April 25, 2008

by Louise Parkes

It was sheer delight for Germany's Heinrich-Hermann Engemann and heart-break for fellow-countryman Marcus Ehning in the first leg of the 2007/2008 Rolex FEI World Cup Jumping final in Gothenburg, Sweden yesterday where the former headed the line-up with Aboyeur W while the 2006 champion was eliminated with Sandro Boy.

Germany's Heinrich Hermann Engemann and Aboyeur won the first final competition at the FEI World Cup Jumping Final.
© Kit Houghton
Yesterday's speed class was first final competition, a Table C over a Table A course, and was designed to give a skillful rider with an unlucky knockdown a chance to still register a competitive placing.

Engemann's sizzling ride over Rolf Ludi's speed track just before the half-way stage really put it up to the rest of them, and he goes into today's Jump-Off class with the edge. But he will have to work hard to maintain his two-point lead over Switzerland's Steve Guerdat who lies second and the three-point lead he has established over third-placed Jessica Kuerten from Ireland. The big test has only just begun, and there is an army of top names breathing down his neck.

Britain's Michael Whitaker had the unenviable task of guiding the 39 starters around the 13-fence track presented by Swiss course-designer Rolf Ludi when first into the ring, but his lovely clear with Suncal Portofino proved a little too careful. His time of 75.05 seconds proved very beatable and, third to go, the home side's Malin Baryard-Johnsson and the veteran Butterfly Flip shaved almost four seconds off that to reset the parameters.

Then America's Peter Wylde and Esplanade took the lead when crossing the line in 71.31 seconds but the picture changed even more dramatically when Engemann set about his business. Always extra-competitive in speed classes Aboyeur set off at a cracking pace and, keeping the pressure on the whole way round, Engemann asked for a huge stand-off at the penultimate vertical before galloping down to the final oxer and through the beam in a staggering 68.37 seconds.

"My horse really concentrated - he was fantastic!" the 48 year old rider said afterwards.

Three horses later however, Switzerland's Steve Guerdat also finished inside the 70-second zone when clearing the line in 69.88 with Tresor and that was always going to guarantee a strong finishing spot. Marcus Ehning was next to go with Sandro Boy and was looking good over the early part of the track. He had successfully negotiated the triple combination at fence nine and the following vertical but as he turned right-handed toward the double at fence 11 the horse suddenly stuck in his toes and resisted his rider's instructions to go forward. Ehning circled and re-presented, but the stallion was determined he was not going to jump and the man who claimed the title in Las Vegas in 2003 and again in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia two years ago had to accept elimination to the astonishment of the crowd.

Then one of the other favourites fell by the wayside when the great Oki Doki left two fences on the floor for Holland's Albert Zoer. With time added for fences down, mistakes were penalised heavily, but things brightened up again with a lovely clear round from Germany's Ludger Beerbaum and his new star All Inclusive NRW. Their time of 71.31 was no challenge to the leader however.

Switzerland's defending champions, Beat Mandli and Ideo du Thot, ensured a prominent position when registering a fault-free performance in 70.99 and Germany's Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum did likewise when her 2005 champion, Shutterfly, made it all look fairly academic as he cruised effortlessly round the track in 70.49 seconds but nobody seemed prepared to take the risk that might oust Engemann from pole postion until the final two contenders came into the arena.

America's Rich Fellars was riding the only Irish-bred horse in the competition and the Cruising stallion, Flexible, gave him a superb run to break the beam in 70.40 leaving just Ireland's Jessica Kuerten to take her chance. She had been watching the drama unfold and knew that the target the leader had set would be near-impossible to beat. "I saw Heinrich's round and then I saw what happened to Marcus Ehning and I thought to myself - I will be really good or else I'll mess it up!" she said, "but I got a great shot to the second fence and I decided to just let Libertina do her job. I knew, even before I went in, that I couldn't beat Heinrich's time. That was an amazing round he jumped today." she added.

In a round that oozed class and confidence Castle Forbes Libertina stopped the clock on 70.31 seconds and that was good enough for third spot behind Guerdat while Engemann reigned supreme.

Kurten, 38, is attempting to be the first Irish rider to win a World Cup. She was runner-up in 2006, as was Trevor Coyle in the 1999 final on Cruising, while jumping legend Eddie Macken achieved equal third in 1979 on Carrolls of Dundalk.

Kurten, now ranked No. 3 in the world, has had a spectacular season with Castle Forbes Libertina, winning the Top 10 Final in Geneva last December, and taking the joint runner-up spot in the World Cup Qualifier at the same show. The combination was victorious in the following two qualifiers, at Olympia in London at Christmas, and in Leipzig, Germany in January. A run of decisive finishes in the Western European League also left Kurten, who is based in Rhineland, Germany, with an unapproachable 11 point lead at the end of the 12 qualifying rounds.

"Two years ago I competed in my first World Cup final in Kuala Lumpur and I finished tenth so when I came here this weekend I wanted to do better than that," Engemann said after his celebration gallop around the Scandinavium Arena. "Aboyeur is a 14 year old Westphalian and I have him since he was five years old so we have been together now for nine years. He is a great competitor - he has a brave heart and he is always a fighter for me" he added.

He will need to continue fighting because with riders of the calibre of Guerdat and Kuerten snapping at his heels he has no room for complacency and going into the second leg Fellars lies fourth ahead of Michaels-Beerbaum in fifth and Mandli in sixth. Wylde, Baryard-Johnsson and Ludger Beerbaum fill the next three places and with the tension building at a rapid rate the stage is set for a right royal battle to decide the fate of 2007/2008 Rolex FEI World Cup Jumping title. Friday's Jump-Off competition is Table C over a Table A course and Sunday's finale is a two-round Grand Prix.