Ups, Downs, and Jolly Big Drop Fences: The Le Lion Cross-Country Report

Tom McEwen and MHS Brown Jack clear the final combination. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

There’s always a heightened sense of anticipation in the air before the pivotal cross-country phase at an international, but never more so than in this funny old year of stops and starts. That anticipation, of course, was heightened by the fact that today’s competition is a true challenge for six- and seven-year-olds, most of whom came here with considerably less mileage than they might have done in any other year.

But it’s not just the tension of the ‘will they’s and ‘won’t they’s that makes Saturday at Le Lion feel like such a special undertaking. Much of it comes down to the unique beauty of the course itself, which wends its way through undulating parkland, in and out of picturesque Loire Valley woodland, and onto the racetrack at the heart of it all. The Pierre Michelet course is as much a labour of love as it is a functional entity, and that can be seen throughout in the extraordinary artistry that the Le Lion team utilises to create these incomparably picturesque fences. In short, it’s a treat and an education, no matter your role in the larger machinations of the thing.

Today’s cross-country challenge began with the six-year-old CCI2*-L, for which 37 starters came forward representing 17 nations. Though it’s not a course that’s particularly large dimensionally, for these inexperienced horses the class is largely a test of stamina and fortitude as they negotiate a nine-minute track for the first time. Super footing and sparse crowds — and thus minimal distractions — certainly helped today, and just four horses failed to complete the challenge set.

The leaderboard was altered from the get-go as New Zealand’s Samantha Lissington and Ricker Ridge Ricochet, third after dressage, withdrew before this phase due to what is believed to be a spider bite on the mare’s leg. The top contenders were further thinned by an excruciating elimination for Australia’s Kevin McNab and Cute Girl, fourth after dressage, who looked classy around the early part of the course but jumped one of the seven-year-old CCI3*-L fences in error.

Tom McEwen and MHS Brown Jack wait patiently in the start box. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Ultimately, the top spot would stay with Great Britain’s Tom McEwen and MHS Brown Jack, who were one of 25 pairs to jump around clear and inside the 8:58 optimum time. This is just a third international run for the Irish Sport Horse gelding by OBOS Quality, and he continues a hot streak of penalty-free cross-country runs with today’s performance.

“He really learned as he went around,” says Tom. “He’s a big horse — over 17hh — and so he’s a lot of horse to get around a course. He started feeling it at about seven minutes but he kept on jumping brilliantly — at anything complicated or a bit bigger he threw a lovely jump and really paid attention. I couldn’t be happier with him.”

Though the horse has never yet had the experience of showjumping the day after a long cross-country, his record over poles is formidable, too — he’s showjumped clear in both his internationals and knocked just one rail across his five runs, national or international, in 2020.

No fear here: Ingrid Klimke and Cascamara take a bold leap into the first water. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Germany’s Ingrid Klimke retained her hold on second place with the Westfalian mare Cascamara, finishing five seconds inside the time — bang on the same time as Tom and MHS Brown Jack, despite an enthusiastic effort at the first water that Ingrid’s impeccable balance saw them through easily.

“I’m very proud of my little mare, because she did a super job and learned a lot,” says Ingrid. “At the beginning she was a bit spooky — especially at the first water, where she did a huge jump in, but then she focused on the C element and from then on I felt that I could enjoy my ride a lot.”

Cascamara has knocked just one rail across her four CCI2*-S career runs, and Ingrid is confident of her chances in the ring tomorrow — particularly with the addition of the new surface.

“She’s a good showjumper; she’s very careful and has a lot of scope, so I look forward to tomorrow, especially as the competition is so tight. I’m really so happy that we can now enjoy being in the ring — we have perfect weather this year, but last year it was so bad that I didn’t showjump with my mare. I didn’t want to risk anything. All the riders were really asking if we could change something, and one year later the organisation has really made this dream come true.”

Oliver Townend and Cooley Rosalent negotiate the final element of the first water complex. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

There was nothing more that Oliver Townend and Cooley Rosalent, an Irish Sport Horse by Valent, could do than negotiate the course clear and quick and then hope for movement elsewhere, and they did their job impeccably to enjoy a rise into third place after the removal of Kevin McNab and Samantha Lissington from the leaderboard. This is a horse who Oliver describes as one of the best six-year-olds he’s ever had in his yard, and it’s easy to see why — on a day when green wiggles and a bit of hesitation is to be expected, she remained cool-headed and determined across Michelet’s track.

“I was very happy with her,” says Oliver. “I thought, coming here, that she’s very good for the future in that she’s got enough blood for the top level. I was very impressed with how she handled the course; it’s the biggest test that she’s had to date, and she was exceptionally good.”

Music to my ears: Sophie Leube and Isselhook’s First Sight TSF pop the famous Le Lion violin. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Germany’s Sophie Leube, too, benefited from the minimisation of the top of the leaderboard, jumping a quick clear aboard the Trakehner stallion Isselhook’s First Sight TSF to move from sixth to fourth overnight with the former Bundeschampionat.

