The sun shone down on Pau course designer Pierre Michelet today — probably because if it hadn’t, he’d have given it 20 penalties and a yellow card — offering up a scorcher of a day, a first return to true spectator sport, and an afternoon of masterclass performances by the strongest field we’ve ever seen at the French CCI5*.
Ordinarily, we see one of the lowest cross-country clear rates of any five-star here at Pau, which may come as a surprise to those who consider it — wrongly — a ‘soft option’ five-star. But it’s also, admittedly, been made harder in the past to get a gauge on its stats, because we so seldom see a field like the one we’ve got here this week. Horses who would ordinarily go to Burghley — such as Tim Price’s Ringwood Sky Boy — or be otherwise occupied with late-summer championships or the likes of Blenheim or Boekelo have instead made the long journey down to the only five-star offering of 2020. With a plethora of the world’s top combinations in situ, as well as some hugely exciting debutant horses and riders, the average quality of the field has skewed well upwards this year.
With that brings a change in the statistics. Though Michelet didn’t make too many changes this year from last year’s track — “we didn’t know if we would even get to run, so we didn’t want to do a huge amount,” he says with a shrug — the numbers we’ve seen play out make it look like a different competition entirely. Last year we saw just one combination manage to catch the optimum time and only 39% of the field jump clear; this year, we saw ten come home inside the time while a whopping 71% enjoyed clear rounds, making it the second-highest clear rate ever seen in this class. Notably, this is very likely also the only 5* cross-country day ever in which no one took a tumble all day.
But that doesn’t mean the day wasn’t without its dramas. Before the afternoon’s cross-country even began there was a shake-up to the top ten when Germany’s Christoph Wahler opted to withdraw a not-quite-himself Carjatan S, who had sat in ninth place on 25.6 going into this phase. As the day got underway, some high-profile faulters proved that there was still room to climb here — and the tightly-bunched top of the leaderboard meant that anyone hoping to be competitive had to be as quick as possible, upping the risk-factor over Michelet’s notorious selection of skinnies and blind turns.
An early victim of the course — and an enormous surprise, too — was the hugely experienced Sarah Bullimore and Reve du Rouet, who had a runout at the first water and then gave a gasping audience the show of the day when Sarah’s stirrup slipped off her saddle and she wriggled her way from inches above the lake back into the saddle before opting to retire the uber-consistent gelding, who was second here in 2017.
A contested — and eventually removed — 20 penalties for Australia’s Kevin McNab and Scuderia 1918 Don Quidam, who showed off some seriously impressive footwork to avoid crossing their tracks after a mid-course change of plan at 12AB proved that the course was going to take just as much riding as ever. Throughout the day, whether demonstrated by seasoned campaigners or up-and-coming superstars, we saw just that: quality, committed riding that gave Pierre all those long striding efforts he dines out on every year.
Best of the bunch at the end of the day remains the crown for Laura Collett and five-star debutante London 52 to wear, cementing the notion that after an educational rollercoaster of a 2019 season, the almost ludicrously good-looking horse has found his feet at the top levels.
“I felt like I owed it to him to not mess up here, so I’m just glad I didn’t let him down and he showed everyone just how class he is,” she says modestly.
Laura left the start box near the end of the day with London 52 having already jumped clear with earlier ride Mr Bass. Running the more experienced ‘Chuck’ first was a tactical manoeuvre, and one that paid off — despite a successfully appealed 20 penalties awarded when Laura opted to go long at the final significant combination at 27ABC. For Laura, riding her more experienced, more straightforward horse first allowed her to suss out the track and make crucial decisions for her debutant.
“There were a couple of places where normally, Chuck would never normally make the fences feel big because he’s quite a streamlined jumper,” she says. “But jumping into the second water he felt like he flew. Knowing that London 52 is the complete opposite and would always overjump, I thought I needed to come in a bit more nicely — but I slightly overdid it and over-killed the canter, so I made it quite hard work to get to the skinny! It was a bit the same at the last combination at 27ABC; I ever-so-slightly over-killed the canter, but if I’d done anything else, he’d have jumped so big we’d never have made the corner. For those decisions, riding Mr Bass first was helpful. For me, they’re total opposites but it gave me the confidence — with Chuck, he holds my hand, and with London 52, I hold his hand and say ‘come on, we’re going!'”
