March 25, 2008

Germany's Michael Jung became the first European name on the 2008 FEI World Cup leaderboard after beating a truly international field at Fontainebleau (FRA) where 11 nations were represented among the 52 dressage starters and all sorts of misfortune befell leading contenders.

On a cold, stormy - and even snowy - Easter weekend, Jung, 25, who was the 2003 European Young Rider Champion, dominated the dressage phase, but his route to victory was still far from straightforward, as the jumping phases caused several form upsets among potential Olympic combinations.

"I am really pleased," Jung said. "My horse was truly fantastic this afternoon and was very energetic physically. It was a real shame that he made a mistake on the water jump. Nevertheless, the beginning of the season is very promising. If everything continues to go well, my objective will be the European Championships in 2009."

Jung's two Trakehners led in the early stages, with Birkhof's Grafenstolz, a former winner at Le Lion d'Angers (FRA), heading Miss Mellor, on scores of 31.7 and 35.4 respectively. However, the world silver medallist and 2005 FEI World Cup champion Clayton Fredericks (AUS) was breathing down his neck with his two best horses, Ben Along Time and Nullarbor, in third and fifth, separated by another German, Simone Dietermann, on the experienced Flambeau H in fourth (36.7).

But designer Pierre Michelet's cross-country courses always guarantee a thrilling day and, with the water complex upgraded, this was no exception, and no one achieved the optimum time. In fact, a fence had to be removed after early problems.

Jung, formerly a star of Germany's under-21 teams, stayed in the lead, but only on Miss Mellor, with six time penalties; he retired after a stop and fall on Birkhof's Grafenstolz.

Unsurprisingly, last year's Fontainebleau winner, the reigning European and FEI World Cup Champion Nicolas Touzaint (FRA), excelled in this phase to shoot up through the ranks from ninth to second on Hildago d'Ile, his ride at the 2005 Europeans and at Badminton last year, with the fastest time of 1.2.

Fredericks was now third and fourth, with the warmblood Nullarbor going ahead of the Irish Sport Horse Ben Along Time, while Pascal Leroy (FRA) suddenly sprang to prominence from 11th to fifth on the experienced grey, Glenburny de Leou. Lucy Wiegersma became the best Briton, rising to sixth on the veteran four-star horse Shaabrak, despite him ripping off a shoe before the dressage and scraping his leg on a drain in the stables.

World champion Zara Phillips (GBR), who had withdrawn Toytown, due to a bruised foot, and her likely Badminton ride Ardfield Magic Star, lay 10th at this stage on Glenbuck, the Irish-owned horse she began riding after the death of her friend Sherelle Duke in 2006.

There were shock cross-country stops for such experienced horses as Lucinda Fredericks' Burghley and Badminton winning mare Headley Britannia (AUS), who was having her first outing since an embryo transfer last summer, Rodney Powell's Saumur runner-up Langarth Darcy (GBR), and Flambeau, who dropped out of contention.

Thirty-eight horses went through to the final jumping phase on Easter Monday and, again, the order was re-arranged. Jung held on, with a single fence down, but this difficult final phase caused all sorts of dramas. Berenice Villoing (FRA) was the main beneficiary, bursting into the reserve spot from seventh by virtue of scoring just 4 faults on Djina. "It is my best result in this level of competition. I would never have imagined that I would finish in second place in a competition with these kinds of riders," said the young French rider who is 29.

Fredericks's horses hit five fences between them, for which he blamed "Olympic nerves", and reversed order yet again, the Kentucky winner Ben Along Time nosing in front of Nullarbor again. Wiegersma clocked 6 faults, and was astonished to rise two places to fourth, ahead of Leroy, fifth.

Touzaint had an uncharacteristic disaster, dropping six places to eighth with 20 faults, but the unhappiest round undoubtedly belonged to Phillips, who plummeted with 32 faults.

Perhaps the happiest result was that of Chinese schoolboy Alex Hua Tin who, at the age of only 17, has bought several new horses to fulfil his aim of being China's first Olympic eventer and the youngest rider in Hong Kong. He is trained by Clayton and Lucinda Fredericks and did them proud, finishing 10th on the grey Magenta, who was previously with Selina Elliot (GBR). This achievement will go some way towards Hua Tin's goal of qualifying for Hong Kong.