When you think of the toughest four-stars in the world, there’s probably a few frontrunners that spring to mind: Bramham, for example, with its tough terrain and dimensionally enormous fences, is a clear leader in the field. But Boekelo? Not so much. It is, of course, one of the most atmospheric cross-country tracks in the world, with a thuddingly loud bar for every fence on course and a distinctly festival feel to the surroundings, which certainly ups the ante in terms of keeping horses focused on the task at hand — but this is the Netherlands, and so terrain is basically non-existent, and the course itself is generally a pretty easygoing one for the level, all things considered and loud bars notwithstanding.
This year, though, Boekelo has a bit of a different feel. Due to the loss of some land and build permissions, two of the former loops through the dense woodland are no more, and two much more open, galloping loops have been added in in their stead, giving the course a much more flowing rhythm. That’s a net positive, and it probably sounds like it should make the whole thing a bit easier — but actually, it encouraged designer Adrian Ditcham to build some tougher questions, and to work that bit harder at forcing riders to slow down. The result? One of the busiest, most surprising, and undeniably most influential days of cross-country we’ve ever seen at the venue.
With 110 starters to get through (two withdrew overnight, which is a pretty easy detail to lose in the shuffle when you’ve got just about every horse in Europe running over the course of a day), cross-country began much earlier than usual at 9.30 a.m. By 10.30, we’d already lost four of our top ten – Jonelle Price and Senor Crocodillo, eighth after dressage, ran out of the angled shoulder-brush at the bottom of the mound at 24B; Kevin McNab and Miss Pepperpot, fourth overnight, dropped out of the hunt after a run-out at the main water at 20B; France’s Maxime Livio and Api du Libaire retired at the water, taking themselves out of ninth place; and young German prodigy Anna Lena Schaaf, seventh overnight, hit the deck when Fairytale 39 stumbled in the main water. That latter incident was something we’d see throughout the day, as we so often do at Boekelo and despite fastidious checks of the footing — and it was a repeat of it that truly up-ended the leaderboard not long later, when overnight leaders Julia Krajewski and Nickel 21 ended their day on an early, and very wet, note.
After that first couple of hours of chaos, though, we seemed to find a bit of something like normalcy, and with it, a chunky swathe of clear rounds inside the time (nineteen, actually, at final count, a figure that Adrian says “is pretty much what I was looking for”.). That shock fall of Julia’s opened the door for US individual Hallie Coon to potentially take the overnight lead with her exciting CCI4*-L debutante Cute Girl, and though they ultimately bowed out of the top spot with a green run-out at the first of two skinny triple-bars at 14AB, theirs was a round brimming with class and confidence, and a testament to the new-found level of communication the pair have hit upon in the last few weeks.
“My ego’s a bit bruised,” admits Hallie with a smile, “but all in all, I’m not too upset, because I learned that she’s an even more mega horse than I thought she was. She felt absolutely proper, and she really dug deep for me today. I’m buzzing for next year now.”
While the pair have previously had occasional communication lapses in the getting-to-know you process, Hallie’s been thrilled to find that they’re both singing from the same hymn sheet now — something that was particularly evident in the two tough water complexes, and especially in the main water at 20AB and 21AB, where Cute Girl, like many horses today, tripped on landing from the massive drop in. But neither horse nor rider missed a beat in finding their way out.
“The second water [at 20AB was a real testament to her because she jumped in balanced, but then had a bit of a stumble, and she just pricked her ears and said ‘okay, where next?’ And that was the best part of the day for me,” says Hallie. “It feels like the beginning of a partnership now, instead of just two beings trying to adjust to each other.”
That 20, though, opened the door for a new overnight leader – and one of just four competitors from last night’s top ten to stay at this business end of the leaderboard. That was the flying Frenchman Nicolas Touzaint, who previously won here seventeen years ago, and his ten-year-old Diabolo Menthe. This is the Selle Français’s gelding’s third CCI4*-L; in his first, at Saumur last spring, he was third; in his second, at Lignières just over a year ago, he was second. So it’s probably no surprise at all to see him now in contention for a win on his third go-round, and even less of a surprise to have seen him execute a bold clear one second inside the 10:06 optimum time on his way to doing so. That marks his eighth FEI clear inside the time, and puts the young horse forward as a real hopeful for an Olympic call-up next year.
“My main objective is the Paris Olympics, and I feel very lucky to have two great horses, either of whom could do it and both of whom will have their qualification by the end of the year,” says Nicolas. “I’m not sure which I would choose between Diabolo Menthe and [stalwart team mount] Absolut Gold HDC, but I’m very lucky to have the two of them — they’ve both had the same development programme.”
Nicolas, who began the day in overnight third, rode at roughly the midpoint of the day, which ultimately, he says, proved a boon to his chances.
