Paris Gucci Masters triumphed for the fourth time running by treating spectators to a thrilling cocktail of show, surprises and emotions.
Photography PHILIP MESSMANN / The Horse Rider’s Journal No.7
Paris is the most elegant of cities and when in Paris, never hesitate to do as the Parisians. And that is exactly what we did by joining an absolute social highlight of the French equestrian season: the Paris Gucci Masters. Thanks to the wonderful attention to detail, a perfect combination of elite, tradition, young talent, and a welcoming atmosphere, it didn’t take long to realise that this is much more than a horseshow: it is a whole mood, feeling – a glittering success in the making.
The show ground is northeast of Paris at the Parc des Expositions de Villepinte exhibition centre. When arriving at the VIP entrance, a red carpet leads through a corridor where Gucci goodies are on display on the black walls. To the left a few horses are stabled, offering a chance to feel the equestrian magic and see a few of the stunning animals up close, as well as an exclusive glimpse into the rest of stable area and warm-up arena; a world that is otherwise secret and closed to the public.
The champagne is bubbling away when the fourth Gucci Paris Masters officially opens on Thursday evening, while a live band plays and the amazing chandeliers above the warm-up arena cast red light over the invited guests. The event has drawn many of the world’s very best riders, including the top 25 names such as Steve Guerdat, the reigning Olympic Champion, Edwina Tops-Alexander, Pénélope Leprevost, and Kevin Staut. Also in the audience are some of French cinema’s elite: Vincent Pérez, Guillaume Canet, Marion Cotillard, and Marina Hands.
With champagne in hand, we meet showjumping legend and show co-creator Nelson Pessoa. “I’m proud that the show has achieved this sense of great style we wished to bring to it,” he says. “It’s a great atmosphere for both sport and business. In my time, we didn’t have opportunities like this. With an indoor show of this calibre, we’re able to create something quite spectacular, almost better than an outdoor show; there’s no rain, it’s never too hot and it doesn’t get dusty.”
The following day, we are thrilled to accept an invitation for more cocktails by leading French equestrian blogger La Cavalière masquée, whom we join front-row at the Premium Grandstand, thoroughly enjoying the Longines Speed Challenge. In the speed challenge, riders have to pass fourteen 1.45m obstacles, cashing in two-second penalties for every fault. This original competition fully lived up to the expectations and proves a smashing hit with the Parisian public.
The youngest of the competitors, America’s teenage phenomenon Reed Kessler, produces a sensational performance with her 12-year-old bay, Ligist, and posts a time of 64.76 seconds.
“I’m very pleased because the speed challenges aren’t my strong point,” she says after finishing in third place. “I’m just happy to have had that moment of being in the lead and I’m really excited to be competing in an event alongside the best riders in the world.” She is beaten by Grégory Wathelet who seizes second place with a time of 64.52 seconds and Roger Yves Bost, otherwise known as Bosty, riding Castles Forbes Cosma. Encouraged by a home crowd, the French rider blitzes through the course in a lightning-fast 63 seconds. Bosty, who is renowned as one of the fastest riders in the world, says of his win: “It’s a great night! I love the Longines Speed Challenge and I won it two years ago. My mare is very quick, but actually if Grégory hadn’t had that fault, he would have been even quicker than me.”
Later on, invited to the exclusive Gucci Masters Club to meet Juan-Carlos Capelli, Longines’ vice-president and head of international marketing, we go to the Gucci and Longines lounge area which boasts an excellent view of the arenas. Michelin-starred chef Yves Mattagne is in charge of the food presented at the beautifully set tables. Except for a colour splash of pink lilies serving as centrepiece, everything here is elegantly kept in white.
Not only is Longines the sponsor of the previous night’s speed challenge, it is also sponsoring the Hong Kong Masters. The Asian leg is one of two new sporting events, the other being the New York Masters, bringing to life the dream of creating a genuine equestrian Grand Slam.
