Though the sun is shining here at Chatsworth International, tucked away in some of Britain’s most beautiful countryside in the Peak District, it’s an area that has suffered much the same weather as the rest of the country over the last number of weeks: it’s been wet, wet, wet, and although the estate benefits from some serious hills, which should, in theory, help drain the place out a bit, we’ve been met with ground that feels all too familiar after last week’s Badminton. It’s got a deep, holding wetness to it, topped with swiftly drying turf, and the end result is curiously springy feeling when you first put your heel into it – until, of course, you try to follow through on that springiness and find you can’t quite pull yourself back out. It’s a little bit like trying to go for a jog along an endless line of memory foam mattresses: in theory, it all seems quite nice and squidgy, and then you realise it’s very hard work, actually.
But at this point, if we start getting too picky about ground, we’ll have no eventing left at all — and so the intrepid organisers here had to say a sad goodbye to their two-star and Novice (US Prelim) classes, plus a day’s worth of lower-level arena eventing, in favour of the 150 or so CCI4*-S competitors that had come from near and far alike to give this prestigious competition a jolly good go. Bolstering their resolve is the fact that this year is Chatsworth’s first hosting the FEI Eventing Nations Cup, a competition that was previously hosted at Houghton Hall, and which saw a swift fall-off in true international entries post-Brexit. But this venue, with its famous terrain, its much-loved Ian Stark course, and its feeling of prestige and atmosphere, has drawn them all back again, and we saw eight teams and a true international field log some serious miles to get here.
Following 17 withdrawals before the start of the competition, this class (the first of two CCI4*-S sections) saw 82 starters in the first phase – a number that swiftly began to dwindle. Four further pairs withdrew before showjumping, and of those that did opt to tackle this phase, one retired on course and sixteen were eliminated over Chris Barnard’s tough track — mostly for exceeding 20 jumping penalties, which, as of this year, will incur the Big E at FEI events when showjumping comes before cross-country. Now, we were down to 61 — and then fourteen more horses and riders pulled out of the competition, leaving us with a much diminished field of 47 horses and riders who actually left the start box to tackle course designer Ian Stark’s challenge, set in the relentless hills of Chatsworth’s estate. Just 25 would finish: fourteen retired on course, and eight were eliminated, despite the pre-phase removal of an entire complex, the Sunken Hollow at 17AB, and the mid-class removal of 18, the Percuro Perfect Food Table, following a small spate of falls. That, for those of you who are numbers inclined, is a full-competition completion rate of just 30.5% – or a cross-country completion rate of 53% – which, for those of us who aren’t quite so numbers-minded, translates to this: it was reet bloody tough out there today, duck.
Once again, we saw the British team head into the finale of the action as the firm favourites, leading in both the team and individual standings. Ultimately, though, it would be the French team, who had sat in wait in second place throughout the competition, who made the moves they needed to to secure a double victory in a competition that they have long sent riders across the Channel in pursuit of. Not only did all four of their team riders complete — a feat that was unmatched among the eight assembled teams — but all of them finished within the top twelve, delivering swift, accurate, and typically attacking rides across Ian Stark’s tough, hilly course.
Team — and competition — pathfinders Nicolas Touzaint and the very experienced Absolut Gold HDC, with whom the former Badminton champion finished in the top ten at both the Tokyo Olympics and the 2019 European Championships, set the pace for the day to come with a 16.8 time penalty round that ultimately ended up being one of the faster efforts of the day.
“It was as I thought it would be; the ground was really wet, but fortunately it dried a little bit today, so it was runnable. It was good for the horses,” says Nicolas, who took eventual seventh place with the 13-year-old Selle Français, following it up with a decisive second place finish with 15.6 time penalties aboard ten-year-old Diabolo Menthe. “These are my two main horses, and the two I count on to take to the Europeans this summer and going into Paris next year. That’s why I’m very happy with the result, because they both worked really well today — I’m pleased with their quality, and because they did a very good competition, and because Chatsworth, with its tough track and the atmosphere, is a very good preparation for the Europeans.”
That there’s been such a strong French front here is no accident: “Our chef d’equipe [Thierry Touzaint] really likes this course to be able to judge the horses, and to prepare them,” explains Nicolas. “We know this is a difficult cross-country, and it really helps them to develop their physical condition. We can really see which horses gallop well and which ones don’t have the staying power – and the ambience of the place help us to evaluate how they’ll do in bigger atmospheres under pressure.”
