it helps] – every course you do with a horse gives you more information, and it helps, but I’m not sure it changed this mistake. Maybe, maybe not.”
Ireland’s Cathal Daniels might be just twenty-two years old, but he’s already garnering comparisons to the likes of Michael Jung and Andrew Nicholson. It’s not hard to see why – though scarcely out of Young Riders, he rides with a maturity that belies his years and the rare type of feel that only the lucky few are born with. His medal today, which is his first piece of individual championship hardware, comes off the strength of one of his best-ever dressage scores with the mercurial Rioghan Rua, which he added nothing to across the week. After delivering his second lightning fast round of the weekend today, all he could do was wait – and as the rails kept coming down for his competitors, he made his ascent from sixth place to podium position.
“I’m delighted – finishing on my dressage score was always my plan,” says Cathal, who rides, produces, and sells horses full-time, and who initially took the ride on the (barely) 15.2hh mare – whose name means ‘Red Queen’ in Gaelic – to sell for her owner as a potential junior prospect. “She jumped super – in the warm-up she was a bit excited again, but she felt amazing and got all the lines. It all went very much to plan.”
Though Cathal describes Red as a ‘typical chestnut mare’, he adds that she’s actually a pleasure to work around – in most circumstances.
“First thing this morning she was fresh, and I had to tell the ground jury [at the final inspection] to be careful,” he grins.
France’s Christopher Six, competing as an individual with Totem de Brecey, made a surprise leap up the leaderboard to finish fourth, climbing from tenth after dressage. Though this is only the twelve-year-old gelding’s third CCI4*-L, and a championship debut for both horse and rider, they impressed across all three phases, adding just 0.8 time penalties across the country to his 28.4 dressage despite the rider losing one of his reins on course.
It’s hard not to feel for Thibaut Vallette, the affable Lieutenant Colonel who has amassed considerable championship success with the Cadre Noir-owned Qing du Briot ENE HN. They’d started their week just off the podium in fourth, climbing to bronze medal position after a foot-perfect skip across the country yesterday. Today, they were projected to produce a clear round, but an early rail saw them play chutes and ladders with the leaderboard, and they would ultimately finish fifth.
But both horse and rider should be among France’s highest hopes for Tokyo next year: after all, they’ve been part of a gold medal-winning team already at Rio, and they’ve taken individual and team bronze at the 2015 Europeans. In Tryon last year, they finished sixth individually and took team bronze, too. A lost medal today might just be the driving force for a medal gained next year.
The Netherlands’ Tim Lips gave his countrymen, who were so unlucky as a team this week, something to cheer about when he finished sixth – though he likely didn’t feel much like celebrating after a solitary rail cost him a bronze medal finish with his two-time Dutch National Championship title-holder, Bayro. Despite this, the result will serve as a vital contingency plan for the rider, whose team remains unqualified for next year’s Olympics, and who may have to seek a ticket to Tokyo via the complicated points-based individual nomination process.
British individual rider Kitty King had hoped for a top ten finish this week, and she got it – but she also finished best of the British, clocking out in seventh place with the ten-year-old Selle Français Vendredi Biats. An exceptional talent, the gelding has nevertheless been an occasionally tempestuous and tricky ride, and Kitty has worked hard to produce the consistency we’re beginning to see from him. But, as Kitty points out, “he’s still only ten – and there aren’t many who were doing what he was doing around four-stars at eight!”
Today, he delivered a stylish clear round with just one breathtaking moment early on in the course when the pair added a stride and found themselves jumping from the base of the next fence.
“I’m just delighted with him,” she says. “He went so well, but I just made a bit of a mess-up in the first line. I’d planned to do six strides, not seven, but he really helped me out and it sharpened me up a bit.”
For Kitty, who last rode at a senior championship at Rio in 2016, it’s poignant to be back – and to finish with such an exceptional result.
“It means everything,” she says with a broad smile. “You always want to do your best for your country – even as an individual, you’re representing Great Britain, and you want to do well for them.”
“My horse was super – he really gave me a good feeling,” says Sweden’s Ludwig Svennerstal, evidently channelling his inner Michi Jung after a pivotal clear with El Kazir SP secured him eighth place and team bronze. “He kept jumping for me in there; he’s a lovely horse and really did it easy.”
The pressure was certainly on the Swedish supremo after a tricky start to the week meant each team member needed to put in almost foot-perfect performances across the jumping phases.
“We had the most horrendous start, with everyone falling below what we expected in the dressage,” he explains. “But we regrouped and everyone gave it everything they have, and it’s been really a team effort.”
A freak fumble at the German flag panels, which created a tricky optical illusion, nearly changed the British team’s fortunes entirely [see Nations’ Standings, below], and the incident – which Oliver explains away as one of those inexplicable things that can just happen with horses – certainly proved costly for the rider. Without those four extra penalties, he’d have been today’s bronze medalist – but as it is, Oliver Townend and his two-time Kentucky winner Cooley Master Class had to settle for ninth place in the horse’s first championship.
There’s something almost indescribably special about seeing Nicolas Touzaint, the first-ever French winner of Badminton, and the youngest-ever European Champion, back at something close to his best. Though just a nine-year-old, Absolut Gold HDC was thoroughly impressive throughout the week to finish on his dressage score of 31.6, propelling him from 21st to 10th place. We’ve watched France establish a serious ‘old guard’, filled with the likes of Thibaut, Astier, and Maxime, as well as a formidable new guard, like Thibault Fournier and Alexis Goury, but as we look ahead to the Tokyo trail, we’re delighted to welcome the new-old guard back to the forefront of our attentions.
