Will Coleman and Off The Record Score First-Ever US Victory at Aachen

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Will Coleman and the ‘weird’ Off The Record get the job done to take Aachen’s coveted CCIO4*-S. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

“You’ve got to keep knocking on the doors,” says Will Coleman sagely as he settles in for a celebratory beer. “Eventually, one of them’s got to open.”

He knows a thing or two about knocking on doors, mind you: as one of US eventing’s foremost figures, he’s notched up plenty of successes on home turf over the years, including numerous Kentucky top-fifteen and top-ten finishes, and victories at four-stars such as Great Meadows, Bromont, Fair Hill, and Rebecca, as well as representing Team USA at an Olympics in 2012 and a World Equestrian Games in 2018. And on his trips across the pond to take on the big names of the European circuit? He’s been plenty prolific there, too, winning the achingly tough and highly-coveted CCI4*-L for under-25s at England’s Bramham International back in 2003 with Fox In Flight and notching up a top-ten finishat Germany’s Luhmühlen CCI5* in 2009 with Twizzel.

But boy, does he understand the knife edge that victory straddles. The last time we saw Will on this side of the pond was at Ireland’s Tattersalls CCI4*-L in early 2019, where he and Off The Record lead the way going into the final phase — but a rail fell, costing them the win and ‘Timmy’s’ chance of glory. It wasn’t the first time Will had found himself in that position at that event either; he’d had the same experience with OBOS O’Reilly the year prior. So when he and Timmy delivered one of just three clear showjumping rounds inside the time last night, catapulting themselves from eleventh place to a close third place going into cross-country, it felt like a particularly good omen: now, they just had to focus on doing what they do best and going as quickly as possible — and then they had to hope the fierce British contingent ahead of them were just fractionally too slow to stand in their way.

Will Coleman and Off The Record. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

It’s funny how these things work out: though Will and Timmy stayed up on the clock almost the whole way around and delivered by far the fastest round of the day, they didn’t quite manage to keep the clock in the green and added 0.8 time penalties to their two-phase score of 29.7. That gave overnight leaders Kirsty Chabert and Classic VI and second-placed Laura Collett and Dacapo, both on scores of 29.5, a valuable two seconds in hand to stay ahead, which must have made for nerve-wracking watching indeed for Will. Even after Laura dropped behind him with her 3.2 time penalties, there was still Kirsty on the hunt for her first major victory — and so intense was her campaign on course that she was hitting her minute markers even faster than Will had.

But going ultra-fast means taking risks, and though Kirsty and Classic got away with some close shaves around Rüdiger Schwarz’s track, their luck couldn’t last forever — and a shock run-out at the penultimate combination pushed them down to 23rd. That secured a history-making win for Will, who becomes the first-ever American to win Aachen, which has previously only ever been captured by German or Antipodean competitors.

“I’m thrilled for my team, my horse, his owners, all of which have been with me from almost the very beginning,” says a delighted Will. “You know, it’s hard to describe how it feels, honestly. It’s still a very new feeling. But I’m just really proud of my whole team, everybody who’s helped me get here. I’m just humbled and appreciative.”

His most vocal appreciation, though, was for the 12-year-old Irish gelding, who he fondly describes as a bit of an odd horse — but one who’s always been capable of making some big dreams come true.

“Like most of us, my riding career has been up and down — that’s just the nature of the sport and horses,” he says philosophically. “I think [Timmy] embodies what an event horse is all about; he’s a real fighter. He’s not the most physically gifted, but he comes out every time and gives you 1000%, and those kind of horses, you keep giving them chances and they eventually become champions, because that’s what they’re made of inside. I think he’s that kind of horse.”

But Timmy wouldn’t have been everyone’s champion, and though his record is peppered with top-five finishes — 14 out of 22 FEI starts, in fact — they’ve come as the result of plenty of compromise and no small amount of horsemanship.

