The Event Rider Masters series will kick-off at one of the most challenging short-format venues that the sport has to offer. Chatsworth House, like so many British events, is set on an idyllic estate and this year, forty of the highest ranked riders in the world will make their way to the heart of Derbyshire.
Despite the beautiful setting, the venue poses a chilling challenge to competitors. Of the 13 CIC3* venues in the UK, Chatsworth produces the highest averaging finishing score of 86.6 penalties. On any normal day, the quality of competitor lining up for the first leg of the ERM series would be setting their sights no higher than a finishing score of 45 — but only one person has ever managed to produce that level of performance at Chatsworth. That was no ordinary person either; it was Andrew Nicholson (NZL) on Viscount George, and he posted that score during his most successful season ever — 2013. Andrew lines up this year with Perfect Stranger, a horse yet to secure a top five finish at international level, but write this man off at your peril.
It will take something very special to become the first ERM winner. Throughout the series, every aspect of the talented and versatile event horse will be challenged to various extremes, and the first leg is focused very much on the speed and stamina of the cross country phase. ERM runs in the exciting format of dressage, then show jumping, and finally cross country in reverse order of merit. The signature phase at Chatsworth will be the decider, and with the most valuable three-star prize on British soil up for grabs it will certainly produce sporting drama. In fact, if one of these elite riders can complete the cross country course without time penalties, they will become only the 2nd person to do so in over 1000 attempts.
Frenchman Astier Nicholas (Quickly Du Buguet – 2013) is the record holder on this occasion and he comes here with Piaf De B’Neville who had a phenomenal 2015 season which culminated in him winning the CCI4 star on home soil at Pau with a score of 38.5. The horse’s last four internationals have produced an average finishing score of 44.7 and, with Astier’s course form, this combination are among the leading contenders for leg one of the ERM series.
FIRST PHASE TRENDS
Just 2% of competitors perform sub 40 dressage tests based on normal Chatsworth trends. However, there is nothing normal about this year’s ERM field and we could potentially see that figure jump to as high as 20%. The best dressage score at this venue in the ER database (since 2010) was recorded by William Fox-Pitt on Chilli Morning in 2014. The 2015 Badminton winner led the CIC3* on an impressive 31.7. William will be contesting the ERM class with his old faithful, Cool Mountain, a horse who has finished 1st, 2nd & 3rd at various four-stars (including WEG 2010). The pair also have Chatsworth form with two appearances (2013 & 2014), averaging 41.8 in the dressage and jumping clear in both the show jumping and cross country on both occasions, so we expect this combination to feature high up the final leaderboard.
All eyes are likely to be on Bettina Hoy (GER) and Seigneur Medicott on the opening day. From two starts at CIC3* level they have an astonishing dressage average of 32.6. Horse inexperience may hold this combination back in the jumping phases but they are on a definite upward curve and will feature at the business end from the off. Others likely to start strongly are Clark Montgomery (USA) and Loughan Glen who recorded a season average finishing score of 37.2 in 2015 which included three international wins from four appearances. Their past contains chinks of inconsistency but if they bring their A-game then they have the ingredients to take the title.
Fernhill Adventure and Aoife Clark (IRL) are another pair on a steep upward curve that is governed largely by a very strong first phase. They come here off the back of a career best dressage score of 36.2 at Belton earlier this season. This combination posted a finishing score of 44.1 in the CIC* at Chatsworth in 2013 which shows a liking for the venue, and Aoife’s 100% clear cross country record over the past 12 months will stand them in good stead to remain at the top end of affairs.
SHOW JUMPING SPECIALISTS
Tom McEwen (GBR) and Toledo De Kerser have never incurred a show jumping fault in 9 international appearances, making them the only combination to line up with a 100% career show jumping clear round percentage.
Key combinations hot on their heels in terms of proficiency are Crocket 30 and Nicholas Touzaint (FRA) who are 11 from 14 (78.6%), and Kitty King’s (GBR) Ceylor LAN who averages a career strike rate 77.8% of clear rounds in the second phase, but is the only horse in the field to string five consecutive clear rounds together in the last 12 months. Kitty has the most impressive show jumping figures at this level, producing 22 clears from 25 attempts (88%) over the past six years.
