The first “signature class” of the tenth Longines Masters of Paris, the Longines Speed Challenge lived up to its reputation. The Paris audience too: wild cheering and a sea of French flags rose from the stands as Kevin Staut won the fastest class in the world for the third time (after Hong Kong in 2014 and Paris in 2016).

The twenty-eight starters discovered the brand new Season IV course, by German course designer Frank Rothenberger, which they will ride again in Hong Kong in February and New York in April. It was difficult, much to the appreciation of the riders, the crowd and the many riders in the crowd, as even those who don’t take part in the class love watching from the stands.

The Longines Speed Challenge is a true speed World championship, where jumping faults count for very few penalties: 2 seconds instead of the usual 4. This gives a better chance to recover from a slight mistake – a careless hind leg, for instance – by going faster. As a matter of fact, last year, Julien Epaillard won with Cristallo A LM despite a fence down. A feat he very nearly managed to repeat tonight… despite, yet again, a fault from Safari d’Auge in the second double. “The course seemed very long,” admitted a breathless Epaillard. “It was all about not running out of steam, but the crowd gave me wings!”

As the class went on, the Norman was settling more and more comfortably in the winner’s plush chair. He did not seem worried in the least, even when Simon Delestre and Chadino took the same tight turns – and rightly so, as a 2-second slower Delestre had to be content with the runner-up seat.

Then, suddenly, the crowd started chanting “Kevin, Kevin” even before the Olympic champion entered the arena, never abating until the end of the course. “I could hear ‘Kevin’ while I was waiting in the passageway before I set off. But from the moment I was in front of the first obstacle, I was completely focused on my course. The strategy we developed with Philippe Guerdat was to be cautious in the beginning. Then, I felt Ayade de Septon HDC was really game. She was going better and better and proved generous all along, so then I started taking risks…” to beat the title-holder by a hair – 23″ precisely – thanks to a perfect course, for the greatest joy of the amazing Paris fans.

“When you enter this arena, the atmosphere is fantastic. My concentration tuned-out the noise, but I felt the whole crowd behind us.” Another dimension of show jumping where the crowd often plays the part of “third man”… which the French trio of riders used to their advantage tonight!

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