With her banker round done and dusted, all eyes were to be on Laura’s second ride of the day, and one of the final starts on course. London 52’s as much a fan favourite as he is a hot topic for fan speculation — and though his performances since his Boekelo win last year have been seriously exciting, with a CCI4*-S win at Little Downham among them, he’s still often the subject of much ‘will he or won’t he?’ guesswork. But if you’d managed to miss the wobbly bits of his career last year, which came along as quite a natural part of a young horse’s early top-level career, you’d have been forgiven for assuming from his round today that he’d never had a cross-country penalty in his life. The eleven-year-old gelding was as bold as we’ve seen him, eating up the open stride patterns with his long, attacking stride and actively seeking out the next set of flags to negotiate.
Still in doubt? A minor error at the very end of the course is a powerful persuader of London 52’s progress in this phase. The pair had an enormous leap over the A element at 27ABC, a house on top of a mound wending its way down to an almost blind corner — but though it looked like almost certain game over, Laura was able to pick ‘Dan’s’ head up and show him the fence. Then, she stayed back and out of his way and let him take over — and he did rather spectacularly, happily showing off his scope and gutsiness to make it through.
“I thought for a second there, ‘oh god — not again!’,” laughs Laura.
Not again, indeed: where London 52 once second-guessed his instincts on cross-country, he now looks truly comfortable and confident in his ability and in his rider’s sympathetic piloting, displaying a clear trajectory over the last 18 months that looks to foretell a truly formidable career to come.
“He’s grown up so much in trusting me,” she says. “He would fight quite a lot with his head last year, and I think it was all nerves, but he’s just grown in confidence — particularly where I had the real scary moment at the last combination. For him to pick his head up off the floor and have just a split second to see the corner, and for him to still jump because I’d said ‘jump’ was pretty special. It even took me a bit by surprise how quick his reaction was, but that’s where he’s come on so much. I think today, he turned from a boy into a man.”
One of the most remarkable things about today’s competition was the presence of a vocal, expansive audience — and that, says Laura, is one of the secret weapons to being able to perform at this level and intensity.
“It felt quite strange to have crowds, because we haven’t had any at competitions at home, so for the horses it was quite a shock — particularly when coming from the quiet stables into all the people and noise,” she says. “But after being at Le Lion last week, which felt eery and strange without people, it was great to be able to go out with the buzz of the crowd, and I think it really helped, as a rider, to pick you up. Particularly at a five-star, I think it would be a huge ask to do it without the public — and the crowds here are amazing. They cheer you on, and they will you and want you to keep going, and that makes it really special.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the afternoon was the shock 20 penalties of second-placed Chris Burton and his experienced 5* partner Graf Liberty, who had a run-out at the open corner at 14B. That left their spot on the leaderboard open for Piggy March and her own level debutant Brookfield Inocent to move into second place after producing one of the ten penalty-free rounds of the day — though there was a brief moment in which Piggy wondered if she, too, might lose it all at the very same fence that took Burto out of the hunt.
“I’ve never been to Pau before, so for me it was a great experience to be here,” she says. “It really encouraged forward, brave, attacking riding, with the odd sneaky thing tucked in, like the oxer to the corner, which I didn’t ride very well; my horse was very good there!”
Though this is Blenheim CCI4*-L winner Brookfield Inocent’s first five-star, he carries the weight of expectation on his young shoulders as the likeliest of Piggy’s horses to go to Tokyo next year, filling the enormous shoes left by Quarrycrest Echo. Today’s trip around the course gave her an even more substantial basis for this level of faith.
“My horse is fantastic; probably one of the best cross-country horses I’ve ever had, so I was excited to ride the cross-country course today. I was even more excited to finish and learn what a great horse I hopefully have for the future as well,” she says.”
After a competitive run here last year was cut short by a freak fall on the flat in the final water, Tim Price and his 2014 Luhmühlen winner Wesko left the start box with a score to settle — and after having piloted his two other rides home with clear rounds, the affable Kiwi was prepared to deal with anything the track threw at him. But this time the footing was perfectly maintained in the three water fences, and his relief on popping neatly out of the final complex was palpable. Though the pair didn’t make the optimum time — they came home in 11:09, one second over it — they didn’t lose any ground on the leaderboard, stepping up into Piggy’s vacated third place.
“I had the pleasure of having three goes around the track today, on two horses that are a certain ‘type’ and then Wesko, who’s a bit different,” says Tim. “I thought it was a brilliant track, and exactly what we want in a five-star track — it’s an encouragement for bravery, and then a test of if you can manage that bravery, and to take the brilliance of a big jump and do something with it. You’ve got to use your line and know your horse. If there’s going to be one five-star in a year, this is a pretty good representation.”
