Sarah Wells-Gaston reports …

It was a pillar to post victory at Les 5 Etoiles de Pau – the only CCI5*-L competition to be held this year – for Great Britain’s Laura Collett.

Riding the 11-year-old gelding London 52, who she co-owns with Karen Bartlett and Keith Scott, the pair have impressive form, winning at Boekelo CCI4*-L 2019 and Little Downham International CCI4*-S 2020.

Australian rider Chris Burton had led the competition after the first day of dressage with Graf Liberty on a score of 22.0. But with her second ride, Collett slipped into the lead with a stunning score of 21.3 penalties with Piggy March holding third with Brookfield Inocent on 22.2 – the horses’ debut at this level.

Of her dressage Collett enthused: “I am very happy with both my horses. This is the first CCI5* eventing competition for London 52. He was a bit nervous when he entered the track but then he was well focused throughout the test. Of course, the event is not over yet and the cross-country tomorrow will undoubtedly shake up the ranking, but I have confidence in my horses. Mr Bass is experienced at this level of competition and is a very good cross-country horse. London is less experienced but he is in great shape this weekend and I can’t wait to see how he will perform tomorrow! We are very lucky to be here this weekend and I am very happy to be able to compete with these two outstanding horses.”

Following an exciting day of cross country Collett retained her lead with perfectly judged round. The pair jumped clear around course designer Pierre Michelet’s 31 fence course, and completed one second inside the influential optimum time.

Collett said afterwards: “After my first round with Mr Bass, I knew I had to be very careful with London 52 on the combinations. He’s a very careful horse and always jumps a bit bigger too. So, I stayed very concentrated and he was just perfect. It’s the first time he’s ridden an 11-minute cross-country course, so I’ll see how things go tomorrow in the show-jumping event, but whatever happens, I’m just really proud of him this evening.”

March climbed one place up the leader board to second with Brookfield Inocent who also came home clear inside the time whilst New Zealand’s Tim Price and Wesko completed the top three on 23.4 penalties.

March said; “For me it was a golden opportunity to prepare Brookfield Inocent for the Olympic Games in Tokyo next year. I’ve never been to Pau before, but I more or less expected the kind of course that we rode today: a course that encouraged forward, brave, attacking riding but with the odd sneaky thing put in. I’m really proud of my horse who was competing in his first five-star cross-country event today. I think he’s one of the best horses I’ve ever had.”

“2020 has been a strange year for everyone,” Price observed. “If there was only to be one five-star competition this year, the Pau five-star is a pretty good representation. So, a big thank you to the organization team and course designer Pierre Michelet for the quality of the course today. It was a course that encouraged bravery but also demanded us as riders to be on our toes, take the brilliance of some of the big jumps and do something with it. For me, that’s exactly how a cross-country course should be at this level.”

But there was disappointment for one top contender as Burton slipped down the leader board with a refusal at Fence 14 B – an open corner. Out of the 41 finishers 32 jumped clear but of those 22 collected time penalties – only 10 came home under the optimum time.

Six horses were withdrawn before the final horse inspection whilst Ireland’s Austin O Conner and Colorado Blue were not deemed fit to continue by the ground jury and eliminated from the competition. That left 34 combinations to go forward to the show jumping.

With just 2.3 penalties separating the top three, everything was to play for the final phase. The three riders before Collett kept the pressure on with clear rounds and only a clear would do to take victory. But a beautifully judged round saw the pair complete on their record-breaking score – the lowest recorded at 5* level. The previous top eventing score was held by Lucinda Fredericks and Headley Britannia, who won at Kentucky with a score of 21.5.

Of her win Collett commented: I’ve dreamed of this day ever since I first watched eventing on TV as a kid and decided it was what I wanted to do. But as much as I dreamed it, I never believed it would actually happen. Today is proof that dreams really can come true. I was saying to myself that if I had had the choice, I wouldn’t have wanted to ride any other horse than London 52 in this kind of competition. He’s a fantastic jumper. It was his first time competing at this level and I really wasn’t expecting this kind of result at the end of the competition. Thank you to everyone who has picked me up when I’ve been down, made me believe in myself and helped me achieve my dream. Most of all I need to say thank you to Keith Scott and Karen Bartlett who trusted me when I said I thought I’d found a superstar but needed their help to buy him.”

Collett also finished in 16th with Mr Bass.

Piggy March and Brookfield Inocent They secured the runner up spot on a final score of 22.2, the second lowest score ever recorded at Pau. March said: “Brookfield Inocent was fantastic in all three phases. I couldn’t be more proud of his performance in his first 5*. He’s such a beautiful horse with a great future ahead of him so fingers crossed we have many more great days to look forward to. I’d also like to thank the organization team for the exceptional work they did to make this happen. I’m really grateful for the incredible opportunity we’ve had to be able to come and compete here this week, in such exceptional conditions. So, a really big thank you to everyone.”

New Zealand’s Tim Price on his own and The Windrush Equestrian Foundation’s experienced campaigner Wesko completed the top three. They maintained their overnight spot picking up just 0.8-time penalties in the show jumping to finish on a score of 24.2 for third place. Price commented: “Wesko is old, but he’s a great horse and I’m enjoying riding him for as long as I can at this level. I’ve also made amazing progress since I first competed in this event in Pau.”

British riders dominated the top ten with seven riders taking top finishing positions. Alexander Bragg and Zagreb finished in fourth with Tom McEwen and Toledo De Kerser showing their consistency to take fifth place. Oliver Townend and MHS King Joules climbed the leader board from 17th after dressage to finish in place. Richard Coney, a debutant at 5* level put in an incredible performance on his own and Wendy Coney’s ten-year-old mare Mermus R Diamonds to finish on a score of 34.6. The combination rose from 34th place after dressage, to 16th place following the cross country to complete in 9th place. Mollie Summerland, another British 5* debutant, rounded off the top ten with Charly Van Ter Heiden.

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