“There are a lot of days when you get on him and it feels like you’re riding a kitchen table,” he says. “But he’s a kitchen table with a couple of Ferrari engines attached to it — he’s not the easiest to steer, or the most pleasant to ride sometimes, but the effort is really what makes him special. It took me a long time to figure that out, actually — that he was trying very, very hard, even when we were struggling to communicate with one another. I think what’s helped him turn a corner is me just getting that and figuring out how to help him instead of asking why he’s not doing what I want. So we have a good relationship; he’s just got a lot of energy, and he’s like a kid who needs Ritalin. When his energy gets up, he can be a lot to handle, but it’s not malicious; he just gets high strung and his effort comes out in ways that aren’t that attractive. It’s just making him relaxed and helping him feel like it’s as easy as possible.”

Will wastes no time between fences, allowing him to deliver the fastest round of the day. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

That well-established partnership and trust helped Will out of a situation that could have ended up much more costly had it happened to another horse — but instead, it just stopped them from catching the time and upped the ante of the final moments of the competition.

“I can tell you where I lost the seconds — it was coming out of the bowl out of the angled brushes,” he explains. “Over the rails coming out, I asked for a big distance out of the bowl and he jumped it but he drifted way left off the line — I knew right there that that was going to cost me. And the whole way around, every time I thought I was good on time, I had to push a little more.”

But, he muses, that’s what makes this the pinnacle of global CCI4*-S competitions.

“The nature of Aachen is it tests you all the way to the last second. It’s the ultimate in the sport and the ultimate challenge, that’s why I think I value coming here so much. It’s such a privilege. I couldn’t have more respect for the event designer and the people involved. It’s absolutely incredible.”

Shortly after sealing his victory, Will is swept into the cavernous main stadium and handed a microphone as his name is etched into equestrian sport’s most iconic wall of honour.

“It’d be hard to feel much better than I feel right now,” he says, his voice catching a little bit. “But I think the real winner here is the event, and all the people who come together to put this amazing spectacle together; the people of this city who come out to watch us. The names on the wall here are some of the greatest horsemen and women that we’ve ever known, and I don’t know if I belong up there with them — but I feel so lucky to be up there. I’m overcome.”

After a two-day climb, and years spent putting his quirky horse first, we think it’s pretty safe to say his place as one of the world’s best horsemen is wholly deserved.

Laura Collett’s Dacapo grows up at the perfect moment. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Like Will ahead of her, newly-minted Olympic gold medallist Laura Collett has been quietly putting in the work to help the obviously talented — but rarely straightforward — Dacapo flourish. Along the way, he’s both inspired hope — when finishing second in the CCI4*-S at Bramham in 2019, for example, or his third place finish in the Blenheim eight- and nine-year-old class the year prior — and broken hearts, losing out on placings with frustrating penalties at Tattersalls and Chatsworth. But the 12-year-old gelding has just needed time, patience, and, it seems, the chance to show off his inarguable talents in front of a captive audience. Though their 3.2 time penalties precluded a big win, second place at Aachen surely sees Dacapo step up from a naughty boy to a man.

“He was brilliant — from start to finish, he went out there and he was really wanting to go,” she says. “I can now trust him at the combinations, and he was locked on with his ears pricked. He quite enjoyed coming into the arena at the end with the crowds, too!”

Despite his occasional prior mishaps, Dacapo’s innate ride ability makes him well-suited to this kind of course: “He’s so polite; with all the twists and turns, you don’t actually have to pull him, you just lean a bit like a motorbike.”

That influence Laura’s decision to add a fifth stride between the open oxer and corner at 13AB, which she felt suited the horse better than the four strides it walked as.

“I didn’t see the shot, and having done it on Mr Bass, I knew it was a really forward four,” she says. “I didn’t get a very good shot to the parallel, so I made the decision to sit quiet for the five. He’s very adjustable to come back, but not always so adjustable to go, so I knew that would suit him, and he’s very neat with his knees, so that was the only place I changed my plan.”

The experienced Mr Bass provides a useful first round for Laura Collett, who makes a double appearance in the top five. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Not one for doing anything by halves, Laura also finished fourth with first ride and team mount Mr Bass, who added just four time penalties despite what Laura describes as “a terrible ride”.

