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Think back, if you will, to the before-times: a time when coronavirus wasn’t a thing any of us had heard of; a time when masks and social distancing were for Halloween parties and avoiding the greasy-fingered attentions of boys in bars who do that awful waist-fondling thing when they need to move past you. That was a happier time, wasn’t it?
It was also, as you might recall, a time when the Price family dominated just about every CCI5* leaderboard going. Across 2018 and 2019, Tim and Jonelle took, between them, Badminton, Luhmühlen, Burghley, and Luhmühlen again, as well as nabbing top ten finishes at Kentucky, Badminton, Burghley, and Pau. We often find in this sport that when the good times start rolling, they keep on doing so for a long stretch of time — and those couple of years prior to the world going mad were truly the golden era of the Prices.
But that’s certainly not to say that they’re any less competitive nowadays; after all, they’ve taken podium places at both American five-stars this year. But we haven’t seen a Price win a five-star since the last time life felt truly normal — until this week. After taking the first-phase lead at the end of the day on Friday with the five-star debutant Falco, Tim Price added nothing to his score of 22.1 yesterday and then, after watching carnage unfold throughout the hugely influential final phase, show jumped clear with just 0.4 to add for finishing a second over the time allowed. It was to be a Price win at Pau, and it all felt rather like a hefty dose of deja-vu as everyone hugged (those are allowed again!) and cried and laughed and raised their paper cups of champagne towards the sky. If you could bottle this moment, you’d seal it and store it and save it for the next time a global pandemic shuts the world down; it truly feels that powerful.
To veer too dramatically into talking about a win as though it was in some way fated, though, is to risk detracting from the enormous effort and skill that goes into making it happen — and nowhere was the effort and skill more apparent than over today’s showjumping course, which saw just five of the 35 competitors deliver completely penalty-free rounds. In the early stages of the afternoon, pole after pole after pole fell, while the time proved achingly difficult to achieve — one competitor even clocked in eleven seconds over the time allowed, without any mishaps on course or noticeable lack of impulsion. As we crept closer towards the top end of the leaderboard, the issues didn’t stop: ninth-placed Alex Bragg and King of the Mill dropped to eighteenth after tipping three rails and adding 0.8 time penalties, while fourth-placed Bubby Upton and Cola finished in twelfth when they, too, added two poles and time. The most significant poles, though, were those clocked up by Ireland’s Padraig McCarthy, who was second overnight with the extravagant debutant Fallulah. The inexperienced but preternaturally talented mare has few weaknesses but for now, while she continues to build in strength and amass crucial education, showjumping is among them — and though Padraig rode into the ring well aware that today’s round may well prove to be a learning moment for her, it was nevertheless impossible not to feel quietly devastated for him when his four rails and 0.8 time penalties dropped the pair to eventual seventeenth.
That wasn’t bad news at all for Tim, though. He’d begun the day without a rail in hand over Padraig, but with one over then third-placed Kevin McNab and Scuderia 1918 A Best Friend. Kevin tipped a rail in his own round, dropping down to fourth place and giving Tim more of a buffer, while Padraig’s rails ensured that if he did wind up using that rail, he could do so and remain in the top spot.
He wouldn’t need to, as it happened. This field is full of first-timer horses and inexperienced talents with some development left on the agenda, and so the final phase was always going to be tricky for many of them, but Falco’s own strengths really shine in this phase. Yesterday’s cross-country saw the eleven-year-old Hanoverian leap solid fences with all the style and care of a Grand Prix horse and today, although he was tired from his Saturday efforts, he continued to jump with tight-kneed ease, never once threatening to knock a pole.
“He’s a great little horse,” says Tim. “You never expect this on a first time coming to this sort of level, but he’s a class horse and he always has been, even when he’s been learning his craft. He’s come here very well prepared, and I couldn’t be more thrilled with the way he’s delivered through the three phases.”
Though Tim had watched the carnage unfold throughout this final phase, he felt calm as he entered the ring, despite his horse’s inexperience: “You’re nervous for many reasons; it’s high-pressure, and you try to not think about all the things that could go wrong, but I knew I was on a very good jumper — so yes, there’s been quite a lot of problems, but I felt that if anyone was going to do a good job of it, it’d be this horse, and it was just my job to do a good job on top.”
Even on a good jumper, though, there’s always a question mark on the final day of a move-up competition, because they have to jump while running on reserves — but this didn’t prove an issue at all for the little gelding.
“He was a little bit more tired than he’s been before, naturally, after the exertions of yesterday, but he really just tried and dug deep and showed what a class horse he is all the way to the finish. He’s an extremely special horse that I’m really excited about.”
