Jean-Philippe Francis and the grey mare Hanaba du Bois, the 2007 European Champions, raced up from 6th to claim top podium position at the CEIO3* in Compiègne.
Combinations representing eight nations, many of whom were aiming to qualify for the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky this coming autumn, set off to complete the 160km. The traditional European nations fielded the highest number of competitors, with 43 riders from France, alongside combinations from Spain, Italy, Belgium and Switzerland. Taking on the Europeans were some riders from a little further afield, namely Abdullah Halim Alihan (MAS), Rafael Salvador (BRA) ad Jennifer Poling (USA).
There was a calm controlled start at 6am in the cool forest just outside the venue, but the pace soon picked up and the leading riders were back off the first loop of 31.8km just after 7.30 led by Guy Dumas (FRA) with his experienced horse Mohac. Compiègne has been a lucky venue for Dumas in the past, with a second place finish in last year's 160km and another second in the 2008 World Endurance Young Horse Championships, but luck was not with Dumas this time when his talented 10-year-old chestnut went out at the third Vet Gate due to lameness.
Thirty-three horses had vetted less than five minutes behind Dumas and the last horse was only just half an hour off the pace. Only one horse failed to qualify at the first Vet Gate and 61 horses set out to tackle the second loop of 33.2km, the longest loop of the day. Modifications to last year's route had added significantly to the challenge, with more undulations and climbs, but the tougher course didn't seem to affect the horses, with the first combinations averaging 19.39kph at the second Vet Gate. A speedy presentation by Celine Schwartz (FRA) enabled her to take the lead by just four seconds, but her challenge ended at the fourth Vet Gate.
Speeds remained pretty constant during the day, with 43 combinations remaining above 17kph at Vet Gate 3 with over half of the course completed. At this stage the field was still going strong, despite 11 combinations failing to qualify and one retirement from French team member Nicolas Blot with Kalima Marine. By now there was a considerable gap of 1hr 15mins between the front runners (averaging over 19kph) and those bringing up the rear.
Impressively quick presentation times allowed Caroline Denayer Gad (FRA) and Gwellik du Parc to hold on to their lead until the final vet gate with a consistent speed of 19.4kph. This experienced pair has a great track record, finishing fifth in last year's Open European Championships in Assisi, Italy. A total of 21 combinations had failed to qualify by the last Vet Gate. Some surprise exits were endurance greats such as Fausto Fioricci (ITA), ending Italy's hope of a team placing, and Jack Beguad (FRA). France's hope of a team finish also ended at the final Vet Gate when Shali Khan (Christophe Dupau) was judged to be lame. With the French and Italian teams out of the picture, Germany and Belgium were battling it out for top honours. Both nations still had their full complement of riders in contention, but the Belgians had a 01:15:55 advantage at this point.
The last loop of the day was the shortest (20.1km). Marc Couffin and his nine-year-old chestnut mare Nadirah du Breuil put in the fastest loop of the day at 27.97kph to move up from 12th to 4th, one slot above their 5th place in last year's World Endurance Young Horse Championships. A slower speed of 21.2kph dropped leader Caroline Denayer Gad to 8th, but compatriot Jean-Philippe Francis (FRA) and his wonderful 15-year-old grey mare Hanaba du Bois raced up from 6th to claim the top podium position. This great pairing has some impressive results under their girth, including victory in the 2007 European Championships in Portugal.
Just 21 seconds later, a racing finish for 2nd place saw Laurent Mosti (FRA) and the 10-year-old Djayad du Ginioux pip fellow Frenchman Philippe Tomas and Bamboulla to the post. Tomas' mare was judged lame at the finish, however, meaning that the talented couple of Laurent Mosti and Cecile Miletto Mosti once again shared the podium following their one-two in Montcuq (FRA) last year. Cecile came across the line less than a minute behind Laurent to claim 3rd with the talented Easy Fontnoire on the mare's first attempt at a 160km.
French riders took the top nine placings, but the Belgium team members continued strongly to claim the honours from Germany, both the top teams completing with all four riders. Belgian Chef d'Equipe Pierre Arnold was thrilled with his team's performance, commenting that they now have more riders than needed qualified for WEG allowing them to pick the cream of the bunch.
A total of 39 horses finished, with American rider Jennifer Poling completing her first European event in 39th position with an overall speed of 14.63kph. Unfortunately the Malaysian and Brazilian riders were not as successful, with Raphael Salvador (BRA) suffering the disappointment of having his horse judged lame at the finish.
Perfect conditions and professional riding boosted a great completion rate. Also worthy of note was the fact that not one horse had to be stopped for metabolic reasons. Despite France missing out on a team place, Chef d'Equipe Jean-Louis Leclerc commented on the success of the event and the high standard of competition. The baton has now been passed to the Junior and Young riders who have their event on Sunday. Ian Williams, FEI Director of Non Olympic Sports, expressed his confidence that the young riders would continue the great sportsmanship and riding management shown by the senior contingent.
Individual - 1,Jean Philippe Francis (FRA), Hanaba du Bois, 20.49kph, 11:28:49; 2, Laurent Mosti (FRA), Djayad du Ginioux, 20.04kph, 11:29:10; 3, Cecile Miletto Mosti (FRA), Easy Fontnoire, 19.99kph, 11:30:01.
Teams - 1, Belgium (17, Kristel van den Abeele/Yasmina Du; 21, Dominique Evrard/Alicia D'Havenne; 24, Maritza Pereira/Lima du Barthas; 29, Celine Just*/Onyx de L'Aigoual), 18.02kph, 26:38:53; 2, Germany (22, Melanie Arnold/Shaika Bint; 25, Petra Hattab/Prince Sharif Ox; 31, Gabriela Forster/Priceless Gold; 38, Bernhard Theine*/Apterno Nike), 17.10kph, 28:07:04; 3, No classification * Drop score