The Rake visits the Rolex Series Equestrian, La Baule

The second event in the prestigious Rolex Series showjumping calendar was the reveille it anticipated each year and The Rake was there for the show.

The Rake visits the Rolex Series Equestrian, La Baule

La Baule, a seaside town in Western France, is quiet and sleepy. The second event in the prestigious Rolex Series showjumping calendar was the reveille it anticipated each year and The Rake was there for the show.

Having flown into Nantes in the early hours of Saturday morning there was little time for acclimatizing as we were greeted outside the hotel by our handler Noemie, a straight-talking and warm French woman who led marketing for the event.

At the Rolex stand where we interviewed Jeanne Sadran, a twenty-two-year-old showjumper representing France, she told us of her dreams to compete in the Olympics and a win at La Baule would secure her a place on the Olympic team. Clearly, as a native of the host nation, she wanted to do everybody proud. She had the admirable trait of calm determination.

The interview ended and a man stepped up to take her place. A whisper in my ear from Noemie told me this was no ordinary man. He was the American superstar and toast of the showjumping community, Karl Cook, former spouse to Big Bang Theory’s Kaley Cuoco.

Like Sadran, he also told us of his Olympic aspirations and what a win at La Baule would mean to him.

En route to lunch, we passed a sandy paddock where riders were warming up with their horses and in the golden light of the bright sun the horses looked silky, elegant and powerful.

The course was roughly the size of a football pitch and dotted with fences, each 1.5 meters high, and varying in style. The spectator stand at the opposite end was at capacity with enthusiastic locals and pilgrims cheering along.

We were led to a separate room to be introduced to Swiss show jumper Martin Fuchs. He came from a family of decorated show jumpers and he had a kind and warm nature to him. Like the others he spoke of his Olympic aspirations, and I understood then that unlike sports such as tennis where Grand Slams were the pinnacle of a player’s achievements, for show jumpers it was winning Gold at the Olympics.

Lunch was served after the interview and we took our seats by the balcony to watch the qualifiers as the first of five courses arrived.

Alt texzxtAlt texzxt

I am ashamed to say that I’d always felt unflattering things about showjumping, that it was somehow a lesser sport with minimal challenge to the athlete. I assumed that it was the horse doing most of the work. But nothing I saw entrenched my views. These powerful beasts needed direction. Show jumping as it turns out is a precise sport, and precision of pace is needed to ensure a smooth jump and a quick lap time.

Across the arena, breaths were held as horse and rider leapt over the high fences. Clean jumps were met with applause and fallen poles met with groans. It seemed as though the crowd were invested more in the success of the horse, they were the stars of the show.

At the end of a rider’s lap, and before the next rider trotted onto the course, young students wearing white polo t-shirts and blue caps scurried out from behind the barriers and spread out across the course, stamping out any unearthed grass with large wooden mallets.

The high octane nature of the sport was evident during the run of Belgian Jerome Guery. On the penultimate jump, his chestnut horse hesitated at the last minute and slid, colliding head first with the fence. The crash unsaddled Jerome and he fell to the ground beside his horse. Unified gasps echoed around the arena as medical officials and members of Jerome’s team sprinted over to horse and rider. It was then that my newfound respect for the sport was cemented. The stakes were high in this world. Broken bones or worse lurked at the end of every jump.

After the qualifiers, we jumped in a golf cart and headed to the stables for a sneak peak behind the curtain. The stables were less glamorous but far more interesting. The atmosphere was quieter and calmer as handlers scrubbed and hosed down horses, while others ferried around wheelbarrows of hay. Riders moved around on Segways chased by their dogs. Inside the stables, saddles and reins hung slung over doors and the flags of competing nations were taped to walls.

The next morning, we rose early and headed for the beach to witness a pre-final ritual. Against the backdrop of the early morning light, horses and riders galloped up and down the shore, while others played in the cool, calm sea. This was a form of therapy, a way to calm the horses before the gruelling demands of the day ahead. The smiles on the faces of the riders revealed that this wasn’t just therapy for the horses, it was therapy for them too.

We headed back to the arena for the main event, pushing through the busy crowds, and to the riders paddock for lunch. At the paddock, and with a view of the course, riders dressed in smart tailored blazers and white jodhpurs sat at tables with their family and friends tucking into salads and starters from a buffet laid out by a chef wearing a clean, sharp, navy blue Dior suit.

Before the main event, we were granted access to the course to witness an important part of the show jumping process. Given the sport's precise nature, the distance between jumps needed to be timed, and so riders would pace around the course measuring the distance between each fence – four human paces roughly equaled one gallop.

As the main event went underway, I observed that the world of showjumping does not discriminate. Men and women, both young and old all competed for the same prize. Diversity was however lacking, and as a dark skinned man, my kin were either security guards or shuttered away behind kitchen doors appearing only for cigarette breaks.

The final came to an end and an American, Kent Farrington, was crowned champion. In second place was another yank, Karl Cook, and in third place, Belgian rider Grégory Wathelet.

Kent stood on the podium, his hand on his heart as the star spangled banner rang out across the arena, playing out to a soft applause from the crowd. American sentiment was clearly low in rural France. The mayor of La Baule along with a few other official representatives approached the podium and handed Kent a large green box emblazoned with the Rolex logo. He opened it and inside was his prize; a white gold Rolex Daytona.

The event ended with a lap of victory and rapturous applause from the crowd. The 34th show jumping event in La Baule had come to a close and with it a newly-converted fan in the world of equestrian showjumping.