“Because I was the anchor of the team, it allowed me to see the other riders before me, which helped me,” he says. “After I’d seen a certain number of riders go through the course, I did change my plan for the number of strides I would ride in some combinations. That meant that when I was on course, everything went according to the new plan. I took a lot of pleasure in riding the course; I really felt my horse was with me, and I really enjoyed it. We were very lucky to have firm but forgiving ground, and with those conditions, I felt comfortable asking for more gallop. It was excellent ground.”
Nicolas, who was 26 when he last won here, comes back for his first serious bid since as one of France’s most reliable riders (and, notably, the only Frenchman ever to win Badminton).
“I hadn’t been riding cross-country at that level for very long when I won it the last time, and it’s been a project of mine for quite a long time to bring this horse to Boekelo, so I’m very happy to be here now,” he says with a smile.
Perhaps we’re at risk of becoming a full-time Lara de Liedekerke-Meier fan page over here on EN, but this year, the Belgian team stalwart has been absolutely firing on all cylinders, and frankly, that kind of upward trajectory — particularly after a spell of bad luck and a knock to one’s self-belief — is something we truly love to see. As the busiest woman on site at Boekelo this week, Lara could have had one of two very different kinds of ‘day in the office’, but through sheer force of will, calculated, horse-first riding, and the thing we love to see the most, that sparkle of belief in herself, she made sure it was a very, very good one indeed.
Her first horse of the day, the ten-year-old team representative Hooney d’Arville, climbed up from 22nd place to overnight ninth, coming home clear and two seconds inside the time. That provided valuable intel for ride number two, Lara’s Aachen top-ten finisher Ducati d’Arville, who crossed the finish line bang on the optimum time, catapulting Lara from fifth to overnight second. And her third, the nine-year-old Formidable 62, who’s brimming with talent but green for her age after time out to deal with a cancer of the eye, wrapped up her day with another exciting clear, with planned time penalties. Lara told us after Ducati’s exceptional test on Thursday that she couldn’t quite dare to dream yet — but now?
“I still don’t,” she laughs. “I’m trying to stay down to earth — I know the sport long enough, and I know today I have to enjoy the moment and we will see tomorrow. With Formidable, it was the goal to get a qualifying result. When I went out there, I had a voice in my head saying ‘you can go faster, you can do anything and make a third clear inside the time’. But I knew that it was the most noisy and the most crowded when I went out with her, so I just respected her experience and gave her a nice round, whilst the others had other targets. Hooney, I wanted to make the time, which I managed and which I’m really happy about because her rideability hasn’t always been her strength, but she was really honest, and she really tried to get what I wanted from her. I think this year has been really a work in progress, and next year will probably need to be a build up to the Olympics and to see if she goes, but now if she confirmed her qualification, I think I can sleep better at night and start really to believe in her, which is something I had to keep kicking myself not to give up.”
That newfound rideability, she explains, has come from changing her style to suit her horse.
“She’s a little bit introverted, she’s a bit shy. When she went to [the Young Horse World Championships] at Le Lion, she wasn’t ready. I think maybe I stepped up too quick, and then there was always a 20. Never something bad, but always, all the time, let me down in a way — and so this year has been just a work in progress, and me adapting my riding to her, instead of trying to adapt her to become my horse. I think I know what she wants, and she wants more support — she doesn’t want my long reins and me just saying ‘good girl, good girl!'”
And of Ducati, the gelding who she’s loved since she spontaneously bought him at an auction while she was pregnant, and with whom she finds herself just 1.2 penalties off the lead, she says, “when Hooney was fine, I was just like, ‘you’re gonna give it a go, and we will see’. I had a really bad jump at fence four because he was watching the crowd, and it was this big house and then he took off one stride early, and I was like ‘Oh, well, that ended early!’ But he managed to stay on his legs, and I think it woke him up and woke me up as well, in a way. For sure, I didn’t want us to part company and I wanted to make the best out of our round and also our dressage, and he just felt like he was game on.”
Lara came into the main water complex with a robust plan of action in mind to avoid meeting a similar fate to many of her competitors.
“He launched into the water at Aachen last year, and I had to circle to go to the corner, so this time I really was secure,” she explains. “I wanted him to pop in, and he was really listening and he was just nice to trust me and then say, ‘what’s next mummy?’ and game on. He was really fantastic, and I’m feeling privileged to ride those horses — they just gave me their best today.”
Laura Collett and Dacapo, who finished third here last year, find themselves in the same position today — but it’s taken much of the evening for that to be confirmed for them. They were initially awarded 15 penalties for a missed flag at 24B, a skinny shoulder brush on an angle at the bottom of a steep mound, but while the fence did take a masterful bit of riding on Laura’s part to negotiate cleanly when Dacapo popped his shoulder on the approach, it was definitively within the boundaries of the flag, and ultimately, they were pulled right back up the rankings with their clear inside the time.