Though Tim was delighted to take the win with Falco, who he owns with Sue Benson and Jackie Olivier, he was more than a little bit surprised, too, because the gelding only truly stepped up to the plate this season after a slightly chequered early career saw him amass plenty of cross-country jumping penalties. In his nine four-star runs, he’s had issues in four of them — but 2021 has changed everything.
“It’s been a bit of the theme of this year — he started the year finally going down the straight and narrow road of life at Millstreet, and that was just a breath of fresh air. From then he went on to Aachen, which is always a place where there’s a real challenge, because there’s lots of difficult little questions and surprises for a horse. But he really showed me there that he was a changed man. So it’s been a different year for him, compared to years gone by where he’s looked at other options instead of just jumping straight through a question. But to step up like this at five-star is a surprise for me; I expected to come here with an inexperienced horse and just show him the way around, maybe take some time and an option or two, but he just felt like he wanted the job and I wasn’t going to get in the way of him doing what he’s done over the last three days. It’s a bit of a pleasure for me, because it’s not always like that — it’s a bit of a special horse that comes and does that, and that’s a first experience for me of that.”
Sharing in Tim’s delight and surprise was British Olympian Tom McEwen, who won here in 2019 aboard his Tokyo mount Toledo de Kerser. Like Tim, he’d brought this year’s ride — the debutant mare CHF Cooliser — to give her an education and find out more about her limitations or lack thereof, and although he’d been quietly confident that if all went well, she might finish in the money, he didn’t quite expect her to climb so expertly through the leaderboard.
“She’s an amazing mare, but probably a little bit under the radar — and we weren’t quite expecting such a result. I was hoping for top five, though, knowing what a jumping performance she can do,,” says Tom, who began his week in twentieth place on a score of 29.6. An assertive round yesterday pushed the pair up to overnight seventh place and today, they delivered one of those five clears inside the time to put themselves in an enviable position: they could sit back and relax, sort of, as they watch rider after rider send poles spinning.
“Yesterday she flew around, and today she flew around again — and the rider flew a few as well,” laughs Tom. “Luckily there was a bit of neck in front of me! She’s amazing, and since winning the Intermediate championships a good few years back, and since then she’s just been ticking along and waiting forger moment, really. This is what she’s best at, and as with all first-time horses, you learn a lot about them when you do it.”
“If you’d told me at the start of the week that I’d finish on the podium, I’d have bitten your hand off and run a mile,” laughs Jonelle Price, who finished third with yet another debutant in McClaren, the petite former Mark Todd ride who’s taken a little time to reach his full potential, though certainly not for lack of faith from those around him. Brimming with talent but equally full of sass, McClaren came to Pau off the back of a tricky Aachen, in which he looked very nearly belligerent around much of the course and picked up an early run-out in the water as a result of his dominant opinions. But that run evidently became something of a blessing in disguise, and the pair came to Pau with their communication much improved. This allowed them to start the week in second place on a score of 24.4, dropping down to sixth after adding 4.4 time penalties yesterday and ultimately climbing back up into podium position after stopping the clock two seconds over the allowed 85 seconds today.
“On the whole, I have to be really delighted with his performance this week,” she says. Like Tom McEwen ahead of her, Jonelle finished on a score of 29.6, but Tom’s closer proximity to optimum time won him the tie-break and pushed Jonelle down to third place.
For both Tim and Jonelle, being able to pull off the double on the podium is always a special moment, particularly when their children Otis and Abel are on site too, as they have been this week.
“It’s so special, and to have the whole family here — we’re like a travelling circus, we’ve got so many buggies and bikes and things,” laughs Tim. “The kids were trick-or-treating on Friday and Saturday night around the whole show, getting sweets and all dressed up — Otis was a skeleton — so it’s just been great fun, and to have Jonelle doing so well on a great little horse too couldn’t have been a better end to the season.”
Australia’s Kevin McNab has plenty to be excited about after a superb week for the rangy, occasionally anxious Scuderia 1918 A Best Friend proved just how much the talented gelding has progressed since last year, when he made his debut here and picked up 20 penalties on cross-country. This time around, he finished fourth, adding just one rail — and frustratingly, the final one at that — to his dressage score of 26.2 to drop a placing after cross-country.
“It’s always disappointing to have the last fence down, but at the beginning of the week, if you’d told me I was going to be there, I’d have been more than happy with that,” says Kevin, who’s the only rider to make it into the top ten on a horse with previous five-star experience. “The horse will have learnt a lot, and there’s a lot to build on; he’ll come away a better horse, and there’s a lot left there, so hopefully he’ll be even better next time. He’s a lot more solid now and certainly has improved over the last year, so next year he should be better again.”
