A curious thing happens at the beginning of cross-country day at a major three-day event: either the first riders out of the box make the whole shebang look laughably easy, and then a false sense of ease settles upon the rest of the pack and it all unravels again – or the first few fail to make it to the finish, and everyone begins to pay very close attention to every stride. The latter is what we saw today at Pau, where 29 of the 41 starters completed the course, but just 16 did so without adding jumping or flag penalties. Throughout the day, we saw problems scattered evenly across the course, with the myriad skinnies providing ample opportunity for drive-bys.
At the end of the day, though, dressage leader Tom McEwen would prevail, romping home just two seconds over the optimum time with Toledo de Kerser.
“Usually I don’t get that excited about things, but I was in that round,” laughs Tom, who piloted Figaro van het Broekxhof to a completion – albeit with a 20 – earlier in the day. “It’s been a long day for me; we’ve been to our Burghleys, and our Europeans, and so on, but it’s a strong field here and it’s just caused problem after problem all day. It’s a long old wait until the end of the day, and the first one wasn’t as precise as we’d like, although he went well. But Toledo was ready to go to the Europeans and he’s carried that over, so we were very fresh out of the start box. We just got into the flow of it – we were right down out the back and he just picked it back up, and as the round went on he just got smoother and smoother. For a horse with not much blood, he can run well enough.”
Though this is the first time Tom will go into the final phase with this amount of pressure, one thing must surely make him breathe a little more easily: Toledo de Kerser has one of the most impeccable showjumping records in the field.
The fastest round of the day – and the only round to stop the clock under the optimum time of 11:15 – was that of Alex Bragg and Zagreb, who finished with three seconds to spare and climbed from eighth to second place. For the pair, who have twice been fifth here on double-clear performances, making the time at Pau is a first.
“I think it shows the improvement in both of us along this journey,” says Alex. “He doesn’t have the biggest stride, considering he’s such a big horse, but he does have a lot of experience now and I’m able to ride up to fences without interfering or setting up too much, so I could keep a good pace and rhythm all the way around the track.”
Watching the riders before him impressed upon Alex the importance of finding that rhythm.
“I watched Tim [Price and Ascona M] and thought they looked like they were travelling well, but suddenly they were 40 seconds up on the clock,” he says. “It was clear to me that you were going to lose time in the last part of the course because the horses would be tired, and you’d be able to run straight past fences. You don’t want to be pulling their heads off and killing their power; you needed to relax to the fence and let them slow up themselves. Then, when you put your leg on, you’d get a response – and that’s the crucial thing.”
Alex roundly praised Michelet’s course design, which exerted considerable influence: “When I walked the course I knew it would have accumulative effect on horse and rider – you needed to make a decision about adding or leaving out before you got to a combination,” he explains. “If you were indecisive you had a slip-up – but that’s why it’s a clever course. You didn’t have major incidents and injuries, but it had an effect. This is a three-phase competition, after all.”
The fastest man in the world didn’t quite deliver the fastest round of the day today, but Chris Burton couldn’t fault five-star debutante Quality Purdey, who added just 2 time penalties to move up to third place from sixth.
“I’m so proud of her – she’s a lovely mare, and I’m so lucky to have the ride on this horse,” says Chris. “She got a bit tired like they all did; Pierre Michelet does a great job of slowing us down in that last and second-last minute. It’s just impossible to take the fences out of a gallop and be quick. There’s a lot going on. But she’s really astonishing in how she looks for the jumps and wants to jump them – she steals my heart.”
Quality Purdey’s success is something of a miracle for her connections, who nursed her back from an injury last season.
“She broke her pedal bone after Aachen last year, and she’s come back from that getting better and better,” says Chris. “She’s amazing; she’s defied all the odds, and our team vet just can’t believe it – he’s absolutely in love with her.”
Chris and his team affectionately refer to the mare as ‘the dragon’ – despite her placid, sweet nature at home, she starts to breathe fire (though not literally, one must hope) at events.
“She must count down the days to an event – she knows when it’s cross-country day,” laughs Chris. “At Lignières we couldn’t get near her in the stable – she was wild, snorting fire, and she did a little bit in the dressage there, too. But she’s a lovely mare and we absolutely love her. You’ve never met a horse who wants to do it so much.”
Reigning World Champion Ros Canter made good on her postpartum five-star comeback, cruising around with 15.2hh Zenshera. Though small, the fifteen-year-old gelding has become a mighty Pau specialist, finishing in the top ten on both his runs here – and today, both he and Ros showed us exactly why, adding a relatively tiny 6 time penalties to their 27.2 dressage to sit fourth overnight.