That pushed Germany’s Felix Etzel and TSF Polartanz, who’d originally been awarded overnight third, down into fourth – but Felix certainly won’t be wasting any time ruing that fact. He came here with the compact, smart little stallion having run him solely in short-format competitions since early 2019, and so a CCI4*-L debut was something of a fact-finding mission — but in every way, the Trakehner excelled on course, finishing three seconds inside the time and full of running.
“It actually took him a bit longer to get up the levels — at the beginning, he had some run outs , even at 2/3* level,” explains Felix. “So I took my time with him, because he came out a bit late in the sport — he was a six year old when I rode him the first time, so it took him a while to get confidence. Last year was the first proper four-star season; actually, I tried one time as an eight year old, and that didn’t quite work out! He really gained confidence through doing all his four-star shorts last year and this year, and so I think it was the right decision for him to give him a bit more time. But because I’ve done his last long format four years ago, I didn’t really know how it would work today, riding him for ten minutes, but he felt so fresh and was like that all the way around — even the last minutes he was really forward and looking for the fences.”
Felix is competing as an individual for Germany this week, rather than as part of the team, which meant that he had a late draw — and plenty of time to watch the chaos unfold through the day. But, he explains, he used this to his advantage: “In the end I rode the plan I already had yesterday evening, but for sure, it helped today to see 40 or 50 riders before, and it gave me confidence in my plan. In the beginning, I was a bit worried about riding right at the end, but it didn’t make a huge difference. I think it kind of helped me more, to be really sure with my plan.”
Now, he’s hoping to end the week on a high with the twelve-year-old, who’s also, remarkably, able to keep up a busy breeding career alongside training and competing.
“He’s licenced for the Trakehners, and for some other German studbooks, and this year, alongside competing, he got 31 mares,” says Felix. “Which is quite impressive, because the first half of the season I also rode him at many shows to prepare him for Luhmühlen, and then he got picked up every day. When they ask for semen, they’d pick him up in the morning and bring him to the stud farm two kilometres away from us. It’s a lot to do for him — physically and mentally — it was usually five times a week that he got picked up every morning at 7, then training, then to the shows. But he’s still so gentle to handle. Sometimes he’s lookingM but he’s really looking for the person around him, not to go too crazy, and once you’re sat on him, he’s focussed. He doesn’t look for other horses; he’s really a special horse.”
Unlike Felix, Ros Canter found herself leaving the startbox very early on in the day as British team pathfinder with the former Nicola Wilson ride and CCI4*-L debutant MHS Seventeen. But for her part, going out without feedback or viewing time worked beautifully, and the pair finished a smart ten seconds inside the time to move from eleventh to fifth, ahead of Switzerland’s Felix Vogg and Dao de l’Ocean, who climbed from 15th to sixth after finishing on the optimum time exactly, and fellow Brits Selina Milnes and nine-year-old Cooley Snapchat, who go into tomorrow’s competition in seventh place, up from first-phase twentieth with a clear inside the time.
France’s Luc Chateau executed a similarly impressive climb, leaping up from 22nd to ninth place with the twelve-year-old Bastia de l’Ebat after adding a solitary second to the optimum time, and Tim Price and his Blenheim eight- and nine-year-olds podium finisher Jarillo stepped up from twelfth to tenth with two time penalties.
While that 60% clear rate hit many riders hard, two of the US’s individual competitors enjoyed particularly successful outings on Adrian Ditcham’s track. Tiana Coudray leapt from 41st to 21st place with the CCI4*-L debutant D’Artagnan, who only made his FEI competition debut last year, with an impressive and confident round that saw them add just 2.8 time penalties, while Cosby Green, who’s spent the season based with Tim and Jonelle Price, added no time penalties, but did pick up a missed flag penalty at 14B, to climb from 73rd to 57th.
Today’s major shuffle also had a knock-on effect on the team leaderboard, particularly as the first half of cross-country — arguably, the most influential half — was devoted to team riders. First-phase leaders Germany tumbled all the way to eleventh after falls for both Anna Lena Schaaf and Julia Krajewski. That leaves just Christoph Wahler and D’Accord, who climbed from 27th to tenth after delivering by far the fastest round of the day, a whopping eighteen seconds inside the time, and team pathfinders Nicolai Aldinger and Timmo, who leapt from 26th to 13th after adding just 1.6 time penalties, in the hunt, and Germany’s competition as a team effectively over. Switzerland, too, will have to count one of their eliminations, worth 1000 points, after both Robin Godel and Roxane Gonfard failed to complete.
