It’s the grand finale of the international eventing season this weekend, but also the start of the new HSBC FEI Classics series, and the Kiwi riders plan to make a big impact on both.
The in-form Andrew Nicholson spearheads a strong New Zealand contingent in the last CCI4* event of the northern hemisphere season at Les Etoiles des Pau in France this weekend.
It’s one of just six four-star events in the world and has attracted the big guns, including world champion and Olympic gold medallist Michael Jung (GER) and this year’s HSBC FEI Classics winner William Fox-Pitt (GBR), to whom Nicholson was second by just a smidgen.
But Nicholson, who was also second at Pau last year, has been in superb form recently, winning four big events in the past four months – the four star Burghley International Horse Trials, and the three star Boekelo, Blenheim and Barbary Castle events.
He’s also on the cusp of finishing the season at the top of the HSBC World Rankings which would bring a $US50,000 bonus for him.
Nicholson has both Mr Cruise Control and Nereo entered at Pau, and he’s picking his bronze medal-winning World Champs and Olympic mount Nereo to finish at the front of the field – just ahead of Mr Cruise Control.
“Nereo is my best bet,” said Nicholson, who was a key part of New Zealand’s Olympic bronze medal-winning team.
However, it is Nereo’s first start at Pau, and Mr Cruise Control was second in the event last year.
The world number one ranked rider also gets the nod from Kiwi high performance coach Erik Duvander.
“He’s world class and could easily win on either horse,” he says.
Also competing at Pau will be Jonathan Paget on Clifton Promise, Caroline Powell aboard Onwards and Upwards and Mark Todd on Major Milestone.
“Promise has come back after the Olympics looking a million dollars and is keen to run again,” says Duvander.
He says Powell’s Onwards and Upwards is a young horse being tested at four star level for the first time.
“Major Milestone is so strong in the cross country and showjumping phases, but the dressage just makes it difficult for him.”
Equestrian Sports New Zealand high performance director Sarah Harris is also looking for the season to end on a high.
“What a great year it has been for the high performance programme, with numerous combinations stepping up to four star and regaining a sense of Kiwi dominance at this level,” she said. “We have also seen exciting younger horses at the last few events, in particular at Blenheim and Boekelo, showing that we are in for some great competition leading in to the World Championships in France in 2014.”
It’s a star-studded start list in the four star event at Pau, with the organisers describing it as “a dream”, including members of the gold, silver and bronze medal-winning teams from the London Olympics.
The event has attracted more than 60 entries from 17 nations – many of whom are chasing those all important early points in the Classics series, which is considered the grand slam of eventing.
The Classics other five events are the Australian International Three Day Event in Adelaide in November, the Rolex Kentucky Three Day event in April, the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials in May, Luhmuhlen in Germany in June and finally the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials in September. The series offers $US150,000 to the winner.
Pau starts this evening (Thursday NZ time) with the horse inspection, which will be followed by the dressage on Friday, cross country Saturday and showjumping overnight Sunday.