Jonathan Paget rode across country with typical New Zealand verve to take a slender lead at the end of a thrilling cross-country day at Les Etoiles de Pau, the first leg of the HSBC FEI Classics 2012/2013.
Olympic champion Michael Jung (GER) is breathing down Paget’s neck after an equally classy display on Leopin FST, while Paget’s compatriot Andrew Nicholson, who steered two horses round clear and inside the optimum time, is third on Nereo, and young Astier Nicolas (FRA) thrilled the large home crowd with a flamboyant clear on Jhakti du Janlie to claim overnight fourth.
Just one jumping rail covers the top four riders after a day of unexpected drama over a cross-country course which rewarded bold, committed riding.
As predicted, the early fences proved influential. Dressage leaders Christopher Burton (AUS) and Underdiscussion had a runout at the narrow fence at four and later retired after a further stop at the third water complex (fence 23).
Bill Levett (AUS), seventh after dressage on Hippolyte, and Karin Donckers (BEL), eighth on Lamicell Charizard, refused at the imposing water complex at fence six and both rider subsequently decided to call it a day.
Regular Pau visitor Oliver Townend (GBR) was eliminated when Sonas Rovatio missed the bank out of the water and fell at 6d, and 2010 winner Andreas Dibowski (GER) retired when FRH Butts Avedon stopped halfway over the log into the water at 6c. Buck Davidson (USA), riding Ballynoe Castle RM, and Laura Collett (GBR) on the former show hunter Noble Bestman also gave up after stops here.
The two most experienced competitors in the field, Mary King (GBR) and Mark Todd (NZL), both landed on the floor in surprise incidents.
King’s Imperial Cavalier, sixth after dressage, slipped on landing after fence nine, a hay wagon, while Todd’s Major Milestone hit the spread at fence 19. Neither horse was hurt, and the riders were on their feet immediately, more frustrated than anything else. In an unfortunate day for the British rider, she also retired her first ride Kings Temptress after a runout at four.
Paget’s performance was all the more creditable as he only started riding 10 years ago, his first introduction being a bronco-riding competition in Australia. His progress has been meteoric, with individual seventh place at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, fifth at Burghley in 2011 and 2012, and a team bronze medal and 10th place at the London Olympic Games on Clifton Promise.
“This was a different sort of course for me but it rode better than I expected,” said Paget, who is known on the circuit as Jock. “I found it quite mentally challenging, but the ground held up well and was not too slippery.”
Michael Jung was also pleased with his day’s work. “Leopin really proved himself today,” he said. Jung still achieved the optimum time of 10 minutes 54 seconds despite taking a long route at the second water complex (fence 12) where the quick option comprised two sharply angled brushes. “He has a long galloping stride and I knew I could do a long route and still get the time.”
Andrew Nicholson’s two rides were typically smooth – he is also in seventh place on Mr Cruise Control. “Both horses felt lovely and it’s been an enjoyable day,” said the HSBC Rankings leader. “I’m lucky to have them to ride. I always like this course because you’ve got to be switched on.”
Astier Nicolas, who has been based in Britain training with Olympic Ground Jury member Nick Burton at Hartpury, was visibly thrilled to find himself in such elevated company, especially as Pau is his local event – he lives near Toulouse. “I had a runout on both my other CCI4* rides so I’m very pleased to have this under my belt. Perhaps I am more mature now,” he said.
“I always thought I could go clear at a CCI4*, but now I know I can. It took me a little while to get into the course and my horse was a bit hesitant at the first water, but he was great after that. He’s an honest horse that goes for the flags and having everyone cheering really helped me.”
Last year’s winner William Fox-Pitt (GBR) proved an assured pathfinder on the stallion Chilli Morning, on whom he has risen seven places to sixth. He also had a great round on the nine-year-old Bay My Hero, now in fifth.
Fox-Pitt admitted to feeling apprehensive before cross-country, partly due to the overnight torrential rain and black clouds which only lifted just as the CCI4* began, and partly because he was concerned the stallion, a new ride this season, might come unstuck at fence six. He is also nervously awaiting the arrival of his third child, as his wife Alice is due to give birth at any minute.
“I’ve had a few things playing on my mind this week and it was in the back of my head that if the horses didn’t go well I could just go home early, but it’s all turned out a lot better than expected!” he said.
“I’ve had quite an interrupted season with Chilli but he is accepting me more. He gave me a lovely ride. And with Bay My Hero it’s a bit like riding my old 14.2hh pony. He knows where to go and is clever and cat-like, despite the fact that the ground was more slippery by the time I went on him.”
At the end of the day, there were 33 completions from 62 starters with 22 clear rounds, 11 of which were inside the optimum time. The scores are agonizingly close at the top, so a thrilling jumping finale is assured.
Results after Cross Country
1 Jonathan Paget/Clifton Promise (NZL) 36.7 + 0 = 36.7
2 Michael Jung/Leopin FST (GER) 38.3 + 0 = 38.3
3 Andrew Nicholson/Nereo (NZL) 39.0 + 0 = 39.0
4 Astier Nicolas/Jhakti du Janlie (FRA) 39.5 + 0 = 39.5
5 William Fox-Pitt/Bay My Hero (GBR) 41.7 + 0 = 41.7
6 William Fox-Pitt/Chilli Morning (GBR) 44.7 + 0 = 44.7
7 Andrew Nicholson/Mr Cruise Control (NZL) 45.7 + 0 = 45.7
8 Kevin McNab/Clifton Pinot (AUS) 50.2 + 0 = 50.2
9 Gemma Tattersall/Stormhill Kossack (GBR) 42.6 + 8.0 = 60.6
10 Caroline Powell/Onwards And Upwards (NZL) 53.2 + 0 = 53.2