The perfect example of an event horse, Sam may not have had the wow factor but his results record is scintillating, says Kate Green
TORVILL and Dean, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Michael Jung and La Biosthetique-Sam FBW – partnerships made in heaven, effortlessly bound by the slenderest of threads. The status quo in eventing changed forever when a smiley, compact German rider met an unassuming bay gelding; two stars who arose in alignment to become the most successful combination in the sport’s history.
It began 21 years ago when a colt foal was born to a Czech thoroughbred mare, Halla. The pedigree was immaculate. The foal’s Irish thoroughbred sire, Stan The Man, was to be responsible for another Olympic champion, Leslie Law’s Shear L’Eau. The dam was by Heraldik XX, sire of Ingrid Klimke’s Beijing Olympic team gold medallist FRH Butts Abraxxas and Sam Griffiths’ prolific CCI5*-L horse, Happy Times.
La Biosthetique-Sam FBW’s cheerful, honest and businesslike way of going would remind many people of a champion of three decades earlier, Ginny Elliot’s (née Holgate) Priceless. But as a two-year-old, the verdict on his stallion potential was “nondescript” and “has a funny jump”.
The 16.2hh bay was sold at auction to German rider Sabine Kreuter for under £6,000, which was something of a bargain for a horse that would go on to smash records as the first to hold Olympic, world and European titles simultaneously.
However, the serendipity was his pairing with “Michi” Jung, a former young rider European champion whose parents later owned the horse with Erich Single and the German Federation.
“He wasn’t wow – he just did it”
“SAM was an absolute example of an event horse,” explains William Fox-Pitt, who won silver behind the pair at the 2010 World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Kentucky. “He was totally ordinary in all phases, but when he put it all together, it was impossible to beat him and, like everyone else, I spent a lot of time being beaten by him. He wasn’t a wow, he just bloody did it.
“Michael takes training to another level, and this was a horse that could take a lot of training. We all get bowled over thinking we want a cross between Valegro and Big Star so we can amaze the horse world but, actually, we need a horse to just do it. I often use Sam as an example when I’m giving talks about buying an event horse.”
I first saw Sam when he was runner-up in the six-year-old class at Le Lion d’Angers in 2006 and they were second the next year in the competitive World Championship for Young Horses, which has long showcased good horses.
However, his rider’s natural reticence – and then lack of English – meant this and other early results went largely below the radar.
Next, they were an impressive fourth in the 2008 World Cup Final at Deauville, France, where they were considered to have been robbed in the dressage (probably for the last time), but were one of only three combinations to achieve the optimum cross-country time – again, a fairly unheralded result.
In 2009, they won Luhmühlen, the World Cup Final at Strzegom, Poland and, while the rest of the German team fell apart, individual bronze at the Fontainebleau Europeans, a remarkable tally for a nine-year-old.
Andrew Nicholson, whose top horse Nereo’s career ran in tandem with Sam’s (they are the same age), recalls: “The stand-out thing for me was the two of them together – they were an amazing partnership. The horse looked quite small and plain outside the arena, but when told to perform, he danced.
“I was surprised at first at how different he looked in the ring compared to being led around. He didn’t look spectacular in the warm-up, yet in the ring he looked like a smart jumper. He didn’t look fast across country, but he was. A lot of that was down to Michi’s training, but Sam was also like Nereo in that he came out sound season after season, despite always being ridden competitively, and you don’t get many horses like that.”
La Biosthetique-Sam FBW: training was key
THINGS were not always foot perfect, but mutual confidence quickly transcended any missteps. On Michi’s way to clinching the Rolex Grand Slam at Badminton in 2016, the victory roll having started with a Burghley win on Sam in 2015, there were sharp intakes of breath from the BBC commentary team, but Mike Tucker also opined: “We are seeing something special here.”
Former German team trainer Christopher Bartle points out that Sam was not as easy as he looked. He had to be managed and kept away from the razzmatazz of prize-givings, and he had tricky feet, which meant he missed most of the 2013 season and 2014 WEG.
“Sam was not the most fluent into water and would often hesitate or hang a leg. One of my roles was to make sure Michi’s seat was secure,” reveals Christopher. “When we were course-walking, I would tell him to ‘sit in row 24 of the plane’, well behind the movement. As a blood horse, Sam was sharp, he took time to build a topline and he wasn’t the most careful jumper – his muscular training was key.”
It was a training system that combined intense cross-country schooling with flatwork, a repetition of exercises so that the horse was listening to Michi’s body language, explains Christopher. William Fox-Pitt still remembers seeing Michi riding in a dressage saddle the day after his test at Kentucky: “I wondered what on earth he was doing, but in retrospect, I realise that was why he won.”
Christopher concludes: “In some ways, Michi is the antithesis of a German rider – more French in style, light with an open frame – and he transmitted that confidence and support without dominating the horse. Sam without Michi wouldn’t have been Sam.”
The last sighting of Sam on British soil was at Badminton in 2018, where he finished 10th, aged 18. He lives in happy, active retirement at the Jung family’s equestrian centre.
“He is still the favourite of my heart,” said his rider recently, and with good reason.
The judges’ view on La Biosthetique-Sam FBW
AMERICAN judge Marilyn Payne officiated at the 2010 Kentucky WEG.
“I will always remember it because it was the first time I had ever judged Michael and had absolutely no idea who he was,” she recalls. “He was the first rider of the competition [which riders hate because they say the judges never score highly], but he put in the most accurate, correct test. He and Sam were in complete harmony and the other judges and I were amazed – and rewarded him with an excellent score.”
Marilyn also judged the pair on their winning appearances at Badminton, in 2015, and the Rio Olympics in 2016, by which time it was expected rather more.
“Michi is such an accurate rider who develops an amazing partnership with his horses through correct training and is, therefore, able to get every possible point. It was always a particular pleasure to judge him on Sam.”
Nick Burton first saw them at Le Lion in 2007.
“I remember being impressed by them in the arena and then they went on to jump brilliantly, but it was the riding that made the horse so good.
“By the London Olympics, we obviously knew who they were and we were surprised when they made mistakes, for which we had to mark them down. They were only 11th [after dressage] and everyone thought they were out of it, but Michael is a rider who makes it happen. He gives horses confidence, he gives them the heart to do it and, even if he makes a mistake at a fence, he is back in credit with the horse by the next.”
The course-designers’ perspective
MIKE ETHERINGTON-SMITH’S first sight of Sam was when the bay was first out on his course at the Kentucky WEG.
“They certainly weren’t favourites and the horse, only a 10-year-old, was quite green,” recalls Mike. “There were a couple of interesting moments, especially at the fish in the first water, that could have gone either way, but there’s no shifting Michael Jung.
“The pair seemed to grow in confidence and it’s been satisfying to watch a horse with that longevity, still competing well at five-star level eight years on. Michi’s horses seem to be like his friends. They look well, they’re properly fit and they enjoy themselves. Sam always seemed to go ‘whoopee!’ when he left the start box.”
Mark Phillips was responsible for Sam’s first CCI5*-L (then four-star) course, Luhmühlen in 2009, and Burghley, where he won in 2015.
“There’s an old saying that rideability is more important than ability, and when you couple the most rideable horse with the best rider in the world, you have an unbeatable combination,” he observes. “His trot was never going to be a [mark of] 10, but because he was so rideable, he’d get a nine for a transition or rein-back. And when you have a jockey who can put a horse on the spot, they can always add or take off strides when needed.”
Also published in H&H magazine, on sale Thursday 18 July
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