March 31, 2008

Marcus Ehning and Sandro Boy produced an emotional victory in the final qualifying leg of the Rolex FEI World Cup Jumping Western European League at s'Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands yesterday.

With a stunning performance the 2006 series champions pipped fellow-German partnership Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum and Checkmate for pole position while Sweden's Rolf-Goran Bengtsson and Ninja la Silla finished third - and the delight on Ehning's face told the whole story.

Germany's Marcus Ehning and Sandro Boy on their way to winning the last qualfier of the 2007-08 Rolex FEI World Cup held in 's-Hertogenbosch.
© Dirk Caremans/FEI
It was clear that both he and Sandro are right back at their very best and they could now even be tipped for the title again this season. What a turnaround for the 33-year-old rider whose confidence and courage have been tested to the limit following a hugely turbulent period in his career.

Dutch course-designer Louis Knoickx was widely praised for his innovative work throughout the Dutch fixture, and set them up big and bold once again but, surprisingly, a total of 11 found their way through to the jump-off. Amongst those unlucky to miss out was Italy's Jonella Ligresti whose mare, Nanta, jumped on springs all the way around the 13-fence first-round track only to pick up a single time penalty, while the crowd were enthralled by Judy-Ann Melchior's fabulous grey, Levisto Z, whose conformation, pony-like head and flowing mane combine to create a real eye-catcher. The 11-year-old stallion lowered the second element of the double at fence four for four faults but made little of the penultimate triple combination which proved the undoing of many others, as did the final oxer.

It was Frenchwoman Eugenie Angot who led the way against the clock with Ilostra Dark and she quickly exposed the challenges laid down by Knoickx this time out when falling foul of the long gallop to the last for four faults in 33.88 seconds.

Dutch rider Angelique Hoorn was next into the ring with Blauenwendraad's O'Brien and her careful clear in 34.60 seconds was to prove a sensible decision as it turned out. Denmark's Thomas Velin and the stallion Grim St Clair were also clear but a little slower when breaking the beam in 34.75 but Ireland's Jessica Kuerten and Quibell showed that there was plenty of room for improvement in the time when stopping the clock in 34.07 seconds, although she also was hampered by a mistake at the final vertical.

There was no error from Michaels-Beerbaum and Checkmate however, a superb turn on landing over the big penultimate oxer putting them well up on time and, letting it rip right down to the final fence, they set the new target with a clear in 31.82 seconds. That was always going to be hard to beat.

Brother-in-law Ludger Beerbaum followed with Goldfever but the second-last hit the floor and the same fate befell fellow-German Marco Kutscher on a slow tour of the track with Cash, leaving just four to challenge the leader.

Sweden's Rolf-Goran Bengtsson had a cut at it with Ninja la Silla but where Meredith and others pushed for six strides down the first line the Swede and his little chestnut went for seven. This partnership however produced one of the most fluid rounds of all, Bengtsson executing every move to perfection to cross the line in 32.53 seconds and slotting into temporary runner-up spot.

Henk Van de Pol and Dan-7 T left two fences on the floor while, second-last into the ring, fellow-Dutchman Gerco Schroder was about to oust Michaels-Beerbaum from pole position with Eurocommerce Milano until clipping the last in 31.55 seconds and now only Ehning was left to change the order. And he did it in style.

Sandro Boy's length of stride is so enormous that where other riders had to push for those six early strides between the first two fences Ehning was holding steady down the same line. "Normal distances are short for him so a line like that is easy," the rider said afterwards. He knew that the jump-off track would suit his horse "because I could be careful on the first part and then move on to the last."

A superbly short turn to the double at the half-way stage shaved further fractions off the target and, with the clock showing 31.61 seconds as he cruised home, he knew he had produced something special - his big, broad grin showing exactly how he was feeling.

"I was really hoping to be second or third but my horse was very concentrated and relaxed, every jump was good and he gave me a super-nice feeling" Ehning said. It was all a long way away from the heartache of last summer's FEI European Championships in Mannheim where everything went wrong and after which he was told he would be not be considered for Olympic selection in 2008.

Michaels-Beerbaum finished second, with Bengtsson in third and that careful clear from Angelique Hoorn left her in fourth place.

Ehning talked about the work he has been doing with trainer Henk Nooren - "we work together every two weeks. I'm now 33 years old and I have not had a trainer for 10 years although Ludger helps me at shows, but sometimes it is good to have someone on the ground and Henk helps me and my brother (Johannes) for half a year or so," he explained. The result of that "co-operation" is abundantly clear, Ehning's natural talent and quiet brilliance bouncing back in abundance.

So now the line-up for the final is falling into place and top-18 on the Western European League table has been decided. Jessica Kuerten continues to lead the standings with a colossal 87 points while Meredith lies second, a full 11 points in arrears, with Spain's Rutherford Latham in third spot ahead of Rolf-Goran Bengtsson in fourth and Holland's Gerco Schroder in fifth.

It is the man lying sixth however that they may well all have to beware of when the final kicks off in Gothenburg, Sweden in three weeks' time. In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia two years ago Ehning and Sandro Boy simply blew away the opposition with a breath-taking series of performances in the 2005/2006 decider. A repeat performance, this time in the Scandinavium Arena, does not look out of the question.