Merel Blom and Corminta Vom Gwick take a turn around the big house. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

The Netherlands’ Merel Blom turned in the second fastest round of the day, finishing in 8:41 — second only to Belgium’s Cyril Gavrilovic and Elmundo de Gasco, 19th in a time of 8:40 — with Holsteiner mare Corminta Vom Gwick to move two places up to fifth.

If it seems like there’s a theme going on here, you’re not wrong: the leaderboard remained largely unchanged today but for that two-slot shuffle, with the only other significant change at the top being Kitty King and Monbeg Hendricks‘ surprise 20 penalties at the final combination on course, which dropped them from 10th to 30th place. Otherwise, things have been pretty plain sailing for our leading combinations, and those nine pairs who did incur errors on the course did so at well-scattered points, with the first water combination at 6ABC claiming the most victims — though, to its credit, even these were evenly spread through the three elements.

You’ll need a breather before we tackle the CCI3*-L, so enjoy this gallery of the remainder of the top ten before we sally forth:

Felix Etzel and Promising Pete TSF. Photo by Peter Nixon.

Germany’s Felix Etzel added another Trakehner challenge to the studbook race with Promising Pete TSF, sixth going into cross-country.

Daniel Dunst and Della Stella SDH. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Austria’s Daniel Dunst and Della Stella SDH continued their surprise fight for a top finish, jumping boldly and faultlessly for overnight seventh.

Karim Florent Laghouag and Embrun de Reno. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

French Olympian and general hero Karim Florent Laghouag piloted Embrun de Reno, who he bought as his Paris 2024 prospect, to a clear inside the time for eighth…

Antonio Cejudo Caro and Gallega HSM. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

…while Spain’s Antonio Cejudo Cara and Gallega HSM stepped up from 13th to overnight ninth after negotiating the track in 8:47.

Sanne De Jong and Jarelly MBF. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Finally, the Netherlands’ Sanne de Jong and her game, exciting Jarelly MBF move up five spots from 15th to 10th after delivering one of the most enjoyable rounds of the day across the country.

The top five after cross-country in the Six-Year-Old World Championship.

Lion heart: Sophie Leube and Sweetwaters Ziethen TSF. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

And then there was the seven-year-old class. After a pleasant morning spent watching a batch of occasionally spider-limbed but otherwise game youngsters gambolling around the course, it was easy to be lulled into a false sense of security — but course designer Pierre Michelet, who’s also responsible for Pau’s tough tracks, is no fool. The seven-year-old challenge here is distinctly more technical, and asks for more responsibility from these older horses — the lines are tougher, though liberally sprinkled with alternative routes, and the time is less lenient, though 12 clear rounds inside the time from 42 starters today prove that it was still certainly attainable.

Just as in the six-year-old class, the CCI3*-L lead remained unchanged, with Germany’s Sophie Leube continuing her domination aboard Sweetwaters Ziethen TSF, a licensed Trakehner stallion by Abendtanz.

“I’m super happy about my horses — both stallions did a great job,” says the rider, who also sits in the top five in the six-year-old class. “The cross-country was super to ride with super ground, and it had very good fences with technical questions. [Sweetwaters Ziethen] definitely benefited from his experience here last year; he’s one year old and more experienced now, and he had no problems with the questions. He did it great.”

This is a much-anticipated return to Le Lion for the stallion, who finished fifth here last year after sitting second throughout when he struggled to maintain his footing in the poor ground on Sunday and had an unavoidable stop in the double.

“It’s good to have the good ground now,” she laughs. “I’m looking forward to tomorrow and hopefully to have a clear round.”

Nicolas Touzaint and Diabolo Menthe at the final water. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Nicolas Touzaint headed up the home side challenge, remaining in second place aboard the Selle Français gelding Diabolo Menthe, who gained in confidence around the long track after an initial wobbly — though genuine — effort at the first water.

Just 2.5 penalties separate the top two combinations after this phase, and 1.2 separates second-placed Nicolas from third-placed fellow Frenchman Donatien Schauly Adjutant, a product of the Ecole Militare d’Equitation, and the Selle Français Dgin du Pestel Mili, who rose from fifth place after dressage.

Donatien Schauly and Dgin du Pestel Mili clear the colossal hedge near the end of the course. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Olympian Donatien, who comes from an illustrious family of eventers — his father, Didier, represented France in military competition, while his sister, Eurydice, has also evented under the tricolour — has just one CCI3*-S under his belt so far with this horse, in which he finished on his dressage score of 27.3, but in his three two-stars prior to that he’s knocked a rail. In tomorrow’s test, which sees the middle chunk of the leaderboard within fractions of a penalty of one another, he’ll have his work cut out for him.