“We didn’t have a bad jump – he was just fantastic,” says Ros, who gave birth to her daughter, Ziggy, in July. “He’s such an honest horse, and he turns easily, and he comes back easily, and I don’t have to set him up too much, so from that point of view, he’s great. He just doesn’t have the gallop – you get out onto the racecourse and you think ‘right, now we can go’, and we don’t go any faster. I just have to be chugging away the whole time – he just doesn’t take me. It’s really hard if you have to slow down, because it takes quite a while to get back up again. I’ve got used to it now, though. The first time I came here I was slogging away at minute two, and so I slowed down thinking, ‘I’ve got all this way to go and he’s already tired’ – but he wasn’t getting tired, he’s just level in his rhythm and he doesn’t get any faster. But you know what? We didn’t buy him ever thinking he’d go around something like this, and I can live with a few time faults – I wouldn’t want to be on any other horse coming back. He and Allstar B are extremely special to me.”
Despite this, Ros admits that she felt the prickle of nerves this morning.
“I thought of just having a word with my partner and saying, ‘is this a stupid idea?’,” she says. “I had a bit of a wobble this morning – I went out early to have a practice fence, for my benefit not the horse’s, because I just haven’t been doing it like everyone else has this year. But I ended up pulling out of a brush fence that was only about a metre high, and I thought, ‘what the hell am I doing?! Come on, woman, buck your ideas up!’ And I just found it really hard out there this morning. So I had to give myself a bit of a talking to, but actually, in the warm-up the second time around, I was fine.”
Helping her along were some sage and simple words of wisdom from British chef d’equipe Chris Bartle.
“He always gives me the best advice, and he just said ‘stick to the system – it’s all about the eyes,'” she explains. “You’ve got to be on the ball with these types of courses, and you’ve got to almost be looking at part C when you’re jumping part A, and almost go through part B. You’ve got to have long reins and be strong with your body, and that’s so important for me right now because I’m not that strong. When I think I’m sitting up, I’m not – so I was trying to get out the back today.”
You know you’re speaking to a true competitor when they lament their 1.6 time penalties as a slow round, but that’s just what Shane Rose did after coming home with Virgil, who steps up to fifth place from 14th.
“I probably went out a little bit more conservative than I would normally, just because no one had gone close to the time when I left,” says Shane. “The plan was to be a little bit further up at the two-minute mark, but other than that early change to the plan, all the distances that I’d planned came off. It’s been five weeks since he’s had a start, so he was just a little keen and I had to touch his mouth a couple of times, about which he wasn’t as obliging as he can be. But he was great.”
Unusually on a Pierre Michelet course, the Australian rider – who travelled for five days with his horse to get here – opted to add a stride in one of the major combinations, the rolltop-corner-skinny combination spiralling down a mound.
“The plan was to do four and four, but he got quite close to the rolltop on the hill and he actually waited more than I expected him to, so I did five and four,” explains Shane. “I think I could have done either, but I decided to play it a bit safe and add.”
Australia’s Kevin McNab soared up the leaderboard from 15th to 6th with Scuderia 1918 Don Quidam, adding 10.4 time penalties and enjoying a successful return to the level, at which we last saw him in 2015. It was an impressive debut for the eleven-year-old gelding, too, who finished eleventh in Hartpury’s CCI4*-S at the tail end of the summer.
It’s been a day of two halves for Tim Price, who had a chance to recapture the World Number One title after finding himself in the top ten with both Wesko and Ascona M. But fortune didn’t quite play in his favour: though Ascona M, who fell in the water here last year after an exuberant jump, finished clear, Tim took an extraordinarily unlucky dunking when Wesko, placed second after dressage, stumbled en route to the final element of the last water combination on course – a nasty moment of deja-vu after Tim’s similar fall from Ringwood Sky Boy at Burghley.
His ride on Ascona M, who won Luhmühlen this summer, wasn’t plain sailing either. They added 16.4 time penalties after some lapses in communication on course, which forced Tim to change his plan of attack and focus on giving the eleven-year-old mare an educational round.
