Eric Lamaze and Hickstead from Canada have qualified for tomorrow's Final Four competition that will decide the new Jumping World Champion. © FEI/Kit Houghton
Philippe Le Jeune
The format is used only at the Show Jumping World Championships-by jumping four rounds each, one on round their own horses and then one round on each of their competitors' horses. The event starts at 8pm.
After securing the coveted top-four qualifying spot tonight the Saudi rider said "you never know what's going to happen. Even if you ride perfectly well tomorrow you need a little luck and I think we will see a big surprise!".
With US rider Laura Kraut and her Olympic gold medal winning ride Cedric scratched from the startlist after this morning's veterinary inspection there was a 29-strong field in today's first round in which course designer Conrad Homfeld once again tested control and accuracy. Home hero McLain Ward produced the first clear with Sapphire when seventh to go, and only four others would follow suit in this round in which the faults were evenly spread around the 12-fence course. But it was the penultimate triple combination which proved the bogey, the middle oxer in particular claiming a large number of victims, and it was here that Germany's Carsten-Otto Nagel's great run with Corradina came unstuck with four very expensive faults that dropped them from overnight third down to sixth.
As the second round got under way over a completely new track the leaderboard was already dramatically changed, with Al Sharbatly lying fifth behind Pessoa in fourth, Sweden's Rolf-Goran Bengtsson in third, Lamaze in second and Le Jeune in pole position. Overnight leader Pessoa had slipped three places after a single first-round mistake at that bogey element of the triple combination but sixth-placed Bengtsson, fourth-placed Lamaze and second-in-line Le Jeune kept a clean sheet.
The second round track jumped considerably easier than the first, and there were 13 clears this time out. Nagel looked like he might just sneak back into contention when Corradina was fault-free, but when Al Sharbatly and Pessoa left all the poles intact the German partnership began to disappear from the reckoning. Bengtsson lost his grip on third spot when Ninja la Silla hit the oxer at fence five and that allowed the other two to move up, and when Lamaze and the hard-running Hickstead also went clear and then Le Jeune returned with just a single time fault on the board the Final Four was decided.
There was a combination of amazement and curiosity about Al Sharbatly in the aftermath. He has only been riding the fabulous Seldana di Campalto for only six weeks. The rider has been mainly based in his home country, with occasional visits to the European circuit, but he is talented and experienced - a former winner of the FEI Children's Championship and a gold medallist at the Pan-American Games when he was just 16.
He set himself a plan this year and he's already executing it with amazing efficiency. "I bought this horse to try to qualify for the next Olympic Games, not for the World Championship - of course I wanted to win the World Championship, everyone does - I was just really happy for the first few days to jump clear but my horse is amazing, she is the only horse to jump five clear rounds here this week!" he said.
Seldana di Campalto was ridden by Natale Chiaudani to take team silver for Italy at last summer's Alltech FEI European Championships in Windsor, Great Britain, but the mare has quickly adapted to her new rider after being sold in August, and they have cemented a super partnership in just a few weeks. "I've only taken her to two shows before this, at Gijon and Madrid, so it's been a short preparation for coming here!" Al Sharbatly said.
All four qualified riders are excited about tomorrow night's competition and the challenge of riding each other's horses. Pessoa said all the horses are very different. "When you come to a class like this you try to adapt to the horses - it's about what you see, what you think, the impression that you get - you've only got a few minutes to get to know each one and you hope you can get a bit of a feeling for the horse in that time," Pessoa said.
"We're here first for fair play and the welfare of the horse, and it's not in anybody's interest for us not to tell each other about our horses tomorrow night," said Pessoa, 37, winner of the 1998 World Championships and the silver medal at the 2004 Olympics.
Lamaze talked about his recovery after breaking his foot while competing in the Grand Prix at Aachen, Germany in July. This left him out of action for several weeks and he still walks with a brace for support.
After surgery, the bone did not heal properly, and Lamaze will undergo further surgery following the Games.
"It's no worse now then when I started the week," said Lamaze, who walks with a cast. "It's holding up, but I am being cautious. It doesn't affect me when I'm riding, only when I'm walking," he said.
He was more concerned about the enforced break for his stallion Hickstead - "he doesn't do well when he's off, it's better for him when he keeps going," he said.
"In Calgary he jumped a bit normal, and here the first day he had a fence down but every day he's getting better and better - he's a little horse and he needs to be kept jumping fit."
Eric Lamaze said he was looking forward to riding the three other horses: "It's going to be fun!". He reckoned that Le Jeune's stallion Vigo d'Arsouilles will be the toughest for him to ride tomorrow - "he's big and he's strong," but he thinks Pessoa's horse Rebozo should suit him because "he's my type of horse".
"I think it's a great way to determine a world champion. To be named that, you have to be able to ride three other horses the right way," he said.
For Le Jeune, 50, there is a kind of "deja vu" because when he took team bronze at the FEI World Equestrian Games in Jerez, Spain in 2002 he was riding Vigo's sire Nabab de Reve. "This is a nice feeling having his son here eight years later," the Belgian rider said.
"Yu have three minutes and two jumps to get used to the new horse. It's up to me to do the best I can."
It is 12 years since Pessoa claimed his first World title in Rome, Italy and he was asked this evening how much he himself has changed during that time. "Well, I've put on a couple of kilos, I've had one divorce and one child and new owners, but I'm still the same!" he answered, adding that he still enjoys the thrill of this kind of competition.
"I've been lucky with my life and to be in a World Championship final for a second time is a great opportunity," he said.
His horse HH Rebozo came from US rider Candice King. "She took her time with him and his performance here owes a lot to her very good work with him," Pessoa said.
As a master-horseman, he is probably the favourite to win through tomorrow. "It's a unique format and we all know what we have to do if we want to get close to a medal. The Final Four is a great way to determine a World Champion because you are riding not just the horse you know, but the three others as well." He was just 26 when he took the World title for the first time, and, 12 years later, he's still hungry to do it all again.
29 horses went into the first round of today's competition
24 horses competed in round 2
There was one elimination in the first round - G&C Lagran ridden by Venezuela's Pablo Barrios
There was one retirement in the first round - Germany's Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum with Checkmate
The bogey fence of the first round was the penultimate fence - the triple combination at fence 11
Abdullah Al Sharbatly's horse is a mare, the other three horses in tomorrow's final are all stallions.