“Luckily he is just Chuck, and he tells me to shut up and does his own thing,” she laughs. “But I felt awful for him, because I just couldn’t see a distance and I rode really badly. Luckily, then I got my shit together for the next one!”

Emilie Chandler and Gortfadda Diamond prove once again that they’re among Britain’s most consistent combinations, finishing third and contributing to the team victory. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Third place went to fellow British team member Emilie Chandler and her 2019 Blair CCI4*-L winner Gortfadda Diamond, who added four time penalties to their first-phase score of 28.7 and 1.2 showjumping time penalties to prove — not for the first time — that they’re a serious force to be reckoned with on the international scene.

“It was probably not quite his track — it was quite twisty for him, and I felt a little bit scrappy towards the end,” she says. “It was probably not the most beautiful round, but we got the job done and he was absolutely on his game — and what a privilege it is to be here. His showjumping round, for me, was probably the best round he’s ever done, and he obviously liked the main arena — and coming here, you can’t practice or emulate that kind of situation. So he was either going to shrink or shine, and he definitely shone last night. I was delighted with him.”

Their super result — which comes after a sixth place finish at Luhmühlen CCI5* and an eighth place finish in Hartpury’s CCI4*-S this summer with the 12-year-old Irish gelding — will surely put them in a good position for championship opportunities to come, but for now, Emilie’s relishing the feeling of victory in her first team appearance in six years.

“It’s always a privilege to be part of the British team,” she says. “I haven’t done a Nations Cup since 2015, so it’s fantastic to be back on the team again.”

Andreas Ostholt and Corvette 31 charge to fifth place and best of the Germans. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Fifth place — and best of the home side — went to Andreas Ostholt and Corvette 31, who climbed from an initial 14th place on a score of 30.4, adding just 1.2 time penalties last night and 5.6 today to make their move and represent their country, so often victorious in this showpiece event.

Tamie Smith and Mai Baum round out the top ten. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

It’s been a bit of a ‘nearly’ weekend for Tamie Smith and Mai Baum, who came into this event as clear favourites and were second heading into last night’s showjumping phase. But in life and in eventing, nothing is ever guaranteed — and despite being one of the best show jumpers in the field, ‘Lexus’ backed off in the huge atmosphere of the main stadium and subsequently took two rails, dropping down to eleventh heading into showjumping. Today, Tamie expertly piloted him to a clear with 7.2 time penalties, which guaranteed them a spot in the top ten — the first time the US has ever had two riders this well placed at Aachen.

“Obviously after having not an ideal round last night I was a little bit like,’ is something going on?’,” she reflects. “Everyone says ‘it’s Aachen, it’s Aachen, it’s Aachen’, so that [atmosphere] was something that you just hope doesn’t affect them. I did a pre-ride this morning and obviously not just wanting to be able to go out of the box and feel like he was confident, but that I could be competitive and go fast.”

Tamie used the feedback from the course, plus all the intel she’d gleaned from other riders before the competition, to give Lexus the best possible ride over the unique track: “Everybody says Aachen is very difficult and it’s not like any other event, so I was just pleased. It definitely is different — the ground is a little bit greasy. But he read all the jumps; they were rideable, he was fast. He loses a little bit of time because he’s such a good jumper, so I think if we weren’t quite jumping so high we’d be faster. But he was so rideable, and that’s something we’ve worked our career on getting. These new courses are so turny and technical, and I’m just really proud of our team. Obviously I’m disappointed for [the showjumping], because it would have been wonderful to win — but who better to win than Will?”

Ariel Grald and Leamore Master Plan rise to the occasion in front of the sprawling Aachen crowds. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Though a first-phase score of 34.8 precluded a higher finish, Ariel Grald and Leamore Master Plan delivered super clear rounds in both jumping phases to finish sixteenth overall — and, more importantly, add another string to the rangy Irish gelding’s bow, which Ariel has been strategically filling by aiming him at completely different styles of course in the US and Europe.

