It would be tempting, when writing about Toledo de Kerser and Tom McEwen‘s first CCI5* victory at Pau today, to suggest that it’s been rather a long time coming. But Tom is quick to dispel that notion with a laugh: “I know everyone always goes on about their horse deserving a win, and all that rubbish, but he’s a mega horse and when you’re sat on something like that on the last day… yeah, he sailed. It’s a horrible thing to say, but it felt easy – he’s incredible.” Then, he concedes – “The horse fully deserves it; he’s an amazing horse.”
Though Pau had to break its lucky streak of home nation winners, it did enjoy one consolation prize – the winner was a Selle Français. As such, his two-phase lead was closely followed by the record crowds of attendees, waiting to see if the rangy French horse – originally produced by Australia’s Sammi Birch – could come good on home soil.
“He’s a super French horse and he jumps like an airplane, so there was nothing to be worried about today – I’m the only one who’s going to let him down showjumping, so I just needed to stay on board and count some numbers,” says Tom, who entered the ring in a confident position – he had already produced a foot-perfect clear with Figaro van het Broekxhof (16th) and the difficulty of the course meant that he suddenly found himself with two fences in hand; rather a luxury when you’re sitting aboard a horse who’s only ever had two rails in his entire international career.
But as it happened, he wouldn’t use any of the significant buffer he’d been granted – instead, he canter into the main arena as though he was about to cruise through a schooling exercise at home and neatly popped his way around the twisting track, making us rather wonder why anyone had had any rails down at all throughout the day. In fact, Tom’s round was one of just nine without jumping penalties out of the 27 rounds completed, and one of just five to finish up clear and without time penalties.
For Tom, this win wraps up an occasionally frustrating season in a bow.
“He’s just such an incredible horse, despite a few things going wrong at the beginning of the year,” says the rider, who missed his cross-country start time at Badminton this spring with Toledo, and then knocked a frangible pin, ultimately finishing eleventh. Then, a surprise slip-up on the yard meant that the gelding had to miss the European Championships, for which he’d been selected after this great performance at the Tryon World Equestrian Games last year.
“It’s not been bad at all; it’s just been a bit flat – it’s the highs and the lows of the sport, although my lows haven’t been that low,” says Tom, level and unruffled as usual, though a broad grin sneaks across his face every few moments. It seems fitting that this first victory comes at the place where it all began for Toledo – he did his first five-star here three years ago, finishing 22nd, and has since featured in the top ten at both Badminton and Burghley.
Now, Tom and his team begin the 25-hour journey home – but Tom has a celebration up his sleeve.
“I’m off to Amsterdam for a stag do,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.
Quality Purdey once again proved that her moniker isn’t a misnomer, stepping up to finish second with Australia’s Chris Burton in the irons. Though they had begun the week in sixth place on their dressage score of 27.8, a quick round across the country moved them up to third overnight. Although they tipped the final fence today, they were able to step up into second place, over eight points behind the winners. Remarkably, this result means that Chris now has six horses qualified for Tokyo this year – a phenomenon we think can be fairly described as an embarrassment of riches.
Shane Rose, like Burto above him, represents Australia – but unlike Dorset-based Chris, Shane hasn’t set up shop on European shores. Instead, he and Virgil travelled for five days to make it to Pau, at which Shane hoped they might be able to nab a top placing and curry favour with the Australian selectors ahead of next year’s Olympics. While the plan paid off in the end, with their clear round over the poles helping Shane and Virgil to climb from fifth to third, it wasn’t without its difficulties.
“He actually tied up last week at Le Lion d’Angers during a gallop there,” explains Shane. “We were held up on the racecourse for about forty-five minutes and the stress really got to him. So it wasn’t ideal, but we had a great support team to get to this point.”
Just one stone remains unturned for Shane as he reflects on his week, which saw him deliver a dressage mark of 33 for 14th place after the first phase, and then climb to fifth after adding just 1.6 time penalties on cross-country.
“It’s just a shame my dressage wasn’t to the standard it can be,” says the rider, who led after the dressage here with CP Qualified in 2017, but came unstuck on the cross-country course. “But I’m very pleased with the horse; it’s a big deal travelling to the other side of the world. The plan was to come here, do well, and cement a top three performance so we could give ourselves a good chance for next year.”
Alex Bragg and Zagreb went into the final phase in a close second place after delivering the only clear round inside the time over yesterday’s cross-country course, and although Alex, too, is a British rider who has continually come achingly close to a top placing at this level, it wasn’t to be his week. He dropped to a still very respectable fourth place after two fences – including, infuriatingly, the final one – toppled, an out-of-character performance for the ordinarily reliable fifteen-year-old gelding.
Two rails would tumble for Ros Canter and Zenshera, who nevertheless finished fifth – their third time finishing in the top ten at this event, and their fifth time in the top ten out of five attempts at the level. As far as speedy returns to the sport after having a baby go, it’s not too shabby at all.