“Longines has been based at Saint-Imier, a small village in Lausanne, Switzerland, since 1832, an area also known as the ‘horse-country’,” explains Juan-Carlos Capelli. “We have been associated with the world of horses for 180 years, so equestrian sport is in the firm’s DNA. For us, elegance is attitude – and what could be more glamorous than equestrian sport in Paris? It all comes together and becomes obvious here.” Capelli is keen on horses himself, although his career in recent years hasn’t left much time for riding. “I stopped riding at 22 to finish my school and start working. So for me, the combination of still being involved in the sport and sharing that passion in my job with my love for watches is brilliant,” he says.
Come Sunday it’s time for the spectacular five-star Gucci Grand Prix. The press tribune, next to the rider’s area, is packed; sitting nearby is Athina Onassis who, dressed with casual elegance in jeans and a black cardigan, is here to see husband Alvaro “Doda” de Miranda.
Dressed in their flawless white breeches, dark classic jackets and long leather shining boots, 43 riders walk the course to Brian Ferry’s Slave to Love. A red and green flowering band of Cyclamens winds around the perimeter of the arena, and two red horse statues sit under spotlights. The feeling of a clean, understated elegance that leaves room for the brilliant drama of equestrian sport at its finest is very much complete.
As France’s Kevin Staut put it earlier in the day, the Gucci Grand Prix “will be a great battle!” And he is right: not even Hitchcock could have created a more intense and thrilling drama out of this five-star Grand Prix. The grandstands are packed with a brilliant crowd and the adrenaline is pumping from the very beginning. The American course designer Conrad Homfeld challenges each one of the 43 riders with a demanding course offering a 13-fence track with twists and turns leaving plenty of potential for penalties.
The Masters Grand Slam triple-combination in particular proves to cause trouble for many a great rider, and those left with faults include Simon Delestre, British Olympic champions Nick Skelton and Ben Maher, Philipp Weishaupt, and Kevin Staut.
The spectators are kept on the very edge of their seats. It takes eight pairs before Swiss rider Janika Sprunger, riding Palloubet D Halong, is the first rider to leave the course intact. Then it takes another 11 riders to produce a clear round, but Alvaro “Doda” de Miranda and AD Rahmannshof’s Bogeno passes with flying colours, as does Denis Lynch with Abbervail van het Dingeshof and Marc Houtzager with Sterrehof’s Tamino. To the crowd’s great satisfaction, last year’s winner, Pénélope Leprevost and Mylord Carthago HN, also manage a picture-perfect round, and Gerco Schröder impresses too, riding Eurocommerce London. The last clear round comes courtesy of speedy Bosty with Nippon d’Elle, which the home crowd celebrates with a unanimous roar.
With seven riders of such high standards, the jump-off was bound to be fast. Janika Sprunger opens up with a lovely clear round and puts pressure on the rest with 42.24 seconds. This time is immediately shaved down to 41.37 seconds by Doda and Bogeno, who cut every corner and take out strides wherever they possibly can.
His time is beaten by Denis Lynch who covers a lot of fast ground with Abbervail, earning them a time of 39.69, putting Ireland in the lead – but not for long!
Marc Houtzager is next to go, and aboard Tamino he rides perfect turns, shaving a breathtaking 0.13 seconds off Lynch’s time. Now the Dutchman is the one to beat. Leprevost and Gerco put everything on the line and go flat out, but are faulted at the very last fence.
Last to go is Bosty, but suddenly he has the third fence down and it’s all over. Marc Houtzager has his name written into Gucci Grand Prix history by winning the fourth edition with Tamino. Denis Lynch comes second, and third place goes to Alvaro “Doda” de Miranda, who is also named the G&C Best Rider of the Show after riding very consistently throughout the weekend.
We catch up with de Miranda, who reveals that his favourite highlight of the show was his third place in the Gucci Grand Prix. “The Grand Prix is always special and expectations are high,” he says; “everybody is trying eagerly to do their absolute best. It’s my fourth time here; I’ve been here every year but this year was the first time I got a placement in the Grand Prix. Also, I’m honoured and privileged to be working with Ludger Beerbaum and his team. The honour also goes to all the trainers I’ve worked with in the past, especially Rodrigo Pessoa – and Nelson, the best trainer I ever had. And of course to all my team and the grooms, and my wife and family are very important in this.”
And thus an amazing weekend comes to an end. •