“I am thrilled — the theme for this year has been to put both ‘Simon’ and me in new and different challenging courses,” says Ariel, who finished third at Luhmühlen CCI5* on the gelding back in June and has jumped clear around Kentucky and Burghley with him, too. “I wouldn’t say this track would be necessarily what he’s suited for. This was quite twist — the first three jumps were nice, but it got technical from the start and it never let up.”

Though it might not play to Simon’s considerable natural strengths, such as his enormous length of stride, having to tackle such a ‘thinking’ course came at the perfect point in his ongoing education.

“I’m always working on getting him to be more rideable, and he was such a good boy and kept answering all the questions,” she says. “He was really focused, and I just need to trust that he was going to listen. He’s a big, strong horse and I’ve had a little trouble with him being a little too game — I just need to trust him and let him cruise a little more.”

Though the pair have swiftly gained a reputation for being one of the US’s most consistent competitive combinations, no horse — nor rider — is a machine, and they came to Aachen off the back of a surprise 20 penalties at Great Meadow. But rather than denting their confidence, it bolstered Ariel’s resolve and gave her a learning opportunity — something she’s always vocally grateful for as she works on producing her first-ever top-level horse.

“Having come off Luhmühlen, I purposely went out to give him an easy run [at Great Meadow] and he just never really switched on. He wasn’t being bad, but for him it wasn’t the same level of what he’s done. Nothing really grabbed his attention,” she explains. “It was a good wakeup call that he’s a big, strong horse, even when he seems polite, so he needs stuff to keep his mind on things. I felt that way after Luhmühlen with him too — that was probably the best cross-country round I’ve had on him. When you keep challenging him and keep coming off turns, he has to think quick and move his feet and he goes really well in that type of course. It’s good for us.”

Ariel’s focus is on developing herself, and her horse, for future opportunities with the US team, which is why she’s so focused on creating an all-round event horse — and every step of the way, she’s quick to acknowledge the help and support behind her in the form of the team itself, owner Annie Eldridge, and the generous funding allocated by the USEF.

“I’m so grateful I got the Jacqueline Mars travel grant to come over here. This is my first horse at this level so every opportunity to come over and do events like this is just amazing,” she says. “It’s been really fun. We just keep saying it’s been such a good vibe; everyone is really supportive and we’re helping each other out. The horses that were still in the US flew last Friday, so we had a few days training together with Erik helping us and [showjumper and team jumping trainer] Peter Wylde came over. We walked all the courses together, and we’ve been watching each others rides and rounds. We don’t get a whole lot of opportunities as American riders to do this type of thing, to be able to develop a team strategy of who’s going to go first and be able to communicate with each other and give feedback. It’s something we have to practice as a country so that when the pressure is really on at major championships, we’re familiar with it. It’s been amazing to practice that.”

Lauren Nicholson and Vermiculus nip through the twisty track. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Lauren Nicholson and Jacqueline Mars’s Vermiculus — or ‘Bug’, to his friends — competed as individuals for the US and did so in fine style, overcoming some naughty moments in their test yesterday to finish in 24th place. Their respectable showjumping round, which saw them tip one pole and add 1.6 time penalties, and their clear round today with 11.2 time penalties, moved them up from their initial 31st place.

“He was pretty uncharacteristically a naughty pony in the dressage which did not start us off well,” says Lauren, who navigated through a kick out in the first halt and a rather expressive hind end in the changes to score a 35.6. ” I think it was his worst score in a long time, but it definitely goes to show how important it is to do these trips often. He was just very excited to be at the party!”

Watching the day’s cross-country unfold led to a change of strategy for Lauren, who had initially aimed to replicate the super-speedy round she’d delivered with Bug at Great Meadow CCI4*-S last month, where they finished third.

“I was kind of planning at the beginning of the day to give it a crack like I did at Great Meadow, but once I watched the first half go and realized I wouldn’t be able to make a big move up the leaderboard I kind of adjusted my game plan,” she explains. “I wanted to be efficient but I didn’t want to take any big risks, as he’s going to go to Fair Hill. It’s far from the result I was hoping to come over for — I was hoping to have a good crack. But when we started off on the back foot after the dressage it was a bit too much ground to make up.”

