Team Great Britain’s mission to take their 24th team and 20th individual title is back on track after a thrilling cross-country day at the FEI Eventing European Championship 2023 at Haras du Pin in France.
They were already on top of the team leaderboard, but it was German star, Michael Jung, who was heading the individual standings at the end of the dressage phase.
On a roller-coaster of an afternoon, Jung was eliminated for an unlucky fall at the drop before the final water complex, and going into the closing jumping phase it is Britain’s Ros Canter and the horse with which she won Badminton 2023, Lordships Graffalo, who head the individual standings.
The pair was in a league of their own when storming around the recalibrated course with nine seconds to spare on a day when not one other combination managed to get home within the optimum time of 8 minutes 18 seconds. Lying second when the actions will resume is Canter’s team-mate Kitty King (Vendredi Biats), while Germany’s Sandra Auffarth (Viamant du Matz) is in third and Frenchman Stephane Landois (Ride for Thais Chaman Dumontceau) is in fourth place.
There were many changes to the individual leaderboard, but none as dramatic as that of Ireland’s Sarah Ennis who, lying 54th of the 56 competitors after dressage, has rocketed up to fifth with Grantstown Jackson going into the final day. Team silver medallist at the FEI World Equestrian Games in 2018, she had the unenviable task of going first on the cross-country track and, coming home in 8 minutes 24 seconds, gave the impression that the challenge was not as difficult as had been anticipated. As it turned out, on a day when three horse-and-rider combinations retired and eight were eliminated, she and her Irish-bred gelding were one of the very best when producing the second-fastest ride in this phase.
After a night of torrential rain, the Ground Jury made an early decision to shorten the track, dress the take-off areas of some fences, and to delay the start, originally scheduled for mid-day, to 14.00 hours. The loop of fences from 12 to 15 was removed, so horses went directly from the log-pile at eleven to the water complex at 17ab and 18, and there was an option at fence five.
It wasn’t just Pierre Le Goupil’s beautifully designed course that asked questions. The going, already challenged by over 250mm of rain in the last few weeks and further softened by the overnight downpour, tested strength and stamina.
British pathfinder King set her team up nicely when collecting just 3.6 time penalties, but there was a nervous moment when reigning world champions Yasmin Ingham and Banzai de Loir had a run-out at the last element of the coffin combination at fence 22. When Laura Collett’s line through the corner at fence 20 with London 52 went under review, there was further cause for concern. But in the end the pair were awarded just 9.2 time penalties and even before Canter set off, Team GB were already assured of the lead going into the closing day.
Canter gave an exhibition of cross-country riding, recovering quickly from a blip at fence two where a number of others also had an uneasy moment, to return with a fresh horse and a big smile.
“He’s very efficient, a very careful horse; he never balloons, he never goes green, so he always lands travelling which is very good. He’s extremely polite which is unusual – to have a horse that travels at his speed that is so responsive. So when he gallops, he gallops low, but when you sit up, he bunches up and his head comes up. It’s the best of both worlds. There aren’t many that gallop low and then don’t want to stay down there. Not many that have their heads up to jump but then want to gallop low. I think that’s where he’s just amazing. I’ve never sat on a horse like him that travels so efficiently and that is so rideable and so brave.
“He measures every jump; he reads every jump and seems to know how much he has to give everything. He makes my job easy because, hand on heart, I’m not normally the fastest rider!” said Canter afterwards.
Michael Jung’s freak fall late on the track dashed German chances of a closer contest going into the final day. His normally sure-footed gelding Fischerchipmunk FRH just didn’t seem to get his landing gear down in time and knuckled over on the slope at fence 24 to leave his rider with no chance of staying in the saddle.
Jung was stoic, however. “It was just unlucky; there was nothing anyone could do about it,” he said afterwards. That’s horse sport, as the double Olympic champion knows only too well.
Auffarth, Christoph Wahler (Carjatan S), and Malin Hansen-Hotopp (Carlitos Quidditch K) are left to fly the German flag, but there is a 27.3 penalty gap between them and the leading British, while the French foursome of Landois, Gaspard Maksud (Zaragoza), Nicolas Touzaint (Absolut Gold HDC), and Karim Florent Laghouag (Triton Fontaine) are only 0.2 penalty points behind in bronze medal position. Team Ireland lies fourth (136.4), the Swiss are in fifth (147.9), Belgium is in sixth place (166.2), Sweden in seventh (194.8), and The Netherlands lies eighth (212.2).
Both Team Italy and Team Austria dropped out of contention, so the battle for the two Olympic qualifying spots is already over and it is the Belgians and Dutch who are on their way to Paris 2024.
by Louise Parkes