Alex Bragg and Zagreb were the only pair to make the time here in 2019, and this year they repeated the feat — and if anything, their performance today was even more polished. They made light work of the forward distances in the combinations, taking full advantage of the 17.3hh gelding’s enviable length of stride but never losing a fraction of his adjustability to produce a copybook round and a tremendous example of how a Pierre Michelet Pau course is meant to be ridden.
One of the highlights of the day was the five-star debut round of 22-year-old British rider Mollie Summerland and the eleven-year-old Charly van ter Heiden, a horse she’s produced through the grades herself with some remarkable results along the way. Their late entry here came after a super round at Little Downham’s inaugural CCI4*-S, which featured a course especially designed to prepare its competitors for Pau.
Though the pair’s clear round inside the time comes as little surprise to those who’ve followed their fledgling career keenly, Mollie herself was delighted and rather astonished to find herself romping over the finish line exactly on the 11:08 optimum time.
“I came here for experience, and everything else was just a bonus,” she says.
Their round, which saw her ride with an effectiveness and maturity that belies her lack of experience at this level, puts them into fifth place overnight on a leaderboard that’s extraordinarily close — they’re just 4.2 penalties behind our leaders going into tomorrow afternoon’s final horse inspection.
Last year’s winners Toledo de Kerser and Tom McEwen couldn’t claw their way to the top spot with their impeccable clear round inside the time, but like Alex Bragg and Zagreb, they produced a round that should be mandatory viewing for eventing enthusiasts who want to learn a thing or two. Though they certainly had the advantage of having completed a very similar course here last year — which they also did rather well, all things considered — they added an extra level of polish and boldness this year, with Toledo seeking out the very French distances with an expression of utter joy and professionalism that never faltered.
Ros Canter‘s Zenshera must be one of the most consistent horses in the world, with five top-tens from five CCI5* runs already under his belt — and today he added yet another polite and foot-perfect clear round to his record, making the best possible use of the reasonably gettable time to add just 2.4 time penalties despite his penchant for staying in one gear throughout a course. In such a close field, though, those penalties saw them slip from fifth to seventh place overnight, which gives them no wiggle room for rails tomorrow if they want to continue their remarkable streak.
The enthusiastic French crowds at Pau will happily cheer each and every rider around the course, but their biggest ‘ALLEZ!’ is always reserved for those riders from their home country — and though several of their high-profile competitors ran into trouble today, with French riders making up 3 of the 4 non-completing combinations, they were given plenty of reason to celebrate, too. 1993 European Champion Jean Lou Bigot sailed around the track with his five-star debutante Utrillo du Halage, making the rider’s return to the level after thirteen years a suitably illustrious one. The strength of their clear round inside the time allowed them to climb from 21st after dressage to overnight eighth and best of the home-nation contingent.
World Number One Oliver Townend did much the same aboard MHS King Joules, who returns to the top level after two years out of action. Though they added 2 time penalties — and Oliver had to ride particularly determinedly in the final water — they were still able to rise from 17th to ninth, proving that despite its skewed stats, 2020’s iteration of Pau still can’t be considered a dressage competition.
Rounding out the top ten is the perennially exciting young Frenchman Alexis Goury, who returned with his 2018 partner Trompe l’Oeil d’Emery for what he hopes will be another top-ten finish. The pair managed that on their debut two years ago with one of the gutsiest clears inside the time of the day, and today they brought that same old magic back but replaced their debutant naivety with some serious maturity to give their captive audience one of the most unabashedly fun viewing experiences of the day.
With a scorching afternoon of cross-country behind us, we now look ahead to tomorrow’s final horse inspection, which begins at the rather sociable time of 13.15 local/12.15 UK/8.15 Eastern after tonight’s clock change. It would all be a good recipe for the #PartyPau of the century, but #PandemicPau means that we’ve all been sent to our beds early as a new 9.00 p.m. curfew was enacted throughout the region today. Instead, you’ll get to enjoy the most fresh-faced final horse inspection photos you’ll likely ever see.
We’ll be making best use of the morning to delve into the chances of the remaining field of 41: who’s likely to jump clear? Who’s going to tumble out of contention with a likely rail — or, god forbid, two? We’ve got an enormously exciting final day ahead of us — we look forward to joining you again then.
In the meantime, as always: Go Eventing!