Despite her disappointment with the result, Lauren has embraced coming across the pond with a group of her compatriots for the first time since Burghley in 2019.

“It’s such a great group of people, and it never felt like you were the one left out. It was a team effort regardless, the whole way around. I’ve had the opportunity to be on a lot of these teams and it was fun to support everyone. The whole team did such a great job and had awesome camaraderie,” she says.

Sydney Elliott and QC Diamantaire tackle the final combination before heading into the main arena and the last challenge of the course. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

It’s hard to fault first-time travellers Sydney Elliott and QC Diamantaire for any part of their performance this week, which saw them finish in 26th place at the end of the competition. There were plenty of tantalising hints of the good work yet to come from the big, bright gelding in his test, though tact was the watchword as Sydney sympathetically manoeuvred her horse through his bubbling tension to earn a 39.4. Yesterday evening they tipped just one rail and added 1.2 time penalties over the most influential showjumping course Aachen has ever seen, which yielded just an 8% clear rate — and today, they ate up the busy course as US team trailblazers without feeling any apparent pressure whatsoever.

“Erik [Duvander] approached me and asked me about going first, and then we talked about it as a team,” she says of taking the trailblazer position, ordinarily allocated to a very experienced team rider who can act as a fact-finder out on course. “I kind of feel like whatever he recommended, I was happy to go for it, whether it’s first or last or somewhere in between. I wasn’t nervous about it; I kind of treat it as any other normal event because we all just do our own thing together.”

She and the eleven-year-old Oldenburg gelding, who made their CCI5* debut at Kentucky this spring for a top-twenty finish, jumped a workmanlike clear to add 10.8 time penalties and bring home vital information about what they’d learned — information that undoubtedly helped her winning teammate find the most efficient, lowest-risk lines later on in the day.

“I think the course was great,” she says. ” There’s just a lot of busy work to get done from start to finish, starting at fence four — that’s where the work began. Even leaving the start box you’re watching the clock the whole way. The biggest feedback I got was the ground was very slippery; a very greasy feel. I think we all put in as big of studs as we had, and we were still slipping — so that was worth noting.”

The course was, of course, very different from the likes of Kentucky, with its galloping lanes and big, bold fences.

“I’ve never ridden anything quite like this before; I think the closest thing would be the showcase in Aiken,” Sydney says. “I think it’s hard, with the twists and turns — I can’t say it really suits my horse, but he seemed to handle it fine. He came through the finish very good and kept making each turn and reading what was in front of him.”

Now, Sydney is planning ahead for a few more European events to add to her education on the world stage: “This is my first overseas trip ever, so we’re making the most of it. We’re having a great time and I don’t think I could have been with a better group of people,” she says. “I’m staying for Boekelo and I brought a second horse, Commando, and will run some events with him. I wanted to run Pratoni in Italy, so we’ll stay and do that in November and then come home. I’ll be wishing my teammates were here though!”

The Course in Review

Course designer Rüdiger Schwarz always stamps his courses in a recognisable way: they make best use of twists and turns, and they build in technical intensity as they go, which means that the major challenge riders face is that of the clock. His aim isn’t to rearrange the leaderboard as a result of a spattering of 20s and eliminations; instead, he wants to push riders to take educated risks. Can they establish a rhythm when their base instincts are likely telling them to kick and pull and fiddle? Can they trust the foundations they’ve laid with their mounts and approach combinations on a more open stride, or do they need to shut the canter down and micromanage to make it happen, losing handfuls of valuable seconds in the process?