“Trying to beat Germans in Germany is…complicated,” says Oliver Townend – and it’s not hard to see what he means. Spurred along by an enthusiastic and vocal home crowd, the hot favourites never faltered all week, maintaining an aggregate score that became more and more formidable as each day passed. Today, they cemented their win and reclaimed the team title, which they lost in 2017 after a three-year winning streak. That three-year winning streak also saw them do the double each time, and so for Germany and its supporters, today’s result feels like, well, coming home.
Classy clear rounds from Andreas Dibowski and FRH Corrida and Kai Rüder and Colani Sunrise bolstered the team’s confidence, though with three fences in hand at the start of the day, victory was almost assured for the assembled squad of top-notch showjumpers. Just one rail, tipped by Michael Jung, marred their nearly flawless day.
“It’s wonderful we won the gold the year before Tokyo – hopefully it gives us a good wind for our whole eventing nation,” says Ingrid Klimke. (Yes, that’s right, Ingrid Klimke said the words ‘eventing nation’, and we’re going to claim that out-of-context victory unapologetically.) “We had a super support team to help us gain this medal.”
With the German victors building up such a commanding lead through the week, it was a tall order for anyone to overtake them – and with Great Britain in the silver medal position a whopping 14.3 penalties behind them, the key was simply not to let anyone else overtake them. They managed it – but it came down to the wire. Going into the showjumping, the British had a marginal lead of less than a penalty ahead of the French, but when Karim Florent Laghouag had two rails down with Punch de l’Esques, it opened up the buffering zone. When Pippa Funnell and Majas Hope pulled the back rail of an oxer, set as the first element of a short two-strided double, that buffer shrank.
“I thought the double [which comes after an open five-stride line] would be too short, so I rode him forward in the five to stop him landing big and give him a bit more time,” she explains. “Because he jumps so far out I knew I had to get up on the five, but where he was alright with the front rail, he just touched it behind. I don’t know how I’d have jumped it any differently – I think he just didn’t quite jump wide enough. Any good horse can have a rail, but it’s hard.”
With two reliable showjumpers left to go for the team, and a clear round banked by Tina Cook and Billy the Red, one rail in hand ought to have been enough – but Piggy French and Quarrycrest Echo, too, tipped a pole, dropping them to 15th and putting the team’s hold on silver in jeopardy.
“I was conscious when I walked it that it was on the small side,” she says. “If it was bigger and more in his face, it would have sharpened him up. But he was a bit tappy, and it took six fences or so to wake him up. Maybe it was my fault – he’s probably the best jumper I’ve ever had on the final day, but they’re horses, not machines, and you have to take what you get.”
All eyes were therefore on Oliver Townend, who was projected to jump a clear round on his two-time Kentucky winner Cooley Master Class. But it all unraveled at the planks, which were painted to look like the German flag – as such, we saw several horses throughout the day misread the black upper plank. In Cooley Master Class’ case, we saw him head for a deep spot, nearly stop, and ultimately lurch over – or, more precisely, through – fence. Though they finished the rest of their round in fine style, Great Britain had moved down to bronze.
“That’s horses a little bit, isn’t it? They can make you look a monkey very easily,” he says with a laugh. “He loves to be off verticals a little bit, and off planks, so that’s usually his best jump – I was on an off distance, but with good pace and power. I gave him a bit of a squeeze and he stuck his nose out and had a look at it and didn’t take off, basically.”
The fate of the team would depend entirely on the fortunes of bronze medal contenders Thibaut Vallette and Qing du Briot ENE HN of France. Ordinarily an exceptional final-day performer, it was a high hope to expect that the Cadre Noir-owned gelding might have a problem – but when he caught fence 5 with a front leg, the deal was done, and the game of medal ping-pong was over. Britain had secured the silver medal and France, for their part, slipped out of the medals entirely, finishing fourth.
But it wasn’t Italy, who had been waiting in the wings for the bronze before the start of showjumping, who ultimately earned that final team medal. Giovanni Ugolotti became the Italian drop score after an unfortunate round saw them pull four rails and notch up penalties for a surprise stop, too. A rail down for Vittoria Panizzon and Super Cillious, and two for Pietro Roman and Barraduff, meant that even Arianna Schivo and Quefira de l’Ormeau‘s speedy clear couldn’t save them, and they finished fifth overall.
It was the Swedish team that would step up to the plate, with Niklas Lindbäck and Focus Filiocus and Malin Josefsson and Golden Midnight each delivering single-rail rounds, and Louise Romeike and Waikiki 207 and Ludwig Svennerstal and El Kazir SP both jumping clear. In clinching bronze, they didn’t just give themselves a second consecutive podium place at the Europeans – they also guaranteed their qualification for the Tokyo Olympics.
“For us it’s very important – the Olympics is a highlight for us,” says leading Swede Ludwig Svennerstal. “We’ve worked extremely hard to achieve this, and we’re really happy. We had a slightly disappointing start to the week, but we regrouped and kept fighting, and the result, in the end, was good.”
Chef d’equipe Fredrik Bergendorff praised the efforts of his riders throughout the week: “I’m extremely happy with them – they’re an amazing bunch of guys and girls to work with.”
Despite their disappointing day, the Italian team can take some comfort in the fact that their Olympic qualification, too, is in the bag. Now, there’s just one left: whichever unqualified team places highest in the standings at the culmination of the FEI Nations Cup series, which wraps at Boekelo in October, will score the final ticket. This is where things begin to get really interesting – both Italy and Sweden had been aggressively targeting the series, so this final ticket now becomes something of a wildcard. We’ll be taking a closer look at the state of play – and what the remaining teams will need to do to solidify their chances – in the coming days.
That’s a wrap from the European Championships, which head to Haras du Pin in France for 2021. It’s been a whirlwind of a week, but there’s no stopping now – join us in three days’ time for wall-to-wall Burghley coverage.
Until then, stay German and Go Eventing!