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After yesterday’s exciting but itty-bitty first session of dressage, which saw debutant Ailsa Wates and previous winner William Fox-Pitt take the joint lead, today’s follow up sessions were packed with quality and replete with personal bests, as the final 35 of the 47 total competitors came forward to fight for the final CCI5* title of the year. So high was the standard that our day one leaders, who each scored a respectable 27.4, were pushed all the way down to equal eleventh, giving us a completely fresh line-up in the top ten at the end of today’s competition.
It’s been a bit of a game of pass-the-parcel where the lead has been concerned today, with no one rider managing to hold it for more than a few tests before their position was usurped — and that trend continued until the very end stages of the day, when New Zealand’s Tim Price entered at A with five-star first-timer Falco and duly delivered his own best-ever test at the level for a score of 22.1.
“The changes have taken a little while to get established, but he’s always had everything, and he was just relaxed and happy today,” says Tim, whose previous best-ever five-star test had also come at this venue. “It’s all been about time, and about getting him a bit more on the bit and through — and as that gets easier for him, the changes are a bit more available, too.”
Tim has been quietly excited about the ‘show pony’ Hanoverian, who he owns with Sue Benson and Jackie Oliver, but he’s also very aware that the gelding’s debut at this level might have to be a developmental one, rather than a competitive one.
“He’s had a couple of moments in his past, but he’s been super consistent the last wee bit — it’s like the penny’s dropped, and I really hope it stays like that, because it’s not a four-star short. It’s a whole different level. I plan to give him a sympathetic, educational round and just see how he feels; if he comes home with some time faults but a nice round, I’d be really happy,” says Tim. Those ‘moments’ include a spate of penalties at four-star back in 2019, as well as some issues on course at Strzegom CCI4*-S last year, but his last three runs — in CCI4*-L classes at Millstreet and Lignieres, and in the CCIO4*-S at CHIO Aachen — have seen him not only jump clear, but he’s finished in the top ten each time, too.
When you deliver the goods at the end of the day, you’ve got to disappoint someone who thought they might hold the lead overnight — and for Tim, that person was his wife. Jonelle Price is also riding a debutant this week in diminutive McClaren, the pint-sized pocket rocket that was previously part of Sir Mark Todd’s string. When he opted to bow out of the sport and his horses were dispersed to other riders, the pairing was so immediately an obvious fit: both horse and rider might be small in frame, but they’re packing plenty of power — and willpower. In the Holsteiner gelding’s case, this hasn’t always worked in his favour; he’s not a wholly straightforward ride, and has had some frustrating, cheeky runouts on course as a result. But perhaps more frustrating for Jonelle is the fact that she’s never quite been able to nail down the scores she’s felt he deserves. That all changed today as the pair danced their way to a 24.4 — though in true McClaren fashion, he did it while pulling faces against the rain the whole way around — and they enjoyed a brief lead before Tim took over.
“The dressage has been a bit of a bugbear for me with this particular horse this year,” says Jonelle. “It feels like he’s been knocking on the door of doing a very good test, but every time I look up at the scoreboard I’m very sad. So I was just relieved to see some good marks, and it was just a shame that Tim came along to rain on my parade!”
Now, the job is to ensure the gelding maintains his focus — and his will to win — over tomorrow’s technical track, which offers plenty of opportunities for easy glance-offs. A run-out at Aachen last month might not seem like the ideal lead-in to his five-star debut, but with any luck, that cheeky moment is out of his system. As Jonelle explains, he certainly has the self-belief to make light work of it all.
“He’s only a little fellow, and a lot of the jumps out there are bigger than he is, but he rates himself and he’s a phenomenal little jumper, so I’m hoping we can get the job done,” says Jonelle.
“It’s all rather romantic, isn’t it,” muses William Fox-Pitt — but he’s not referring to Tim and Jonelle’s domestic dispute at the top of the leaderboard. Instead, he’s thinking back to this event ten years ago, when he won with the excellent Oslo — the sire, as it happens, of Oratorio, one of his two rides this year who now sits equal eleventh heading into cross-country day.
“That doesn’t happen very often — Mary King does that sort of thing, not me,” he jokes, referring to his long-time teammates penchant for riding homebred sons and daughters of her former top horses. “[Oslo and Oratorio] are chalk and cheese; one can gallop and one couldn’t, one can jump and one doesn’t jump so well. There are quite a few differences, so it’s quite interesting — we all know that breeding’s a manman’s game!”
He’s not wrong about the romance of it all, anyway — it would be a bit of a twinkle-eyed film-plot sort of ending if he were to win with Oslo’s son. But at the end of the day today, he finds himself in much closer contention with his second ride, the spicy Little Fire, who produced a sparkling test that trended in the 21 region but was ultimately awarded a 24.5 after one imperfect change. That puts them in third place overnight in Little Fire’s return to the venue, which comes after an abortive start in 2018 saw William take a tumble late on the course.
“That fence was number 28 or so then, and it’s number four now, so hopefully we’ll make it past that this time,” he says drily.