“She’s been particularly feisty this week,” says Tim with a laugh. “She was just wanting the job, and it’s really difficult with her because she’s got so much talent, and scope, and ability there that I need to take away a bit of the gallop at the fences to do the job, and that costs time. I was aware of that, but it was important to jump the jumps first, and so I did that. It wasn’t probably the most suited to her, this track – it’s particularly twisty this year, and there’s a lot of places you’ve got to be quite nimble. I would have to say ‘right, you need to stay like this,’ and she’d argue a bit, so I’d take away some of the canter and we’d pop the fence and leave one out. I wanted to focus on some fences and then have another look at the clock, then jump a few out of the gallop and try to get her on a bit. That’s my normal way of riding, and the guys who make the time make it look smooth – but it’s not like that when you have to do a little bit of work. On balance, though, she’s still young, and I’m not disappointed – I know who she is, and I’m well used to not being able to always harness her ability.”
Though we haven’t seen FRH Butts Avedon at his peak in some time, Germany’s Andreas Dibowski knew that the sixteen-year-old’s time at the top level was coming to a close – and so, spurred on by a win in a CCI4*-S at Strzegom, he decided to bring his formerly prolific five-star mount out for one last shot at a great run.
“He’s the most beautiful horse in the eventing world,” says Andreas fondly of his long-time partner. “I decided very late to come here, but he gave me such a good feeling in the last competition so I made this decision. For me, it was only to enjoy this ride – we will see what happens after this competition, but I think he’s sixteen-years-old and he’s done everything, and for me it’s important to give him a good last competition.”
It paid off. Despite failing to complete here last year, the stalwart Hanoverian picked his way neatly around the troublesome track, adding 16.8 time penalties to climb one spot to eighth.
“He was really motivated and he jumped very well,” says Andreas, who stuck to his guns and went long at the final major combination at 31ABC. “This is his last big competition, and for me, a good result was more important than winning. He had one moment only in the first water, where he didn’t really jump over – he jumped on the top – but then he reacted immediately and the rest was really perfect. At the end, it’s a tough course with all the turns and it needs a lot of power. After every turn, you have to go back to the speed, and that costs a lot of power from the horse.”
Rio team member Mathieu Lemoine snuck his way into the top ten, finishing in ninth place at the end of the day with the young debutante Tzinga d’Auzay. They added 14.8 time penalties, necessitated by the 10-year-old Selle Français mare’s tiredness at the tail end of the course.
“I nursed Tzinga home after the eighth minute, and it was an obvious choice to take the long route at the final major combination,” he says. “But I’m really pleased with what she’s shown today in her first five-star.”
It’s certainly good news for followers of the much-lauded French rider: after the sale of his Rio mount, Bart L, to Japan’s Yoshi Oiwa, his horsepower has looked thin on the ground. But Tzinga – who he admits isn’t always the easiest horse to ride in the showjumping – looks quite the part at this fledgling stage of her career.
There was plenty of scope for big move-ups today, and buoyed along by an extraordinarily enthusiastic home crowd, Regis Prud’Hon and Tarastro got the job done, adding 20.4 time penalties and moving up 23 places to round out the top ten overnight in the horse’s first five-star, despite a 20 in their final run at Waregem.
Holly Jacks has long held the belief that Pau would suit her ex-racehorse More Inspiration, who she used to ride out as a two-year-old on the track, down to the ground – and that conviction proved true today, when they crossed the line with a clear under their belts. That they’d picked up 24.4 time penalties along the way would prove almost inconsequential as the day unfolded: such was the influence of today’s cross-country that they moved from 29th place up to 12th overnight.
“This horse has done so much for me – he’s come back from injury and been my first five-star horse,” says Holly, who describes her ride today as the best of her life. “I’ve always wanted to come here – the last three years I’ve tried to come, and I left the start box the calmest I’ve ever been. Once I jumped through the first water I just knew that we could get through the rest, and I think I did some things here that I didn’t know I could do – he’s always really short-strided, and a few times I saw the big one and just kicked him on. He just pricked his ears and went, and gave me more options than I’d ever had.”
For Ontario, Canada native Holly, this is affirmation of her decision to focus on her education over five-star tracks, rather than putting all her eggs in the championship basket.
“I really just want to get five-star miles, and I have a lot of amazing people behind me, so I wanted to ride with my coaches and follow my system,” she says. “It’s put me in a different mindframe to focus on that, rather than to chase teams.”
Tomorrow sees us head into the final horse inspection at 9.30 a.m. local time/8.30 a.m. BST/3.30 a.m. Eastern, followed by showjumping from 14.30 local/13.30 BST/8.30 a.m. Eastern. We’ll be bringing you all the news that’s fit to print – so join us tomorrow with plenty of French attitude. Until then – Go Eventing! (Or Pau eventing, we guess?)