April 26, 2008

by Louise Parkes

Ireland's Jessica Kuerten got the bit between her teeth with a superb victory with Castle Forbes Libertina in last night's second leg of the 2007/2008 Rolex FEI World Cup Jumping final in Gothenburg, Sweden. And the 38-year-old German-based rider holds a slender two-point advantage going into Sunday's decider for which a total of 27 riders have qualified.

Ireland's Jessica Kuerten took the lead after the second leg of the 2007/2008 Rolex FEI World Cup Jumping final with a super performance from Castle Forbes Libertina.
© Kit Houghton
But in a real turn-up for the books, Rich Fellars and Peter Wylde are challenging strongly for the title. Should Kuerten falter at the final hurdle, it just might be the US flag that is hoisted aloft for the first time in 21 years on the closing afternoon.

Yesterday's class was one of the most thrilling seen on the international circuit for a very long time. After Thursday's straight-forward speed test, Swiss course-designer Rolf Ludi really turned up the heat with a massive track that tested every skill of the 38 starters, and checked out the rideability of their horses. "The course was very technical - the oxers were extremely wide toward the end of the course and the triple combination, because of where it was placed in the ring, was really difficult. This was top sport today, but it was hard, very, very hard," Kuerten said afterwards.

With Germany's Marcus Ehning on a flight home after his devastating elimination with Sandro Boy the previous evening the start-list was reduced to 38 runners and the severity of the 13-fence challenge quickly became clear. Pathfinder Shaun Neill retired with Clarence halfway round the track and the UAE's Abdullah Al Marri, riding the former William Whitaker ride Arielle, was eliminated for a fall at the fifth fence when the mare ducked out due to a confused line of approach. The best performance of the first 18 starters came from America's Danielle Torano whose lovely run with the 10-year-old Heartbreaker stallion Vancouver d'Auvrey was blemished only by a clip at the second element of the double at fence eight and a single time penalty.

The time of 76 seconds was to prove difficult to get, and even in the closing stages of the opening round played a huge part in deciding the most important placings.

Ludi's track started out over an oxer, then went to a vertical and continued on a left-hand bend to another oxer at three and a vertical at four. The next question was how accurately the riders could place their horses in front of the treble which lay side-ways across the arena with limited approach space and asking for a huge effort over the opening triple bar, a careful jump over the middle vertical and a stretch over the third-element oxer. With no time to recover it was then on to a big wall and left-handed to the next conundrum. Fence seven was another big oxer with, again, only a short distance to set up after a left-hand bend and the following double of vertical to oxer proved costly for many, often because of an awkward jump at the previous obstacle.

Then it was on to an enormous white oxer at fence nine followed by a hair-pin turn to a huge vertical at 10, another snaky line to the oxer at 11 and no time for an intake of breath before the narrow penultimate vertical and the final run down to the colossal closing oxer. It was about as uncompromising as you could get, and only five would find all the answers.

Britain's Michael Whitaker was the first of these when opting for an extra stride in the distance between fences seven and eight with Suncal Portofino. He was 25th into the ring and another five horses jumped before Ludger Beerbaum and All Inclusive did likewise. Peter Wylde joined the jump-off line-up with Esplanade when seventh-last to go but defending champions Beat Mandli and Ideo du Thot, and 2005 champions Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum and Shutterfly both missed out with just a single time penalty. Fellars got his timing just right however as did Kuerten who followed to make up the jump-off line-up. First-day winners, Germany's Heinrich-Hermann Engemann and Aboyeur slipped down the rankings with a last to go eight faults and Switzerland's Steve Guerdat lost his grip on second place with Tresor when collecting nine, so Kuerten, lying third as the class kicked off, was now already in the driving seat and hoping she could stay there.

Whitaker was jump-off pathfinder but he left the door wide open with two fences down in 42.46 seconds and it was left to Ludger Beerbaum to set the target with a fabulous tour of the track in 40.25 seconds. It is clear to see he is cementing a world-class partnership with All Inclusive who is willing, powerful, obedient and super-talented. The pin-point accuracy of this round was text-book stuff. Wylde blew the German's target-time to pieces however when breaking the beam in 37.21 seconds. The American, who spends a lot of time in Europe, is a classically stylish and quiet horseman and Esplanade is not much more than a novice at this level of the sport. Here again was a star partnership in the making as they stole the lead with incredible ease. But fellow-American Fellars wasn't going to be intimidated by all this fancy shenanigans and set off like a rocket with the Irish-bred Flexible, a son of the stallion Cruising who with Trevor Coyle took runner-up spot behind Rodrigo Pessoa and Baloubet du Rouet at the World Cup Final in Gothenburg in 1999. Racing down the long run to the final oxer Fellars was well up on time, but that fell for four faults as the clock showed 36.28 seconds. Now only Jessica Kuerten stood between Wylde and victory, but the Irish woman and her exciting mare have been on fire in recent months and as they scorched into action it was clear they were going to give it all they had. That proved plenty good enough as they raced through the finish in 36.91 seconds to stamp their authority on both the class and the leaderboard. They are now the ones to beat.

"I didn't want to run Libertina like a mad thing so I was a bit sensible at the last jump but it worked out OK," Kuerten said afterwards. Wylde was more than happy with his second placing. "This was one of the hardest indoor competitions I've ever ridden in and my horse is very green" he said. Talking about his 10 year old chestnut mare he added "she only jumped her first Grand Prix a year ago and Gothenburg is her first big international show. She is careful, sometimes too careful, and sometimes goes too high over her fences. We are only starting out together really and I am looking forward to my partnership with her".

Ludger agreed that the class had been a really tough one - "it was about as difficult as you want to get, it was extremely technical. Yesterday's course was maybe a bit easy but today was the course-builders answer to that. It was a great class, and exactly as it should be for a World Cup final" he pointed out. "I am absolutely thrilled with the performance of my horse. Yesterday I was not pleased with my own riding but today I didn't ask too much of my horse - you need to keep some jump, some power and some concentration for Sunday," he added.

Kuerten knows however that she is now the one under pressure. "I hope I won't get a heart-attack before Sunday!" she said with a laugh. "It is the dream of every rider to be in this position at a championship. To win a leg at the World Cup final - I would never have believed it - but going into Sunday it is still very open. Any of the riders in the top today still have a chance. You can make a mistake and be gone very quickly. I have said all along that I have my own favourite to win on Sunday and its not me and its not a man - we will have to wait and see what happens!" she said.

Of course she was talking about Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum who, despite her absence from this evening's jump-off lies equal-fourth along with brother-in-law Ludger and defending champion Beat Mandli going into the closing stages. Only a single fence separates the top six. It's going to be a nail-biting finish to this cracker of a season.