Laura Collett and Moonlight Charmer sail through the last. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Laura Collett and Moonlight Charmer bolstered British spirits in this class when Laura nursed the Irish Sport Horse gelding — who, like six-year-old leader MHS Brown Jack, is by OBOS Quality — through the first part of the course, allowing him to gain in confidence for the latter stages. They would ultimately finish clear inside the time, moving them from sixth to fourth overnight, but another notable British combination wouldn’t be so lucky — Ros Canter and Izilot DHI, seventh after dressage, were eliminated after three errors on course due to some green inattentiveness.

Merel Blom and Crossborder Radar Love negotiate an influential skinny. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

It was a good day to be Merel Blom, certainly, as she finished the day with her horses in the top five in each class — but she dropped out of a podium position down to fifth with Crossborder Radar Love, a Holsteiner by Diarado, after adding just 1.2 time penalties. In this tightly-packed leaderboard, in which nine of the top ten were penalty-free, that proved expensive — though not irredeemable.

Filippo Gregoroni and Unnamed. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

From here on out, the top ten is wholly populated by dressage outliers, who delivered determined fast clears and capitalised upon the 66% clear rate today to make big moves. First among those — and, indeed, the first on course in this class was Italy’s Filippo Gregoroni and the rather delightfully (if bafflingly) named Unnamed, who were among the fastest finishers at a speedy 9:09, ten seconds inside the optimum time. They weren’t out of the hunt after dressage, which saw them sit twelfth on 34.8, but problems encountered by several high profile contenders gave them the breathing room to move up to sixth.

Those problems were well spread around the course, though with notable concentration at four combinations: the colossal drop fence combination at 19ABC, which was followed by two angled hedges on a steep decline, racked up penalties for five combinations including Lara de Liedekerke-Meier‘s Hooney d’Arville and Ugo Provasi and Quasary du Hans, equal 14th after dressage. The first water complex, too, claimed several scalps, particularly over its skinny final element on dry land, perfectly placed for drive-bys. The final water, with its upright fence in the pond, sent Tom Carlile and Darmagnac de Beliard from 9th place to 21st, while the most influential combination on course — an enormous hedge with a drop on landing, followed by a tight turn to a triple brush — shifted fourth-placed Caroline Powell and Greenacres Special Cavalier down to 20th place and eleventh-placed Gireg le Coz and Drakkar Littoral to 23rd.

Alex Bragg and Ardeo Premier find their line through the final water. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Among those who were able to enjoy a climb were Alex Bragg and Ardeo Premier, who were disappointed to sit 16th after dressage due to a rider satnav error mid-test. They moved up to seventh today, firmly placing the lanky bay gelding as a worthy contender among Alex’s string of, let’s face it, almost totally identical horses. With Zagreb and King of the Mill here too, awaiting their trip to Pau, we wouldn’t be totally convinced he didn’t pull one of them out to ride around today instead.

Tom Carlile and Spring Thyme de la Rose climb ten places to sit 8th overnight. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Though early errors in their test yesterday proved costly for this mare who’ll be a low-20s horse for the future, Spring Thyme de la Rose benefited from the experience of rider Tom Carlile — something of a Le Lion d’Angers specialist — to make light work of the course, jumping around in 9:09 to move from 18th to eighth place.

Fellow Frenchman Karim Florent Laghouag and Don’t Worry de Lameth also made great strides, moving from 21st to ninth with a clear inside the time despite a rather exciting moment at the final water, unashamedly documented below:

Rounding out the top ten is yet another Frenchman riding yet another Selle Français — Camille Lejeune moved 16 places up to tenth with Dame Decoeur Tardonne, making the SF studbook’s fight for another win here look very strong indeed.

Camille Lejeune and Dame Decoeur Tardonne. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

And so now we proceed to the final day with a diminished field of just 28 in this class, down from 48 starters. Let’s take a look at some of the questions on course that proved particularly tricky…

The final water

Ably demonstrated by Lara de Liedekerke-Meier and Hooney d’Arville, the tricky final water featured a tough line and an element in the pond, which saw three horses fault.

The drop to angled hedges at 19

This combination was responsible for five faults on course. Three riders show the elements in turn here:

The hedge to triple bar at 17

The most influential combination on course, this claimed seven faulters.

The top five after cross-country in the Seven-Year-Old World Championship.

Tomorrow morning kicks off bright and early with the final horse inspection, beginning at 9.00 a.m. local time (8.00 a.m. if you’re in the UK; an eye-watering 3.00 a.m. if you’re on Eastern time) with the 33 remaining six-year-old contenders. The seven-year-old field — down to just 28 — will follow on straight after. Then it’s onto showjumping, which is typically built big, tough and influential here, but which will be held for the first time on a surface — but don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security.

As with the rest of the competition, you’ll be able to follow all the action live. The six-year-olds will jump from 11.00 a.m. local/10.00 a.m. UK/5.00 a.m. Eastern, while the seven-year-olds take to the arena from 14.30 local/13.30 UK/8.30 a.m. Eastern.

Until next time, folks, Go Eventing.

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