All three of the above combinations, whilst being strong in phase two, have been trending in the mid 40s in the dressage, and haven’t yet produced evidence that a difficult optimum time will help their case. One combination who do have podium potential and have produced 4 clears from their 5 show jumping rounds together at CIC3* competitions, is Christopher Burton (AUS) and TS Jamaimo.
They have two major wins under their belts. The first was in fairly extraordinary circumstances when Chris was given TS Jamaimo as a catch ride for the Adelaide four-star back in 2013. They were the only combination to finish on their dressage score on that occasion and kicked off their partnership with an incredible win. Their second win together came at the Gatcombe British Open last season where they finished 4.5 penalties clear of a high-class field.
They produced the horse’s career best score of 36.9 in the first phase, had one fence down in the show jumping and went to record the second fastest time of the day to win comfortably. The overall profile of this combination looks ideal for leg one of the Event Rider Masters.
CROSS COUNTRY SPEEDSTERS
Tim Price (NZL) and Xavier Faer have made the time on all three of their most recent international starts, including at Boekelo where they did so despite 20 jumping penalties on the cross country. Cathal Daniels (IRL) and Rioghan Rua are the only combination who have beaten the clock at 4 internationals in the last 12 months, but both of these may find themselves with too much ground to make up after phase one with both averaging in the 50s.
Izzy Taylor (GBR) and KBIS Briarlands Matilda are further added to their speedy reputation their impeccable cross country round in tough conditions at the Blair Castle European championships in 2015. Reliability for a clear jumping round may be an underlying concern, but they are very likely to feature prominently at the conclusion of the event if all goes to plan.
Probably the fastest man in the sport on current form is Oliver Townend (GBR). Between the national and international three-star classes at Belton earlier this year, there were 5 clears within the time — four of those were recorded by Oliver. At Burnham Market, he became the first person to finish on their dressage score in over six years, and that was with his ERM entry Noteworthy. That performance is enough to put this duo right up there amongst the favourites to take this first title. Like many of these speed horses, their dressage phase will leave them with a bit of work to do, but Chatsworth is absolutely the venue to produce leaderboard climbers.
Speaking of climbers, in 2014 Paul Tapner (AUS) and Yogi Bear VIII soared from 20th place after dressage to a final 4th place over the Dodson & Horrell Chatsworth CIC3* track. They return for this year’s feature class, as does the only horse in the field to have previously won over this course which is Horseware Stellor Rebound and Ireland’s Sarah Ennis. Not only have this combination won here (2014), but they also finished 2nd in 2015, giving them the best course form in the field by a long way. They are one of 3 combinations entered to have 4 top five finishes at CIC3* level (along with Yogi Bear VIII and Loughan Glen) and their stats in each phase make them genuine contenders to extend their successful run at this venue.
There is a strong French contingent fighting for this illustrious title, and amongst them are the pair that finished 2nd to Ennis back in 2014, Cedric Lyard and Cadeau Du Roi. They had a sub 50 finishing score on that occasion which is difficult to achieve at Chatsworth. They also warmed-up for this class with a win at Fontainebleau CIC2* on a final score of 35, so their bid is a genuine one.
The Saumur 2015 champions Matthieu Lemoine (FRA) and Bart L will undoubtedly be in the mix having demonstrated finishing scores in the very low 40s at international three-star competitions. Compatriot Thibaut Vallett and Qing Du Briot Ene Hn were the individual bronze medallists at the European championships last year and they have three finishing scores in the 40s at three-star level already under their belts. The cross country jumping record has the odd glitch in the past for this combination, and time penalties have also been a factor, but if they improve on their Blair performance then their late addition to the field could prove very fruitful indeed.
The final mention goes to a woman who has four career wins at international competitions, two of which include the last two consecutive runnings of the Blenheim 8 & 9 year old CIC3*. The horse that gave Jonelle Price (NZL) the first of those two victories is Faerie Dianimo and they line up with a serious chance here. Their most notable result has to be their 2nd place at the Luhmühlen four-star last year on a score of 32.8. The pair average just 1.2 time penalties from their last three runs, had an average dressage score of 40.9 in 2015, and haven’t knocked a show jump or incurred a cross country jumping penalty in their last six international runs.
Picking a favourite for this title is almost impossible given the strength and depth of the field and one thing is certain — earning the title as the first ERM champion is not going to prove easy for anyone!