Britain will be out in force at Saumur this weekend. The event is recording its greatest numbers ever, and the British contingent, which will be 23-strong, has been instrumental in helping achieve this record.
Organisers will host around 105 combinations from18 nations. Some riders come from as far afield as Tunisia, which is fielding Nadia Benzineb de Buck, and the Ukraine, which is making its first appearance at the competition with Andrey Senin, Dmitriy Maslenikov and Nikolay Tomochko, in an effort to gain a place for Blenheim’s Europeans. Other competitors are local to Saumur, such as Jean-Lou Bigot, who will compete his new mount, Derby de Longueval.
But nearly one in every four riders will speak the Queen’s English, despite two last-minute withdrawals. The British will almost match the French, who are fielding 25 combinations.
“With the demise of Punchestown, we were only left with Bramham and Saumur for CCI*** in the spring. The field would be much smaller is Punchestown had taken place,” explains Paul Graham from British Eventing. “[And] it is one of the last chances to qualify for the Europeans. Also, Saumur is a lovely event with a nice track.”
Last year’s Saumur winner, William Fox Pitt, won’t be coming to the party, but Pippa Funnell stands a good chance to land the Loire title. She will be competing her trusted Cornerman (pictured) and Ensign, who finished second at his CCI*** debut in Boekelo last year. Mary King is also in contention with her Saumur veteran King Solomon III, who won the event in 1997.
However, both ladies will have to beat stiff competition from les Bleaus, who are fielding three out of five Olympic combinations and have every intention of winning the CCI***. Reigning European champion Nicolas Touzaint will make his bid for the Saumur title with Galan de Sauvagère and Hidalgo de l’Ile. He will be challenged by compatriots Cédric Lyard with Macduff and Fine Merveille, and Arnaud Boiteau with Hortus de Pierre*HN and Expo du Moulin. Meanwhile, chef d’equipe Thierry Touzaint is keeping his fingers crossed for a fourth French combination to qualify at the Europeans.
The British contingent harbours plenty of European hopefuls too. Britain can have 12 combinations at Blenheim and young riders will try their best to gain a place in the team. Among them are Matthew Wright and Ruth Edge, who will compete two horses each: Cermont and Burghley runner-up Park Pilot for Wright, and Marsh Mayfly and Burnham Market winner Two Thyme for Edge.
“A lot of horses and riders are in contention for the Europeans, and a lot thought that if they ended in the top five in Saumur it would be better than ending 20th at Badminton to gain a place in the squad,” says Graham.
But Saumur won’t just be an Anglo-French affair. Kiwi Andrew Nicholson, with Henry Tankerville, could make a good claim to the title, as could Compiègne winner, Karin Donckers, from Belgium, who was third at the Loire event last year.
Pierre Michelet’s course is likely to present new challenges even to old Saumur hands, however, as 20 out of its 26 fences are new or modified. Saumur 2005 will follow the short format with no roads and tracks and steeplechase.