If you were asked to build the perfect event horse, what would you choose? A short, strong back with powerful hindquarters that allow for extravagant, balanced movement? A well-shaped neck with an elegant topline, which makes going in an outline the easiest possible option? A moderate set of withers that keep a saddle in place but don’t require a some kind of shark-fin accommodation technique to cram them in? It’s all wishful thinking, and ultimately, it turns out it’s all mostly surplus to requirements anyway, as Maxime Livio‘s Vitorio du Montet continues to prove. Though the Selle Français is a fairly unconventional looking animal, he’s got a huge heart and a huge stride — and those two qualities have allowed him to finish on his dressage score here two years in a row. Last year, that was good enough for eighth place, and this year, the French pair took fifth on their finishing score of 30.6.
Though the day started off on the wrong foot for Oliver Townend, who had to make the tough decision to withdraw his fourth-placed MHS King Joules before the trot-up, it was quickly salvaged by the excellent efforts of his ‘catch ride’ of sorts, Ridire Dorcha. The gelding used to be part of Oliver’s string several seasons ago, and together, they contested Boekelo CCIO4*-L in 2017, but shortly thereafter, the horse was sold to Australia’s Sophie Adams, who competed him through this season. Recently, though, she asked Oliver if he might like to campaign Ridire Dorcha again for a while to give her the breathing room to focus on her own career, and Oliver happily accepted. Although entering a horse for its five-star debut as a first international run together in four years might seem, well, utterly bonkers, the bold call paid off and the pair climbed from their initial 15th place on 27.8 to a final sixth place, adding 4.4 time penalties in their trailblazing round yesterday and absolutely nothing in their classy trip today.
It’s been an excellent weekend for climbing types, and Tom Jackson and Billy Cuckoo were certainly happy to take advantage of the difficulties their competitors had with the jumping phases. Their first-phase score of 30.9 had put them in the bottom half of the pack in 27th place initially, but their polished, focused round across Pierre Michelet’s cross-country course earned them just 2.4 time penalties, giving them their first significant boost and putting them in fourteenth going into today’s finale. When they went on to deliver just the second of five clears inside the time, they began their steady climb to eventual seventh, earning the talented British rider his first top-ten finish at a five-star.
Selina Milnes, too, earned herself a best-ever five-star result on her return to the level, this time with the exceptional Iron, who made his debut at five-star this weekend. The pair have consistently proven themselves to be among Britain’s most competitive combinations, and although Selina was frustrated to begin her week here on a 30.1, their clear with 4.4 time penalties yesterday moved them from 23rd to eighteenth place overnight. A clear round today, which stopped the clock two seconds into the red, sealed the deal and moved them ten places up to a final eighth.
The home side had plenty to cheer about, with two of their own rounding out the top ten: Cedric Lyard took ninth place, climbing from an initial 32nd on 31.6 after adding just 2.4 time penalties yesterday and 1.6 today with Unum De’Or, while Sidney Dufresne and the tricky but talented Selle Français mare Swing de Perdiat tipped the final fence but still climbed one spot into tenth.
For the North American contingent, too, this was a week of exciting development for two inexperienced but talented geldings, both of whom were making sophomore five-star starts after educational first attempts.
Liz Halliday-Sharp and Cooley Quicksilver opted to make the long trip over from Ocala, Florida to give the son of Womanizer a follow-up run to his Kentucky debut, where he completed with a 20 under his belt. This time around, he looked much more established from that formative outing, and ultimately finished 21st after adding 8.4 time penalties on cross-country and 0.8, plus three rails, today.
Canada’s Mike Winter made good his return to five-star level, completing in 25th place with El Mundo after adding 24 time penalties yesterday and 1.6, plus a rail, today to his first-phase score of 31.7. This was a particularly poignant finish for Mike, who started at Bicton five-star last month but retired on course after picking up twenty penalties: not only is he now back at five-star after 12 years away from the level, he’s also making his return with a horse who’s truly part of the family. Though the gelding had originally been intended as a sales prospect, a serious injury as a five-year-old meant that Mike had to devote significant time and attention to the horse’s healing process. At the end of it, he’d bonded so strongly with ‘Roberto’ that he knew the horse could never be sold on.
It’s been an extraordinary few days of competition, and a fitting finale to the 2021 European season, which has felt — over the last few weeks, anyway — more and more like life as we once knew it. This time around, we head into the off-season sated, happy, and excited about what’s to come and how we’ll make it happen — and getting back that feeling, which is one that we all felt like we’d lost, is something truly special. We’ll be bringing you some more content from Pau — and from the last few weeks of European competition — over the next few days, but for now: Go Eventing.