But it was to be his teammate who would be the star of the day: 28-year-old Stephane Landois, who had put himself in a very good position indeed when posting a 22.8 with his partner Chaman Dumontceau, climbed to the business end of proceedings when he delivered one of the scant six clears inside the time over Chris Barnard’s hugely influential showjumping track. And when second-placed Mollie Summerland opted not to run Charly van ter Heiden, and overnight leaders Ros Canter and Izilot DHI put 25.6 time penalties on the board, the door was open for him to take the victory with his swift, classy 11.2 time penalty round — the second fastest of the day.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Stephane and his eleven-year-old Selle Français (Top Berlin du Temple x Cocagne des Pins, by Narcos II) secure the bag for the French team: they finished fourteenth, and best of the French, at Aachen last year, helping the team to third place, and they were tenth in the Nations Cup finale at Boekelo in October, too. In their short partnership, they’ve also won a prior CCI4*-S at Lignières and finished second in the CCI4*-L at Saumur last spring. Now, they look an almost sure thing for the European Championships this year – particularly because France, as the host nation, will get extra individual slots to use. But with their stellar form, and the French squad’s current strength in depth where young up-and-coming talent is concerned — and the resources it’s willing to put their way — they should earn their spot on the team.
And if they do so, and continue on current form? Not only will they be a formidable threat to all the rest of us, and not only will Stephane set himself up as a known name globally in the sport, and not only will they put themselves firmly on the pathway to Paris — they’ll also, and perhaps most importantly, honour the memory of the gelding’s former rider. Thaïs Meheust died tragically at the age of 22 while competing Chaman Dumontceau in the French Young Horse championships at Haras du Pin — the site of this summer’s European Championships — at just the second fence on course, and her death prompted new pushes for safety in the sport via the Ride for Thaïs Foundation, which continues to raise vital funds for safety devices in eventing. More than anything, the much-loved young rider, who competed for France in three Young Rider, three Junior, and two Pony European Championships, had her eyes on Paris 2024: and now, thanks to her friend Stephane and the horse she believed in so whole-heartedly, that trip could well happen in her honour.
“We have a special relationship; he really listens to me,” says Stephane of the gelding with whom he’s enjoying such a fruitful partnership. “Today, he ran really well, and I’m so happy with him. The ground was a little bit heavy, but he managed it so well. We still have a national competition in France to plan for, and then after we hopefully have the European Championships – so we’re really thinking of that now.”
Great Britain’s second-placed team is best represented by David Doel, who delivered the fastest round of the day — a swift 10.8 time penalties — to finish third aboard the nippy little Ferro Point. The pair added just those time penalties across the country to their first phase score of 35.1, allowing them to climb and climb in this tough day of sport.
“She’s a little, nimble, lightweight horse, and she’s really blood — so I just had a bit of a plan that I make up most of my time at the start,” says David. “I thought I’d use the sort of downhill bit to try and make up as much time as I could, and then I just picked my way through the last third of the track and just let her trundle her way through — and it seemed to work. She made up the ground actually quite easily, and cantered across it really well — but she does lots of hillwork at home, so she loves the hills, and I love Chatsworth as a track –it quite often suits me.”
Though the tricky UK spring season has left many horses and riders under-run coming into these more difficult events, David is enjoying the knock-on benefit of a trip to Kentucky two weeks ago with Galileo Nieuwmoed, where he finished eighth — his third top-ten five-star finish with the gelding — and also, crucially, got his eye in over a big course after a long off-season.
“I feel my preparation has been good all the way through this year,” he says. “I went over to [Dutch international] Kronenberg at the start of the season, and it just got us going, so when everyone else was sort of struggling and trying to get the runs, the decision really paid off.”
David, who has long worked away behind the scenes with his family, balancing a burgeoning eventing career with a bustling ice cream business, is now reaping the rewards of a job well done — though, as he knows well, that usually means the work is just getting started.
“It’s been a long term progression and goals with this crop of horses, and I’m so lucky to have such wonderful owners who let us go abroad to make results like these happen,” he says. “It’s nice that we’ve had a few good results — and now we’re just going make sure I can back it up with the next group of horses!”
While Ros Canter‘s impressive dressage score of 18 gave her a decisive first-phase lead with the ten-year-old Izilot DHI — a lead that she narrowly lost out on when adding 2.4 time penalties in the showjumping — it wasn’t to be her win, as she opted to feel out the talented youngster beneath her and let him learn on his way around Ian Stark’s track, picking up 25.6 time penalties along the way. Those penalties wouldn’t cost them much, though: they slipped just a few spots down the order to a final fourth place, giving the exciting young gelding a great experience en route to Bramham, where he’ll contest his second CCI4*-L, having made his debut at Boekelo in October.
