With less than two weeks to go to the Rolex FEI World Cup 2010/2011 Jumping Final in Leipzig, Germany, speculation is rife about whether defending champion Marcus Ehning
or his German compatriot Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum
can secure a historic fourth victory.
Marcus Ehning celebrates being crowned Rolex FEI World Cup 2010 champion in Geneva with joint runners up Pius Schwizer of Switzerland (left) and Ludger Beerbaum of Germany (right). © Kit Houghton/FEI
Just four riders have been three-time winners throughout the 32 seasons of this most prestigious indoor tournament, which brings together the leading competitors from 14 leagues staged all around the globe.
Two of those won't make it to this year's 33rd annual grand finale as Austria's Hugo Simon, the first man to hold the coveted trophy aloft back in 1979 and winner again in 1996 and 1997, didn't make the cut and Brazil's Rodrigo Pessoa, who proved unbeatable between 1998 and 2000, has already said he won't be making the trip to Leipzig.
That leaves only Ehning and Michaels-Beerbaum, members of Germany's gold medal winning team at last year's Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games and multiple champions in their own right, in contention for a record-breaking fourth success.
One way or another, the host nation is hotly tipped for the honours after dominating the Rolex Western European League with six wins from 13 qualifying competitions and an awesome list of top placings.
At the opening leg in Oslo last October it was a German one-two-three when Christian Ahlmann pipped Ludger Beerbaum and Lars Nieberg in the battle for maximum points, and Ahlmann made it a double a week later in Helsinki where team-mate Philipp Weishaupt slotted into the runner-up spot. Michaels-Beerbaum won round three at Lyon and then in November Carsten-Otto Nagel nosed in ahead of Marcus Ehning at Stuttgart.
Ehning came out on top at Zurich in January before Weishaupt swept to success in Bordeaux the following month, and although Nagel did not accumulate sufficient points to make it to the final despite his victory, the six-strong German line-up for Leipzig is a star-studded one, including 1993 champion Beerbaum and former Olympic bronze medallist and European champion Marco Kutscher. They will be tough nuts to crack, especially on home ground.
However, non-Europeans have a tremendous record in this series down the years. The USA secured seven titles between 1980 and 1987 and again fields an impressive line-up this time around that includes Rich Fellers, who was second in 2008 and McLain Ward, who was runner-up in 2009.
The honours have gone to Canada on three occasions, firstly to Mario Deslauriers in 1984 and then to the legendary partnership of Ian Millar and Big Ben in 1988 and 1989, and Canadian prospects look particularly promising again this season with Eric Lamaze and his fabulous stallion, Hickstead, champing at the bit. They are a formidable partnership, with a turn of speed that could give the reigning Olympic champion and World No 2 rider the edge on the final afternoon.
Challengers from the New Zealand, Japanese, South American, Mexican and Central European Leagues will also compete, but it is one of the Arab League contenders who is likely to attract most attention over the early days final. Saudi Arabia's Abdullah Al Sharbatly sprang a big surprise when taking individual silver at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky last year, and his many fans will be keenly following the fortunes of the effervescent 28-year-old, who brings the brilliant mare Seldana di Campalto to Leipzig.
World No 1 Kevin Staut will be hoping to bring the trophy home to France for only the second time, and the start-list is bursting with talent including Staut's cohort Simon Delestre, the impressive Spaniard Sergio Alvarez Moya, Olympic silver medallist Rolf-Goran Bengtsson and his Swedish counterpart Malin Baryard-Johnsson, 2000 Olympic champion Jeroen Dubbeldam of The Netherlands and Portugal's Luciana Diniz.
Never discount the Irish, either. Billy Twomey's fabulous run of form has boosted him to seventh in the Rolex Rankings, one place ahead of Denis Lynch, who demonstrated true grit when snatching those invaluable last-minute points at 's-Hertogenbosch just over two weeks ago. The Irish are hungry to clinch the title that has eluded them for so many years and to which they came so close when Jessica Kürten was runner-up in 2006.
But the winner must be well-placed after the opening speed class which takes place on Thursday, April 28 and the Table A competition with a timed jump-off the following day. The top two-thirds of competitors will then go forward to Sunday's two-round final from which the Rolex FEI World Cup Jumping champion will emerge.
For the first time in the history of equestrian sport, the Rolex FEI World Cup Jumping, Reem Acra FEI World Cup Dressage, FEI World Cup Driving and the inaugural FEI World Cup Vaulting will take place under one roof in Leipzig, bringing together four world-class disciplines for a fabulous festival of sport.