It’s been a rollercoaster of a few weeks for Ireland’s Padraig McCarthy; he’d inherited the quirky Leonidas II from Mark Todd upon the Kiwi’s retirement, and after a couple of up-and-down seasons, he truly got the measure of the gelding at last month’s European Championships, delivering a foot-perfect clear inside the time across the country. After that, Leo’s owners, Di Brunsden and Peter Cattell, decided with the rider that it was time for the gelding to enjoy a well-earned retirement.
They’re not without irons in the fire now that Leo’s exploring the delights of carb-loading, though: they’re part-owners of the elegant Fallulah, who was produced to four-star by Britain’s Emily Philp, and who Padraig took the ride on in 2019. The Westfalian mare, who was bred by former five-star rider Ian Wills, has always been an eye-catching stamp of a horse, but over the past twelve months she’s visibly gained in strength and power, which has brought her ever closer to a truly competitive mark. Today, in her first-ever five-star test, she finally put all the pieces together, earning herself a 24.9 in the process and giving the Irishman plenty to smile about.
“She’s always been a very extravagant mover, but the thing we’ve been trying to get with her is the consistency in the outline and in the way of going,” says Padraig, who is competing at Pau for the first time. “I struggled a little bit at the beginning just to make her my own, I think, but this year she’s been getting better and better in training with Tracy Robinson. She’s a real trier and she’s absolutely stunning, so the judges want to give her good marks — the job has just been getting it to flow, and that felt really consistent. It was nice to look up at the scoreboard and see that the mark was as good as it felt.”
There’s no denying that Scuderia 1918 A Best Friend, the rangy Oldenburg mount of Australia’s Kevin McNab, loves this arena. Although he’s typically a circa-30 scorer or above, he produced an excellent 24.8 on his debut here last year, and today, he nearly matched that, putting a competitive 26.2 on the board to take provisional fifth place.
“The test started out really well,” says Kevin, who returns to Pau after a win in last week’s Seven-Year-Old World Championship. “He felt really solid in the trot work, although in the walk work I probably picked him up a little bit too much. He got just a little bit stuck in it, and it could have been a little bit freer, but then I thought, ‘well, I’m there now, so I’ll leave it.'”
Kevin’s primary goal was to give the gelding, who can be a slightly anxious horse, a positive experience after a tricky Aachen last month, where he scored an uncharacteristic 35.9 after getting overwhelmed in the arena.
“I wanted to do a solid test after Aachen for his confidence, and I think this test was that — he’ll come away from it a better horse. We’d just had one of those strange events [at Aachen] where he was actually really anxious. I’ve never had a situation like that with him before, and I’m not really sure why it happened, so we just wanted two make sure that this was a confidence-building experience.”
After standing ringside to support her best friend Ailsa Wates as she rocketed to the lead in her five-star debut, it was British-based Swede Sofia Sjoborg‘s turn to shine today — and she did just that, earning herself a 26.8 and overnight sixth with sixteen-year-old DHI Mighty Dwight, her former Junior team horse and the competitive partner with whom she’s climbed the international ranks.
“We’ve known each other for so long,” says Sofia, who bought the gelding from Heidi Woodhead in 2014. The length and depth of their relationship means that Sofia knows how the horse will react in any given situation — and today, that paid dividends as she trotted into the main arena.
“Sometimes he can start looking around a little bit, and the moment he loses focus on you, he starts thinking of other things to do, so you have to be so careful to really keep him focused while not getting after him too much, because he’s old enough that he’s like, ‘piss off!’,” she laughs. Despite the buzzy, spooky atmosphere in the ring, she was able to get him on side, and the horse — who has previously flirted with the upper 20s, but is generally a low-30s scorer — went on to deliver his best-ever international score.
“I’d hoped for a 28 or a 29, because he’s good enough and he’s nice enough in the way he looks when he goes in a test,” says Sofia. “I though that if I did a good job we might have one mistake or something.”
That the reality so far eclipsed her hopes was a pleasant surprise that Sofia didn’t see until she’d come to the end of her test, because she was determined not to glance at the scoreboard before her final halt and salute.
“I’ve done that in my younger days and ended up forgetting where I am in the test because I’ve looked up unintentional, seen it, and then thought, ‘oh god, I thought that movement was better!’ And then it’s like — oh dear! So I really try not to look now.”
Britain’s under-25 national title holder Bubby Upton produced her first-ever five-star dressage test yesterday, taking a top five place overnight with her Young Rider silver medalist Cola — and while today’s riders might have pushed the pair down to seventeenth on their score of 28.5, the talented university student’s second test, this time with the expressive Cannavaro, propelled her straight back to the business end of the leaderboard. They earned a 27.1 for their mature and polished performance,
“I’m so proud of him,” says Bubby, who has produced the horse through the levels herself. “I don’t think anyone can understand quite how far he’s come unless they saw him when I first got him, and at his first event — his nose practically touched his chest; he was so overbent and so chubby. But one thing that he’s always been is a trier, and he went in there today and tried so hard.”
Though having two horses in the hunt ostensibly gave Bubby the advantage of learning from her first test and making minor improvements to her second as a result, her two rides this week are so different from one another that in actuality, she simply had to focus on riding the horse she had under her in the moment.
