Robert Whitaker and Vermento. (FEI/Liz Gregg)
Team Great Britain got off to a flying start when topping the first round of the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ Final 2023 at the Real Club de Polo in Barcelona, Spain with the only zero scoreline of the afternoon.
Foot-perfect runs from pathfinder Tim Gredley (Medoc de Toxandria), Robert Whitaker (Vermento), and anchorman Harry Charles (Aralyn Blue) meant that the 12 faults collected by Lily Attwood (Cor-Leon VD Vlierbeek Z) would be their discard. They finished a full fence ahead of Brazil, Germany, and Switzerland, who filled second, third, and fourth places with four faults apiece and separated only by their combined times.
The top eight nations have qualified for Sunday’s title-decider in which they will all start again on a clean sheet, and the remaining countries that have made the cut are the defending champions from Belgium and Team USA, who each posted eight-fault results, and Ireland and France who finished with 12.
Team Mexico just missed out when also putting 12 on the board but in a slower time, and on Saturday night they will once again defend the Challenge Cup trophy they won so memorably 12 months ago.
Meanwhile, the battle for the single qualifying spot on offer for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games has been whittled down to a two-way contest between Brazil and the USA, because the other contenders from Mexico, Argentina, Italy, and Australia didn’t make it to Sunday’s second round, which already looks set to be another cracking contest.
Spanish course designer Santiago Varela gave them lots to think about with a 14-fence track with plenty of height and curving lines that tested power and accuracy. The vertical with a yellow plank on top at fence nine and the penultimate double of verticals were the bogeys of the day.
Harry Charles clinched top spot for the British with a superb clear with the 12-year-old mare Aralyn Blue. Talking about the challenges of the course, he said fence nine, which followed the beefy Longines triple combination, “was on an unusual line and angle; you were coming straight out of the corner. You could see at the start of the class the horses weren’t jumping it well. I just made sure to give myself a bit more room there.
“Coming to the double of verticals (fence 13) it was either five or six (strides) and on the six you take away a bit of the power, slowing down so much to jump it. For me it was a waiting five and my mare was able to have a bit of room and kept the power, so not too many problems there for me,” he explained.
Like all the British, he was delighted with the result. “I’m really proud of us today actually!” he said. “My horse is pretty new at this level; she’s only done one Nations Cup prior to this, and it was a tough enough course, not overly big but delicate with some fun lines in there! The other guys did a good job; there were two clears already (for the British team) so I luckily could go in and do the clear.”
When asked if he felt under pressure, he replied, “Today probably wasn’t the most pressure I’ve ridden under, but we wanted to be in there on Sunday, so there was that to it.” He admitted that the result for his team was a bit of a surprise. “Probably an unexpected result if you told us at the start of the day, but we’ll take it and hopefully we can do something similar on Sunday!
“We will go back to a blank slate unfortunately (in Sunday’s final round), it would be nice if we carried it through, but it’s been really good and hopefully we will be in good enough nick for Sunday,” he added.
There’s a lot of anticipation of a great final day. The Swiss have never won the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ title, but their fourth-place finish gives them another opportunity to clinch it. However, it hasn’t been plain sailing ahead of this year’s event.
“We’ve always been a bit unlucky with this Final, and this year the horse from Edouard is injured and Bryan (Balsiger) lost his horses and the horse of Pius (Schwizer) was injured, so we don’t have our ‘A’ team. But still our horses jumped good today and we’ll see if Elian (Baumann) goes on Sunday. We won’t be the favourites on Sunday, but we’ll try!” said Steve Guerdat who, just a few short weeks ago, added the individual European title to the Olympic gold he won back in 2012.
“We’ve had a very good year and it would be a great way to finish, and for the horses to finish as well. My horse (Venard de Cerisy) didn’t have a rail down in the whole Nations Cup season – St Gallen double-clear, Aachen double-clear, Dublin double-clear, and now clear today, so I hope I can do a clear again! We are here, we will try, the sport is great, and we are looking forward to Sunday now!” said the man who sits third in the current world rankings.
In contrast, the focus for Brazil is fully on that Olympic qualification and the battle against the USA. Pathfinder Marlon Modolo Zanotell and Grand Slam VDL produced a perfect clear and team veteran, Rodrigo Pessoa, did likewise. Pessoa has won Olympic and World titles and is as hungry as ever to help take his country to Paris next summer. His top ride, the 10-year-old gelding Major Tom, made nothing of the course.
“It’s a freak of a horse – the intelligence, the ability to jump, the whole package. He’s very straightforward and has a lot of blood, a lot of temperament, but at the end he wants to jump clear; that’s all he wants to do,” Pessoa said.
When asked about the recent addition of former Portuguese rider Diniz to the Brazilian side, he said she is a real asset. “Yes, she’s super-experienced and her horse is really good and it’s always good to have one more – the more soldiers the better!”
As for Sunday, “It’s just about us, the USA!” he said. “They are a big nation with a very strong team as well. Today was just a warm-up and we have to go again. I think it went well today; the two mistakes that we had (a fence down each for Stephan de Freitas Barcha and Chevaux Primavera Imperio Egipcio and Luciana Diniz with Vertigo du Desert) were silly mistakes that I think we can get rid of, but better to do those little ones today than on Sunday!”
by Louise Parkes