April 24, 2008

by Louise Parkes

An outstanding selection of the biggest names in the sport have gathered at the Scandinavium Arena in Gothenburg, Sweden this week as the closing stages of the 2007/2008 Rolex FEI World Cup Jumping series are played out.

After the long, tough battle in the 14 qualifying leagues a total of 39 riders representing 19 different nations have made the cut, underpinning the expanding reach of this super-successful series which, even after 30 years, continues to develop.

The list of nations includes Belgium, Canada, Spain, Estonia, Finland, France, Great Britain, Germany, Ireland, Japan, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, South Africa, Russia, Switzerland, Sweden, UAE and the USA but, in terms of numbers, America has a very definite advantage with a total of 10 in the mix.

Just who will take out the prize is anyone's guess. It could be Kent Farrington, who was runaway winner of the US East Coast league and who will be making his Rolex FEI World Cup Jumping Final debut when he rides into the ring for the first competition this week. The Americans had a tremendous record during the early years of the series but the US success-rate has waned dramatically in recent times.

Or could it be Great Britain's sole campaigner Michael Whitaker who has come so close so many times without achieving the ultimate goal? Third at the final at s'Hertogenbosch in The Netherlands back in 1994, third again at the Gothenburg final in 2001 and runner-up in Las Vegas in 2005.

Of course if you were to select your winner on the basis of pure performance throughout this particular season then there would be one name that would very definitely spring to mind - Ireland's Jessica Kuerten who has blazed a trail through the Western European League with Castle Forbes Libertina. After sharing runner-up spot with Germany's Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum in Geneva, Switzerland in early December the Irish rider headed the line-up at Olympia in London just before Christmas and then made it a double in Leipzig the following month. Her partnership with Libertina has been electrifying, and Kuerten led her league table by a convincing margin of 11 points at the end of the 12 qualifying legs.

Spain's Rutherford Latham has been impressive too and with Guarana Champeix on form will not be overlooked, but there is something about the ladies this season. It was an all-girl affair in Stuttgart, Germany in November where 2005 champion Michaels-Beerbaum stood top of the podium with Kuerten in second and Eugenie Angot in third for France. In the long history of the series only four ladies have taken the title, and Gothenburg has proven a lucky location on two of those occasions while American genes have also been influential.

The first three lady champions - Melanie Smith who scooped the title in 1982, Leslie Burr Lenehan who did likewise in 1986 and Katharine Burdsall who clinched victory in 1987 - were all US riders and the first two secured their victories in Gothenburg. The fourth lady winner was Michaels-Beerbaum who, although representing Germany, is a native of Los Angeles in California. The US connection is undeniable but Jessica Kuerten, who was runner-up to Germany's Marcus Ehning in Kuala Lumpur two years ago would, no doubt, be happy to break it. However with Michaels-Beerbaum on song with Shutterfly, and eyeing up her second title in three years, she will be no push-over, and Eugenie Angot has to be respected too.

Girls aside, the gentlemen are a formidable bunch. Take the qualifying riders from The Netherlands - Gerco Schroder and Albert Zoer in particular are armed with jumping machines in the shape of Eurocommerce Milano for the former and Oki Doki for the latter. What can you say about the lovable Oki Doki except that his heart is as big as the smile he brings to his rider's face - their partnership is exceptional and a joy to watch.

The grin displayed by Germany's Ludger Beerbaum was almost as broad when he steered his new star, All Inclusive NRW, to head the posse in Geneva. Ludger knows the great feeling of holding that trophy in his hands, but it is a long time since he did so following a great performance with Ratina Z back in 1993. It was a different era in show jumping back then, and it would be most satisfying to show that he could do it again. Gothenburg was the venue on that occasion - could the Scandinavium Arena hold the key for him too? And how will it be for fellow-countryman Marcus Ehning who has been battling through a difficult period but who appears to be winning his way back to the top at last?

Of course the slick Swiss could sew it up - defending champion Beat Mandli would be a very happy chap if he could return with Ideo du Thot to make it two-in-a-row and his sometime pupil Steve Guerdat can be relied upon to give a good account of himself also. But maybe it's time for the Swedes to do the business on their home turf. After all Gothenburg has played host to the final on 11 previous occasions and yet the home flag has never flown on the final afternoon. The best Swedish result in the series to date was Malin Baryard-Johnsson's third finishing spot in Las Vegas five years ago. She will be attempting to improve on that once again this year but the home favourite may actually be Rolf Goran Bengtsson whose little chestnut, Ninja la Silla, was sparkling throughout this season. Perhaps it is time for a Scandinavian star to shine?

Whoever you are rooting for, you are guaranteed they will be giving it their best shot when the first of the three final competitions kick off. It's been a long season, but it ain't over yet and the best is still to come.