“They’re two completely different horses, and the changes are definitely their weaknesses — well, my weakness, to be honest,” she laughs. “So there wasn’t much I could do apart from just try my best in the changes. He pretty much got them all, apart from the last one — he just got a bit excited there, but I’m thrilled with him. In the familiarisation yesterday he was quite spooky, and he’s not a spooky horse — and then when he went in today, he was really looking at the camera, and I was like, ‘oh god, Joey, concentrate!’ And he did.”
There was one little detail that Bubby was determined to fix: “I didn’t do a square halt yesterday in my walk, which really annoyed me all night, so I made sure I did one today!”
French hopes are high after a superb test by Sidney Dufresne got the day off to an excellent start. His 27.2, which puts him in equal eighth overnight, was good enough to allow him to steal the lead as the first rider in the ring today, and the eye-catching Selle Français mare Swing de Perdriat certainly commanded plenty of attention on her debut. The flow with which she delivered her test, though, belied how much tact the rider has had to use in training her.
“She’s a lovely mare, but she’s difficult in her mind,” he says. “We found out that doing less dressage and more hacking helps a lot, and so today she did the best dressage she’s ever done, which is great.”
In a bid to take as much pressure as possible off the hot-headed mare, Sidney has stripped everything back — including his warm-up regime.
“I do less working on the flat, and more easy work,” he says. “I do a long walk before working, and a long walk after. She doesn’t need to work hard, she just needs to go out and do something, and we just need to keep her happy.”
British-based Brazilian Carlos Parro returned to five-star for the first time since 2009, and he made sure not to waste a single movement with his longtime partner, the fifteen-year-old Calcourt Landline. They sit equal eighth with Sidney, also on a 27.2, in what is the gelding’s first international start since 2019.
“He’s had one or two setbacks,” says Carlos, who explains that a unique training regime has helped him to manage the horse and produce the best possible results: “I don’t actually ride him at home, except on the gallops. He doesn’t do flatwork or jump, we just work on his fitness.”
Izzy Taylor rounds out the top ten after the first phase on her second ride, the elegant Fonbherna Lancer, who scored a 27.3 with a conservative but correct test this afternoon. This is a second five-star start for the gelding, who Izzy produced to four-star before Piggy March took the reins last season. Earlier this year, he moved back into Izzy’s string so that he’d be qualified to step up to five-star, and although his first attempt at Bicton last month ended with an early retirement after a green 20 penalties, he’s proven time and time again that he has plenty of class for the job — though like many of the frontrunners in this field, he’s still got plenty to learn.
Canada is well represented by British-based Mike Winter, who sits 33rd on 31.7 with El Mundo, his self-described ‘horse of a lifetime’ who he’d initially intended to sell as a youngster — but after the gelding suffered an injury that required plenty of hands-on care, he quickly became a part of the family. Now, he’s partnering Mike on his return to this level; before Bicton last month, he’d last ridden at five-star back in 2009. Bicton proved a learning curve for the inexperienced horse, and now the pair are back to put what they took away from that tough course into action here.
Likewise, our sole US representatives Liz Halliday-Sharp and Cooley Quicksilver had an educational, rather than competitive, round at Kentucky on the horse’s debut at the level, but the talented gelding is ready to step into the big leagues. Some trouble with the changes precluded a lower score for the duo, but their 32.5, which puts them 35th overnight, actually has them just over 10 penalties off the lead — a slim margin on a day like tomorrow, which promises to be incredibly influential.
There are plenty of contributing factors to why tomorrow will be such an exciting day of cross-country. So many of the horses — and plenty of the riders — in this field are at the beginning of their top-level careers, and so it’s reasonable to expect some genuine mistakes as well as some sensible steady lines and routes throughout the day. The course itself, which we’ll be looking at in more depth before the start of the action, is incredibly twisty but also very long, clocking in at nearly twelve minutes. Set in a small park and racecourse and flanked by the main roads and car dealerships of the city’s northern outskirts, Pau is a uniquely tight track, and there are none of the galloping straights you’d expect to find at the likes of Burghley or Kentucky. Instead, riders must be economical from the off to try to best the clock, and any time lost is incredibly difficult to regain later on in the course. The questions are also intense and technical throughout, with plenty of ‘let-up’ tables along the way, but even those come on, or shortly before or after, turns, so it’s a course that’s mentally tiring as well as physically tiring.
There’s absolutely no margin for error on the leaderboard, either: our overnight leader enjoys a small buffer of five seconds over second place, but there’s just thirteen seconds covering the entirety of the top ten, and the tricky optimum time alone will ensure that there’s some serious shuffling done across the leaderboard throughout tomorrow’s competition. We’ve seldom seen a five-star field that’s as wide open as this one is in terms of forecasting the winner; there’s a double handful of horses who are all reasonably vying for the win this week, and watching them battle it out will make for some seriously good spectator sport. You can tune in and watch it all via H&C+, and join us at the end of the day for a full rehash of all the action.
Until next time: Go Eventing!