Germany's Christian Ahlmann and Taloubet, who will begin their defence of the FEI World Cup Jumping title at the opening leg of the new season at Oslo in Norway on Sunday. © Matt Lewis, Getty Images/FEI
The Rolex FEI World Cup Jumping title is the most coveted prize in the sport of indoor jumping. Since the inaugural season-opener back in 1978, the series has grabbed the enthusiasm and imagination of competitors and spectators alike, and has grown in popularity and scale at a rapid rate. It has also encouraged the development of the sport across all continents, and, once again in this 34th season, fresh faces will appear and new stars will emerge to take their place in the limelight.
The 13-leg Australia-Pacific league began in Sydney, Australia in April and will conclude at the same venue in December. The three-leg Central Asian League drew to a close at Astana in Kazakhstan in July, while the Central European Northern and Southern leagues both wind up in December. In China, the first of three qualifying legs took place in Beijing in August and the last will be held this weekend, while Shizouka-Tsumagoi is the venue for the Final of the seven-leg Japanese circuit, also in December.
The New Zealand-Pacific League kicks off in Hastings, New Zealand next week, running through to February 2012, while the South African series, which also has seven legs, began back in May and concluded in September. The South American League began at Porto Alegre, Brazil in May and finishes up in Buenos Aires next month, but the largest number of qualifying rounds take place in the USA, with 12 in the East Coast League and a massive 16 qualifying opportunities across the West Coast. Thermal in California offers the very last chance to earn some of those much-sought-after qualifying points next March. In total, 126 qualifiers take place world-wide ahead of the 2011/2012 Final.
The Western European League has produced the majority of the series' champions, and continues to be the most competitive of all. Each of its 13 qualifying fixtures are rated 5*, with the venues providing top-class facilities for owners, riders, spectators and, of course, the biggest stars of all - the horses.
Germany holds the record for most wins in the series - nine in total, including victory in the last four - while the USA is next in line with seven wins over a nine-year period, but with a long gap since their last success was racked up by Katharine Burdsall and The Natural way back in 1987.
Only four riders have won the title three times - Austria's Hugo Simon in 1979, 1996 and 1997, Brazil's Rodrigo Pessoa in 1998, 1999 and 1990, Germany's Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum in 2005, 2008 and 2009 and Germany's Markus Ehning in 2003, 2006 and 2010.
But five have scored doubles over consecutive years partnering the same horse - Canada's Ian Millar with Big Ben in 1988 and 1989, Great Britain's John Whitaker with Milton in 1990 and 1991, Hugo Simon with ET in 1996 and 1997, Rodrigo Pessoa with Baloubet du Rouet in 1998, 1999 and 2000 and Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum with Shutterfly in 2008 and 2009 - horse-and-rider combinations of legendary status.
The venue that has hosted the final on most occasions is the Scandinavium Arena in Gothenburg which has opened its doors to the big event on 12 occasions.
In contrast, the Rolex FEI World Cup Final has been held in The Netherlands just once before, back in 1994 when Jos Lansink, then flying the Dutch flag but now competing for Belgium, reigned supreme at the Brabanthalle in 's-Hertogenbosch.
This season looks set for another red-hot opening round as defending champion Christian Ahlmann is steering a similar course to the one that led to his superb victory on home ground in Leipzig (GER) last April.
Riding his handsome stallion Taloubet, the 36 year old rider came out with all guns blazing to scoop the honours in the first two legs at Oslo (NOR) and Helsinki (FIN) last season, setting a pattern that continued over the winter months as his colleagues contributed a further four successes to the German tally.
Clearly the Germans are targeting the early rounds again this year, as Ahlmann will be joined at this weekend's Norwegian fixture by Michaels-Beerbaum and Ehning along with Marco Kutscher and Rene Tebbel - all intent on getting off to a good start, so that they can relax later in the season in the knowledge that qualification for the Final is already achieved.
A world-class field of riders from 15 nations will line out at the Telenor Arena, including seven of the top 11 on the latest Rolex Rankings. World No. 2, Sweden's Rolf-Goran Bengtsson, who recently added the individual FEI European Jumping Championship title to Olympic silver, heads the line-up followed by No. 5 Christian Ahlmann and No. 6 Australia's Edwina Tops-Alexander who will still have wedding bells ringing in her ears following her marriage to Global Champions Tour creator Jan Tops in Monaco last month.
World No. 7 Kevin Staut from France will also be in action along with No. 9 Pius Schwizer from Switzerland, and the Irish duo of Denis Lynch and Billy Twomey who are currently 10th and 11th on the Rankings list.
Of course the home representatives will be determined to make an impression, including Stein Endresen, Nicholai Lindbjerg, Geir Gulliksen, Morten Djupvik and the on-form Nina Braaten.
The Rolex FEI World Cup Jumping 2011/2012 kicks off at 15.30 local time on Sunday afternoon, and a long road to 's-Hertogenbosch in six months' time which will herald the lead-in to the Olympic summer of 2012.
This is the 34th season of FEI World Cup Jumping.
Rolex took up title sponsorship of the Western European League series in 2007.
Riders from 13 leagues on all continents will take part in 26 qualifying competitions before the 2011/2012 Final which takes place at 's-Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands next April.
The youngest rider ever to win the FEI World Cup Jumping title was the USA's Mario Deslauriers who was just 19 years old when he came out on top for Canada at Gothenburg, Sweden in 1984, riding Aramis.
The oldest winner was Austria's Hugo Simon, the man who claimed the trophy in the inaugural 1978/1979 season with Gladstone, and who was 54 years of age when winning it for the third time at Gothenburg in 1997, riding ET FRH.