That, plus some trouble for the Brits, who added jumping penalties from Yasmin Ingham and Rehy DJ, Caroline Harris and D. Day, keeping them in overnight second, opened the door for formerly third-placed France to step into the top spot. They hold the lead by a reasonable margin, too: thanks to excellent efforts from Nicolas Touzaint, Karim Florent Laghouag and Embrun de Reno, who added just 0.8 time penalties, and Jean Lou Bigot and Utrillo du Halage, who added nothing, they go into showjumping on an aggregate score of 97.8, which is 9.4 penalties, or two rails plus three seconds, in hand over the Brits. That’s even with the early loss of Maxime Livio and Api du Libaire, who had sat ninth overnight, but retired after a runout at the main water at 20B. In third place, less than two rails behind the Brits and three rails and change behind the leaders, is Belgium, who climbed from sixth.
Let’s talk about those Belgians for a moment, because frankly, they’ve been my favourite story of this year. After a few tough years and some rotten luck, both as a nation and for some of its key players, they’ve come out all guns blazing into 2023, and their results — and palpable confidence — only get better by the day. The proof is in the pudding: they made such a committed bid on the Nations Cup series this year, hoping to use it as a pathway to their first Olympic ticket since 2012, that they come into this final leg as the de facto winners of the series. They also don’t even actually need that qualification route anymore, either, because they earned their ticket, alongside the Dutch, at the European Championships at Haras du Pin in August. Now, though, they could also add the finale win to their list of accolades, even if that margin looks stacked against them, thanks to the excellent efforts of Lara de Liedekerke-Meier, Karin Donckers and Leipheimer van’t Verahof, and Tine Magnus and Dizzy van het Lichterveld Z, who all rallied for classy, quick clears after teammate Jarno Verwimp had to put his hand up with Kyba van de Jomaheide. A season or two, this early trouble might have derailed the team; now, we’re looking at a Belgian front that finally believes in itself, and rightly so.
The US made a seriously impressive climb up the leaderboard from first-phase eleventh to post-cross-country fifth, just 5.2 penalties, or a rail and three seconds, behind the fourth-placed Dutch, who stepped up from seventh. Team pathfinder James Alliston added to his personal Boekelo course form, cruising home a nippy 12 seconds inside the time to add nothing to his first-phase 35.9, which allowed him to step up from 75th to 20th overnight.
Team debutante Cassie Sanger might be just nineteen years old, but she rode with a maturity that belied her young age, heading out into the pressure cooker of cross-country – and team duties – with a focus and zeal that saw her add a scant 4.4 time penalties to her first-phase score of 35.1 and climb from 67th to 30th.
For Phillip Dutton, his aim with the eight-year-old Denim was twofold: to deliver the goods for the US, of course, but also to pilot the CCI4*-L debutant to a confidence-boosting, educational round that would help to set him up for a long and fruitful career to come. He managed both, easing off the gas as needed and, as such, adding 12 time penalties — but that conscientious riding could well prove to be a classic example of ‘putting money in the bank’; tomorrow, we’d love to see Denim continue his spotless long-format showjumping record, buoyed along by the energy he’s kept in reserve today. He’ll head into showjumping in 52nd place, up from 69th.
Like the Belgians, though, the US riders also had to rally in the face of disappointment for one team member: after piloting Tim and Nina Gardner’s FE Connory around the majority of the course, the gelding tripped in the water splash at fence 26AB, which resulted in a frustrating rider fall, though we’re pleased to report that Jennie is no worse for wear after her tumble.
Former Dutch National Champion Merel Blom-Hulsman now finds herself back atop this leaderboard after a clear round with Vesuve d’Aveyron added just 4 time penalties to her score sheet, and after overnight leaders Sanne de Jong and Global Faerlie Flashy picked up 7.6 time penalties, dropping them into second place.
“It was a good ride,” says Merel, whose last international outing with the fourteen-year-old saw her retire on course at the European Championships. “Me and the horse have had a really good season until the Europeans, and you’re as good as your last competition, so it was mentally challenging, but it was a great ride. It’s actually quite funny because I get a lot of those comments, like, ‘can you imagine riding a horse like that?’ But to be really honest, he was a young rider horse stepping up to this level. He found it, at first, quite difficult last year, so it’s good to see how he’s developed — that’s really really cool to see.”
The final day at Boekelo will begin bright and early for our remaining 84 competitors with the horse inspection at 8.30 a.m. local time (7.30 a.m. BST/2.30 a.m. EST), followed by the showjumping in reverse order of merit. We’ll bring you all the news you need to know from the inspection and beyond — so as always, keep it locked on EN, and Go Eventing!
EN’s coverage of Boekelo is presented by Kentucky Performance Products.