Friday, 24 September 2021
With a true championship cross-country test set by designer Mike Etherington-Smith, today’s action was always going to be compelling viewing – and it didn’t disappoint – at the FEI Eventing European Championships in Avenches, Switzerland. By the end of 67 riders, the leaderboard had a true shake-up in both the team and individual competitions, but skillful riding from the British mean they hold the ascendency in both.
The pathfinder position has been given to Piggy March for the first time and today she fulfilled the duty perfectly with an exemplary cross-country round aboard Alison Swinburn and John and Chloe Perry’s Brookfield Inocent. As is Piggy’s style, she rode in great balance with ultra-economy and ‘Arthur’ answered every question. At most minute markers, the current Badminton champion was in perfect time and, despite taking two long routes for safety, they finished ten seconds up on the clock to add nothing to their dressage score of 23.3.
“He’s a fabulous horse – it’s easy when you have a horse like him!” enthused Piggy. “He’s made for tracks like this, he’s just a very good cross-country horse. My only worry was fence six and having heard that someone made the time taking the long route, I knew that there wouldn’t be many sat on faster horses than me so there wasn’t any reason I couldn’t do the long route. If that fence had been at 20, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. He can be spooky at the beginning of courses and I was just very worried about him jumping very free, then angling the hedge and the trees taking him off his line. As brilliant as he is, he’s still a character and so the more I walked it, the more it became my plan to go long there.
“The rest of it, he felt so on it, he’s a beautiful horse – we just have a lovely time and it’s easy when you’re sat on a horse as wonderful as he is. He got tired enough for a horse who’s as much of a cruiser as he is. It’s tiring riding twists and turns – you touch them and pull more than normal. It’s like a one-day course in a three-day format. How lucky am I, he’s a class horse,” she finished.
The first individual combination in action for Britain was Izzy Taylor riding Mark Sartori and her own Monkeying Around. At ten, ‘Monkey’ is still low on mileage at this level, but Izzy gave him a dream ride, despite him living up to his name by thinking he could take charge in places. He was a bit green to the double of corners, but Izzy was quick to keep his focus and regroup for the skinny that followed. She encouraged him around every inch of the course without ever pushing him out of his comfort zone, and they crossed the finish line with two seconds to spare.
I’m delighted with him, and relieved!” said Izzy. “He’s still green at ten and, like all young horses the last 18 months, the last two years have been a bit non-existent. He’s not seen people really and to start he was having a real look about. He was fantastic, very genuine and tried his little heart out the whole way round. Yes, he was green but he was a good boy.
She continued, “I set out to go clear inside the time – I knew I was going to go round [the hedges] at fences six and seven because he’s a careful jumper and I didn’t want to give him a fright early on. He can gallop, so I thought I’d test that and he proved he is a good galloper, I was pleased with that. We knew it was going to be twisty, so you never really have a moment to properly gallop, so you don’t just land and kick because you often have to turn to another fence.”
The focus then turned to the second round of team riders, and it was Nicola Wilson up next with Deirdre Johnston and James and Jo Lambert’s JL Dublin, who lay third individually after dressage. The duo are in a purple patch of form with wins at CCI4* level at Bicton and Hartpury, but today was their biggest test together – with the added pressure of riding for the team and medals at stake.
From the get-go, the 10-year-old ‘Dubs’ and Nicola set about their business and purred around the course, with the gelding showing power and scope. His ears were pricked for every stride and listened to his rider’s every request. They also opted for the longer route at fences six and seven, having seen that the time was possible to get. Dubs was bold, even taking a stride out to a large corner on a bending line and took charge at a double of corners, but Nicola used all her skill to make sure there was no danger of a run-out. They cross the finish line ten seconds inside the time for a faultless performance to stay on 20.9, with faithful groom Ruth Asquith waiting to tend to Dubs.
“The course walked very difficult and intense all the way to the end,” Nicola said. “It’s his first championship, and we’ve had him since he was four and always thought a lot of him, but until you ask the question and put that little bit more pressure on him riding for a team, you never know how they’re going to cope – but he was magical. Yesterday, I gave him a little jump and he was very calm and cool, this morning when I got him out to prepare for cross-country, the squeals were back. He knew it was his day and I thought, ‘good boy Dublin’.
“I walked the course five or six times just so I knew where every turn was – and every fence – so I knew where to do all my preparation points and balance him, and where I could just keep motoring. I couldn’t be prouder of him – he was super from start to finish and gave me a fantastic ride. It was such a buzz, but I’m relieved it’s behind us now and gone so well. It’s great to have his owners out here supporting use and we look forward to tomorrow and doing the best job possible,” she ended.
Kitty King was up next with Diana Bown, Sally Eyre, Samantha Wilson and Sally Lloyd-Baker’s French-bred Vendredi Biats. A 24.1 dressage left them in eighth and – such is the standard on the squad – the drop score for the team. The duo set off in determined style and ‘Froggy’ was listening to his rider’s instructions, taking the first touch test – a rail, followed by a ditch to angled hedge – in perfect harmony. They took the long route at the six and seven line as per their teammates for safety, and had a flyer through the downhill log to wide corner combination. They didn’t have the smoothest passage through the double of the arrowheads, when Froggy got deep the first and added a stride to the second, but they were spot-on for the remainder. They clicked the time two seconds over the time to add 0.8 to their dressage score to end the day on 24.9.