In many ways, this year’s course will have played out exactly as he’d hoped. Just one combination incurred an elimination throughout the day — that was France’s Gireg le Coz and Aisprit de la Loge, eighth after showjumping but struck off the leaderboard by a rider fall at fence 21B, the second of two houses on a one-stride distance into the second water. A further three riders incurred 20 penalties apiece, and two did so at the first water complex; Jonelle Price and McClaren had a naughty drive-by at the final skinny element at 8B, while Ingrid Klimke and the impressive but evidently green and fresh Equistros Siena Just Do It glanced off 8A in the water. The final jumping penalties of the day — and easily the most influential — were awarded to overnight leaders Kirsty Chabert and Classic VI, who left the start box with just two seconds in hand and knew they’d need to take risks to catch the time. Those risks paid off — with some ‘nearly’ moments — until fence 22B, the final combination before the last handful of fences in the main arena, where they, like so many riders before them, lost their chance of a win with a run-out. Over and over again, we’ve seen this combination — in one of its iterations — knock the two-phase leader out of contention; indeed, Kirsty’s teammate Laura Collett has seen Aachen slip through her fingers three times in that spot, most recently in 2019 on her now-Olympic-gold-medalist London 52. In the midst of an ongoing simmering debate about the functionality of the current safety device rules, which don’t allow for any appeals process if a device is activated, it was no doubt something of a relief to Schwarz that just one was triggered throughout the day: Ireland’s Sam Watson, who was the day’s trailblazer aboard the exciting Ballybolger Talisman, hit the device at the open corner at 13B, which was situated on an open four from a wide open oxer and was fitted with one of the new yellow MIMclips, which are designed to activate under less pressure. Despite this disappointment, which comes after the rider and EquiRatings co-founder activated a yellow MIMclip at the Tokyo Olympics, Sam remains pragmatic and positive about the ever-evolving face of safety technology in the sport.

This tiny handful of jumping penalties across the board meant that the clock could exert the most significant influence on the standings, encouraging savvy, economic riding over one of Schwarz’s ‘softer’ tracks. We talk a lot about eventing being at a crossroads between safety and the fundamental ‘spirit’ of the sport, but on days like this one, it’s not hard to imagine that the middle ground might well be something like this: a track that manages to be tight and technical without being punishing, and encourages risk-taking without being unsafe. The formula hasn’t been wholly finessed quite yet, but perhaps we’re finally on our way.

“I’m very satisfied,” says Schwarz. “My principle is to get the excitement, but that nothing bad happens and the best are informed in the end. This is the main thing, and I think it worked out quite well today.”

The individual top twenty in the 2021 CHIO Aachen CCIO4*-S.

Lest we get so caught up in the excitement of the individual results, the SAP Cup is, at its heart, a team competition — though not part of the official FEI Nations Cup line-up. Since its inaugural running in 2007, it’s been won ten times by the home nation, once by the Australian team, once by the Kiwis, and now twice by the Brits, who led from wire to wire in an apparent bid to terrify every other country in the sport into total submission.

The British team is on such extraordinary form recently, and boasts such strength in depth, that it’s easy enough to take their victory here as guaranteed all along, but their closely-fought win is actually Britain’s first here in a decade. Moreover, British riders have only made appearances on the individual podium on two previous occasions: William Fox-Pitt managed it in 2011, while Laura Collett did it for the first time in 2012. That nine long years have passed since then is a testament to the stratospheric growth of the Brits in recent years.

But let’s talk for a second about just how closely-fought today’s win was. The Brits ended up on a score of 116.2, delivered by Laura and Mr Bass, Emilie and Gortfadda Diamond, and Zara Tindall and Class Affair after discarding the score of Kirsty and Classic. That allowed them to edge a lead of just three-tenths of a penalty over second-place Team USA, who discarded Sydney and Q’s score and kept Will, Tamie, and Ariel’s scores for a final aggregate of 116.5. They were followed by an exultant Irish team of Esib and Azure, Joseph Murphy and Calmaro, and Rioghan Rua, finishing on 127.2 after dropping Sam Watson’s score, the fourth-placed Kiwi team on 129.5, the home side in fifth on 171.3, and France in sixth on 186.8. With the European Championships looming next week — and the Nations Cup finale on the cards next month at Boekelo — this could be a very interesting insight into how the hierarchy is shifting on this side of the pond.

The final team standings in the SAP Cup.

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