No one had to work quite as hard for their clear round as New Zealand’s Tim Price, who displayed remarkable tact in manoeuvring the headstrong Ascona M around the course. ‘Ava’, who won at Luhmühlen this year, is still just an eleven-year-old and this week, in the best shape of her life, she’s certainly proven hard to handle. But such is the flamboyant mare’s scope that she can skip her way over the top of the wings, throwing her legs out ahead of her in her typical style and laughing her way to the finish while the rest of us scarcely dare to breathe. We were relieved to see someone hand a laughing Tim a glass of something naughty as the showjumping came to a close – he likely needed it.
But while Ava may not have been the easiest of mounts this week, as she demonstrated while tackling the arena familiarisation days ago on her hind legs, she’s certainly proven once again that she’s got all the goods. Despite having a necessarily slow round to focus on the mare’s education, rather than getting caught up in an argument, Tim and Ava still finished in 6th place, one spot up from the 7th place spot they occupied after each of the first two phases.
Australia’s Kevin McNab also rode an eleven-year-old, but Scuderia 1918 Don Quidam brought forward considerably less experience than Ascona M. Though making his five-star debut – and partnered by a rider we haven’t seen at this level in several years – he looked every inch the old pro, tipping just one rail along the way to swap places with Tim and Ava and finish 7th, a week-long climb of eight places.
Two late rails fell for Germany’s Andreas Dibowski and his long-term partner FRH Butts Avedon, not an unusual circumstance for the hugely experienced partnership who long held a weak spot in this phase. But they didn’t drop a single place on the leaderboard, instead just sacrificing the one place they could have moved up had they gone clear.
Any performance today would have been the icing on the cake of a successful final major competition for sixteen-year-old FRH Butts Avedon, who was for so long one of Germany’s most successful five-star horses. Though his form at the level tailed off in recent seasons, with multiple failed attempts, it’s been enormously special to watch him romp around the three phases of this week’s competition looking back to his best. Dibo had told us earlier this week that he wanted to give his old friend the chance to bow out on a high – and that mission was inarguably accomplished today.
Mathieu Lemoine and the ten-year-old mare Tzinga d’Auzay tipped two poles but stayed in ninth place, finishing the best of the French riders at this week’s competition.
“Tzinga is not the easiest horse in the showjumping arena; I had a credit of two rails to stay in ninth, and I did have two rails down,” says Mathieu, who was part of the gold medal-winning French team at the Rio Olympics, but has largely been out of the spotlight since the sale of his Olympic mount Bart L to the Japanese team. But the promise shown by the Selle Français mare on her debut this week gives the popular rider plenty of reason to hope for a return to the global stage.
“She’s got a big heart and tries her hardest, and I’m getting to know her really well now. This has opened a lot of doors; when I came here I was not expecting to do so well. This opens a glimmer of a dream for future big events with Tzinga.”
Mathieu joined his fellow French riders in wearing an orange armband, a nod to their young countryman Thibault Fournier, who won Pau last year on his debut and is currently in hospital, recovering from a major fall at Pompadour that put him into a coma.
Let it never be said that we at EN miss out on the stars of the future – we’ve been cheering on little Dassett Cooley Dun for two seasons now, and today, the 15.1hh Irish-bred claimed his biggest result yet, rounding out the top ten with rider Sarah Way who, like Ros, is newly back from maternity leave. The diminutive gelding, known at home as Mouse, made his debut here last year, picking up an unfortunate 20, but this year, the strength of the pair’s performance yesterday allowed him to climb from 40th after dressage to 14th. Today, they knocked just one rail and moved up four places to tenth, representing the biggest climb of the week. Pony power – it’s the most sustainable form of energy, folks.
Canada’s Holly Jacks-Smither has waited several long years to come to Pau with ex-racehorse More Inspiration, and although two rails down belied the pair’s consistency in this phase, it didn’t lose her her twelfth place spot.
“I’m happy with my weekend – this is my strongest phase, so it’s a shame to have two down, but we had personal bests in both the other phases,” says Holly. “I’m thrilled with my horse and thrilled with my weekend in general. I’m so glad I made it here – not just to be at the show, but because of the people I’ve met along the way, these amazing connections that will stay with me forever.”
British-based Kiwi James Avery was the best-placed five-star debutante, finishing 17th with Mr Sneezy after a clear showjumping round with 0.8 time penalties to end their week on a score of 80. Though the pair picked up 20 penalties across the country yesterday, they proved themselves to be a stylish and capable duo in their debut.
And so we come to the conclusion of the final CCI5* of the Northern Hemisphere’s eventing season and, in fact, our European coverage for 2019. But never fear – we’ll have plenty to keep you warm on a cold night from this side of the pond as we head into the off-season. For now, though, let’s all raise a glass to Tom McEwen, to Toledo de Kerser, and to 2019, with all its highs, lows, and perfect moments. Roll on 2020, when we can once again Go Eventing.