“He did come out quite spooky at the start of the year, as he tends to — and he had a bit of an issue with the pink haylage bales at Thoresby as a result,” she says, referring to his uncharacteristic 20 penalties in the Open Intermediate there with a grin. “But that early spookiness isn’t unusual for him, and this time last year, he’d have already had six or seven runs and wouldn’t be feeling quite so cheeky, whereas this time, he hasn’t done so many.”
But, she explains, we’re suddenly entering into the time of year when — rain notwithstanding — young ‘Isaac’ will feel at his best: “He likes it when the sun starts to shine and it gets a little bit warmer and he gets to live outside, and he’s now doing that, so he’s starting to behave,” laughs Ros.
Ros, whose Badminton-winning run last week with Lordships Graffalo was a masterclass in coping with tough ground, found the conditions not dissimilar today: “It’s definitely hard work for the horses — the ground is less than ideal, but Izilot has the benefit of being extremely scopey, so the jumps are well within his capability,” she says. “And I think that’s probably the important thing on ground like this, that you run a horse that you know is experienced and very capable of probably jumping bigger than what they’re jumping today.He’s all of those things, so he actually had a lovely spin, and I think it really benefited him. It’s great for him to see crowds, because that’s what he would find a bit spooky. So yeah, we took it very steady, and we picked around, but I think he had a nice experience today.”
The French coup continues with another duo of young talents rounding out the top five: Gaspard Maksud piloted Zaragoza II, with whom he finished sixth in last year’s World Championships in the mare’s nine-year-old year. Today, she looked every inch as classy as she did last season, and though she tipped two rails in the tough second phase, she shone across the country to add a relatively scant 14.4 time penalties and take fifth place on a final score of 51.8.
“Personally, I went cross country without a watch – I thought, ‘there’s no point; just let the horse gallop at her own speed’,” says Gaspard, who is the sole UK-based member of the French squad here. “If I wanted to be 20 seconds faster I could have been, no problem, but there was no point — this is a way to prepare for bigger events.”
Even athletic, light Zaragoza found the holding ground quite hard work: “She struggled a bit in the ground, but as we saw at Badminton last week, you’ve got to ride the horse, not the watch. You have to listen to the horse and ride what you’ve got, and mine really felt full of running at the end, like she could have done another four minutes and been fine.”
Now, with this experience in the bag, she’ll head on to tackle the CCI4*-L at Bramham — and then, Gaspard hopes, on to the European Championships to try to follow up last year’s excellent result with another placing.
Ireland’s Sarah Ennis, who executed one of the fastest rounds of the day here at the ERM back in 2018 with Horseware Stellor Rebound, finished sixth today aboard Grantstown Jackson, adding 1.6 time in showjumping and 14.8 across the country to their first-phase score of 36.5, while Japan’s Ryuzo Kitajima and Feroza Nieuwmoed slot into eighth behind Nicolas Touzaint and his pathfinder, having added 20 time penalties across the country. British team pathfinder and reigning World Champion Yasmin Ingham takes ninth place with stalwart Rehy DJ, who added 26.8 time penalties to his first-phase score of 30.2 and will now head to Luhmühlen for the CCI5*, and tenth place went the way of Belgium’s 22-year-old Jarno Verwimp and his World Championships ride, the eleven-year-old Mahalia, who also secured third place for their country in the Nations Cup competition.
This is the second event of the 2023 FEI Eventing Nations Cup series, which will be a crucially important one this year to those nations that haven’t yet secured their qualification for the Paris Olympics next year, as the highest-ranked as-yet-unqualified nation at the culmination of the series, which finishes at Boekelo CCI4*-L in November, will earn a team spot on the roster. At the moment, things are looking very good for Belgium: they took the win in the first leg, at Italy’s Montelibretti in March, earning themselves a cool 100 points, and their third place today earns them another 80, giving them a 35 point lead over Italy, who now sit on 145 after taking second at Montelibretti and sixth today. Spain sits on 110, while the Dutch are on 115 — so there’s plenty of ground to try to make up at the next leg of the series, which will take place at Ireland’s Millstreet Horse Trials, held June 1–6.
Tomorrow we’ll head back to Chatsworth for the second of the CCI4*-S classes, which will showjump in the morning and then head onto cross-country from 11.00 a.m. This secondary CCI4*-S is a great showcase of new faces and great stories, and is currently lead by Caroline Harris and D.Day on a score of 26, closely followed by Lizzy Baugh and B Exclusive on 27.1. Kate Rocher-Smith sits third on 28.2 with HHS Dassett Class. Keep it locked on EN for coverage of all of tomorrow’s action, plus catch-ups with the leading riders at the end of the day — and until then, Go Eventing!