The round had clearly touched Kitty. She explained: “It’s been quite emotional in the build-up as reserves for Tokyo and not knowing you’re going to make it here – we eventually did, but then you get in a panic that you’re going to mess up for the team. I’m just delighted, he really pulled it out of the bag. He was brilliant, absolutely fantastic and got me out of trouble when I made a mistake at the double of arrow heads. It’s just a huge relief to get to the championship after building up for so long now. Last time I did a three-day with him was the Europeans in Luhmühlen in 2019, so it’s been a long time coming. I’m really chuffed with how he went.
“He was brilliant and felt fantastic – pretty much foot-perfect everywhere. I was desperate to deliver and show we are good enough. Everything but the arrowheads jumped as I’d walked, but after a long gallop, I just left my set-up a bit late. He’d been listening so well but he just got a bit strung out – but that’s cross country and it’s never perfect the whole way round – we have to help each other out and he did there, hopefully I did in other places.”
Our second individual combination was next up – Sarah Bullimore and her pint-sized 15.2hh homebred firecracker, Corouet. A fantastic display in between the white boards yesterday gave them a starting point of 22.8 penalties, and they set off around Mike Etherington-Smith’s course with great enthusiasm – almost a bit too keen, such is the 10-year-old’s way – and just met every fence in style. Jumping like he had springs in his heels, ‘Elfie’ made it look so easy and showed that he has a huge future ahead. They finished just two seconds over the time, which gives them a two-day total of 23.6.
“He was awesome, just amazing – made it feel like a Pony Club track!” beamed Sarah after her round. “All those huge wide fences – they’re actually wider than the length of my horse – but he flew over them all. He didn’t touch anything. He was a bit fresh to set off and just fought a little, so I think that’s where I lost a those few seconds. I was in two minds at six and seven – I didn’t like it so early on and didn’t think it was clear. He probably would have been absolutely fine the straight way, but it had a big drop for a little horse so required more effort. I came inside at fence 24 so saved a few seconds – he was really quick around there. It’s frustrating to have the time, but I think I can cope – I was fairly terrified this morning about having a mistake somewhere because it’s taken me 10 years to get here and I didn’t want to have to wait another 10.”
Our anchor combination for the team was the third last pairing to go round as the sun began to set. Reigning World Champions Ros Canter and Allstar B, owned by Ros and Caroline Moore, were a picture of harmony in the dressage yesterday to steal a podium place late on with a fantastic score of 20.6. It feels a long time since we’ve seen the duo go across country on the big stage, but they set off as though they’d never been away – tearing up the ground with every stride from the 17hh gelding, expertly piloted by his 5’2” rider.
They were well up on time by the half way point without looking as though they were pushing hard, but the constant twist and turns were proving a real test and, at the penultimate water, Alby just ran past the arrowhead going in – as though he’d not even clocked it. Ros was quick to get him round to the alternative, but hopes of an individual medal were dashed in that split second. He then did a repeat at a double of arrowheads. Ros again navigated the long route and jumped the last few to finish, some 41 seconds over the time and with 40 jumping penalties to add.
“I think he just got weary, not tired weary, but just a bit demoralized by all the twists and turns given the size of horse he is,” explained Ros. “This was a more twisty track than Strzegom and places like that, and he’s more a Badminton or Burghley horse, so I think the knock-on effect was his eyes were running on the floor and not up. He was amazing until then, but he did start to feel weary after that second water – he was still galloping well, but galloping is what he finds easy. I think the knock-on effect of quarantine, Tokyo, down-time after Tokyo – all that controlled exercise has probably eaten away in his fitness. He’s not run a big three-day since the World Equestrian Games three years ago, so probably all those things put together mean he switched off a bit. I can’t blame him for that.
“I don’t think I prepared him differently [for the fence] to how I normally would. Some have said he looked a bit ‘numb’ in the bridle, but that’s normal for him – it’s not uncommon for to have that feeling. He can be the type of horse who feels he hasn’t clocked a fence, but generally jumps it – it’s not really like him. I’m realistic, I’ve had a fantastic run with Alby, I still think he’s got some big runs left in him and this would have done him good, ready for next year. And thank goodness for my other team mates!” she added with a smile.
Dressage leaders and defending European Champions Ingrid Klimke and SAP Hale Bob OLD had a few sticky moments out on course – their experience as a partnership saw them through, but the price was 1.2 time penalties, which was enough to give Britain’s Nicola Wilson and JL Dublin pole position. Young French rider Maxime Livio climbed one place up the leaderboard following Ros and Alby’s faults to complete the podium. Piggy March is fourth, Sarah Bullimore just behind in fifth and Kitty King seventh – just a single fence separates the top seven. Individual rider Izzy Taylor is tenth, which gives Britain five in the top ten. Ros Canter lies in 55th place.
In the team ranks, Britain still holds the lead, finishing the day on 69.1, Germany remains in second but there’s a bit more breathing space because they are 9.3 penalties adrift on 78.4. France hold their grip on a podium place but, after having a rider eliminated, they sit on 96.8 penalties. The home team for Switzerland have climbed to fourth from ninth, while a good day for Ireland promoted them to fifth from 11th.
Full results are available here.
Jumping for medals
The final horse inspection is at 08.00 BST tomorrow (Sunday) and the first jumping session for the lower placed riders from 10.00 BST.
The crucial final jumping for the medals gets underway at 13.00 BST and you can catch the action via BBC Sport:
You can also watch the live action by subscription on FEI.TV via ClipMyHorse.TV.