Germany's Marcus Ehning and Noltes Kuchengirl.
Two Spanish riders made the cut into the jump-off and the first of these, Pilar Cordon, slotted into fourth when double-clear with Nuage Bleu while German superstars Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum and Shutterfly had to settle for fifth with a single mistake against the clock. However, the result has promoted Michaels-Beerbaum to runner-up spot in the Western European League standings which continue to be led by World No. 1 Kevin Staut from France whose first-round double-error proved costly.
Course designer Frank Rothenberger set them the toughest of tasks with a big, bold track that demanded courageous jumping and plenty of scope. But as always luck played its part too, as in particular, the planks at the triple combination chose to defy gravity in many cases while also claiming a large number of victims.
Rothenberger set testing distances all the way around the arena, and most of the 39 starters opted for a forward five strides from the oxer at fence five to the following liverpool oxer at six. The latter came up on a long distance for Austrian legend Hugo Simon - the first-ever winner of the Rolex FEI World Cup Jumping trophy back in 1979 and one of just four riders to claim the series title on three occasions. He was dislodged from the saddle when his mare, Ukinda, produced a huge leap. Amused however, rather than annoyed and disappointed, the 68 year old rider left the ring with a broad smile on his face. And he wasn't alone when leaving the field of play on foot as Norway's Nina Braaten, who is 40 years his junior, also parted company with her ride Blue Loyd at the triple combination which took a heavy toll throughout the competition.
This was a real test of judgment and control, approached on a tight three-stride distance from the previous vertical at fence seven and fronted by planks at both the first and third elements. Time and again it was lowered, and Braaten's fate was sealed by an unbalanced approach which left her with a big stand-off at the second element and on her feet as she tumbled into the third.
Despite all the drama however, seven made it into the jump-off against the clock. Switzerland's Janika Sprunger led the way with the 10 year old uptown Boy but with eight faults collected at the oxer at fence six - now the third fence on the new course - and at the following vertical at seven she left the door wide open for the rest. Spain's Pilar Lucrecia Cordon steered the 10 year old Nuage Bleu home to record the first clear of the course in 42.81 seconds.
Next to go was one of the favourites, Michaels-Beerbaum with Shutterfly. But one of the dreaded planks that had caused so much heart-ache in the opening round was still standing and when the 18 year old gelding hit that for four faults then it was still all to play for. Sergio Moya then set off for Spain with the Action-Breaker and was looking good until turning to the double at fence nine. Their round fell apart when their take-off was a good deal too early here and they finished with eight faults in 44.70 seconds so the result was, yet again, clearly hanging in the balance.
Ehning's round that followed was cool, smooth and careful as Noltes Kuchengirl cruised home to re-set the parameters when breaking the beam in 40.03 seconds. Edwina Alexander and Itot du Chateau were quick and clean when second-last to go, but despite a great turn from the penultimate wall - a new fence introduced for the timed round - the Australian partnership were more than two seconds off Ehning's target, leaving it all up to last-man-in Maher.
The British rider could have been forgiven for holding back with the 13 year old Robin Hood who has only recently returned to action after a long layoff but he wasn't at all fazed. "Today's course was one of the biggest Grand Prix tracks I've seen for a long while and it played to my horse's advantage because that's the way he likes it," Maher said afterwards, and he was clearly giving it his best shot when racing through the finish to slot into second spot in a time of 42.10.
Maher explained that Robin Hood's absence from the ring came about because he was off form last summer, then didn't go to Kentucky for the World Equestrian Games and so got a long break. "He was never lame," Maher said," but he wasn't happy and the vets decided he needed two months break mentally, so I went with that because he's too good a horse not to give him every chance. The plan had been to go to the WEG but when the team was picked I was one of six and only on the edge, and my other horses were injured so it was very short notice for him and it didn't happen. So then we decided to give him a longer break and he's come back in flying form now," said the rider, who is currently dividing his time between the Western European League and the Florida circuit.
When asked why he didn't react as the crowd sang "Happy Birthday" for him at the end of his first round, Maher said: "it wasn't that I didn't appreciate it - I was worried I could end up on the ground! Robin Hood is not a sociable horse and he doesn't like noises in the ring or anything like that - I knew if I relaxed for a second after I finished my round I could end up on the floor because he's done it before so i was just concentrating on getting out of the ring in one piece!"
Edwina Alexander said that her game little Itot du Chateau "wanted to win!" and described the class at the Mercedes CSI in Zurich as a super competition. "I didn't get the best sweep to the second fence and the double of oxers and it didn't feel fast, but my horse is in super shape and that's important. I plan to do the rest of the World Cup qualifiers, but I won't take Itot to the final in Leipzig," she said.
The heat is on now as the series heads for Bordeaux, France next Saturday and then Vigo in Spain and Gothenburg, Sweden later in February before the final qualifying opportunity takes place in 's-Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands in March. But the host nation of Germany is looking stronger than ever, with Ehning's result bringing their record to five wins from nine qualifiers so far this season.
Standings After Round 8 at Mechelen, Belgium:
1. Kevin Staut FRA - 87
2. Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum GER - 62
3. Rolf-Goran Bengtsson SWE - 58
4. Billy Twomey IRL - 50
5. Christian Ahlmann GER - 46
6. Harrie Smolders NED - 43
7. Marcus Ehning GER - 40
8. Sergio Alvarez Moya ESP - 40
9. Rodrigo Pessoa BRA - 36
10. Michael Whitaker GBR - 35
11. Carsten-Otto Nagel GER - 33
12. Ludger Beerbaum GER - 31
13. Pilar Cordon ESP - 31
14. Jessica Kuerten IRL - 30
15. Malin Baryard-Johnsson SWE - 29
16. Gerco Schroder NED - 28
17. Robert Whitaker GBR - 28
18. Leon Thijssen NED - 27
19. Lars Nieberg GER - 27
20. Edwina Alexander AUS - 26