Record numbers of para-equestrian riders will compete for medals from Monday at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy, writes Rob Howell.
The 33 nations and 100 para-dressage riders competing at the prestigious La Prairie racecourse venue, just a few hundred metres from the centre of Caen, easily top the numbers from the inaugural Games in Kentucky in 2010, when 60 horses and riders from 16 countries competed.
Trond Asmyr, FEI Director, Dressage and Para-Equestrian Dressage said of the 12 countries taking part in their first World Games, three will be taking part in para-equestrian dressage. “Hong Kong will compete as a team, and the US Virgin Islands and Latvia will each be represented by individual athletes,” he said.
“The 100 human and equine athletes competing for the Para-Equestrian medals in Caen are sure to provide many great sporting moments at the heart of the Games,” Asmyr said. “We should consider ourselves lucky to witness such great competition.”
Competition kicks off with the first team test on Monday, August 25, and the first individual medals will be awarded on Wednesday, August 27.
The Games are also the first Rio 2016 Paralympic Games qualifier for Para-Equestrian Dressage, and all eyes will be on this major prize. The atmosphere will be electric at La Prairie throughout, but particularly on August 28 when, after four days of gruelling competition, the three medal-winning teams at the Games will secure their nation’s team spot for Rio 2016 alongside hosts Brazil.
The freestyle medals are all decided on Friday, August 29.
The team competition in Normandy will be contested by 19 nations, including Great Britain, the current World, European and Paralympic champions, which have one of the most experienced squads heading to Normandy. Germany, the London 2012 and Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games 2010 runners up, will be in hot pursuit, as will the strong Irish, Danish and Dutch teams.
Fierce competition in Grade Ib
The Grade Ib competition is tipped to be one of the fiercest competitions in Normandy, with six World, European and Paralympic medallists going head-to-head for the first time at a World Games.
Great Britain’s “godfather” of Para-Equestrian Dressage, Lee Pearson – triple gold medallist at the Sydney, Athens and Beijing Paralympic Games and reigning world champion – will be going all out to defend his title against the likes of Austria’s Pepo Puch, who took freestyle gold at London 2012, individual and freestyle titles at last year’s Europeans and is aiming to clinch his first world title in Normandy.
Australia’s Joann Formosa is also determined to prove that her London 2012 individual gold medal was not a one off, and Great Britain’s Ricky Balshaw, silver freestyle medallist in Beijing and at last year’s JYSK FEI European Para-Dressage Championships in Herning (DEN) also has his eyes on the coveted World title.
Denmark’s Stinna Tange Kaastrup, silver and bronze medallist at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games 2010, with freestyle gold at the 2011 Europeans followed by bronze last year, and Finland’s London 2012 freestyle silver and Kentucky bronze medallist Katja Karjalainen are also “ones to watch” in Grade 1b in Normandy.
Brit the one to beat in Ia
In Grade Ia, Great Britain’s Sophie Christiansen will be looking to continue the superb form of the past few years which saw her win triple gold at London 2012 and the JYSK FEI European Para-Dressage Championships in Herning (DEN) last year. Christiansen now has one gold medal missing from her collection – the world individual freestyle title – and she’ll be looking to add that next week.
But she will face stiff competition from the likes of Singapore’s most-medalled athlete and FEI Solidarity Ambassador Laurentia Tan, Ireland’s Helen Kearney, who won individual silver and bronze and team bronze at London 2012, and Italy’s Sara Morganti, bronze medallist at the 2013 Europeans.
Double gold Olympian favourite in Grade II
In Grade II, Great Britain’s Natasha Baker will be a force to be reckoned with at her first World Games. Baker won three gold medals at her first Europeans in 2011, and went on to win Great Britain’s first gold of the London 2012 Paralympic Games, finally leaving Greenwich Park with both individual and freestyle gold. At her first Championship team appearance for Team GB at the 2013 European Championships, she scored team, individual and freestyle gold.
Her strongest competition in Normandy is expected to come from Germany’s London 2012 silver and bronze medallists Britta Näpel and Angelika Trabert. The USA’s Rebecca Hart, fifth in London, could also be a medal contender in Normandy, alongside Caroline Cecilie Nielsen (DEN), bronze medallist at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games 2010.
Grade III is expected to be close between Germany, Denmark and The Netherlands.
Hannelore Brenner (GER), the London 2012 individual and freestyle gold medallist and defending world champion, is pitched against Denmark’s Annika Lykke Risum, double bronze medallist at London 2012 and runner up in Kentucky, and Sanne Voets (NED), who won the freestyle title and scored silver behind Brenner in the individual competition at last year’s Europeans.
Great Britain’s Sophie Wells will start as favourite in Grade IV, aiming to defend her individual and freestyle world titles. The main competition is likely to come from Belgium’s individual and freestyle London 2012 gold medallist Michèle George, who was also freestyle runner up in 2010, and Frank Hosmar (NED), who took bronze in both events in London, silver at the Europeans, and silver at the last Games in 2010.