A nail-biting last-to-go round from Gerco Schroder and Eurocommerce New Orleans clinched victory for The Netherlands at the FEI Nations Cup in St Gallen, Switzerland last night.
Germany came into this third leg of the 2012 series as clear favourites following their emphatic success in Rome last Friday. But, just as it did 12 months ago, the Swiss venue provided a classic example of what makes the sport of Nations Cup Jumping so appealing – its utter unpredictability. And in a repeat of last year’s exciting event, it was the Dutch who came out on top once again.
The host nation enjoyed another great day when sharing second place with Great Britain, while team Germany finished fourth ahead of Belgium in fifth and Ireland in sixth, France in seventh and Sweden in eighth place.
The result has bounced the Dutch to the top of the FEI Nations Cup leaderboard going into the fourth leg of the eight-competition series on home turf in Rotterdam in three weeks’ time. But it is still wide open, with Germany and Belgium only a single point in arrears as the half-way stage approaches.
Course designer Rolf Ludi really put it up to them over his formidable 12-fence track. Near-perfect grounds conditions were praised by the competitors, but only three double-clear performances were recorded on the day. And two of those came from Swiss riders Werner Muff (Kiamon) and Clarissa Crotta (West Side v Meerputoeve) who have now surely convinced their Chef d’Equipe, Urs Guenig, of their Olympic potential.
The third foot-perfect run came from Britain’s Tim Stockdale who, riding Fresh Direct Kalico Bay, showed he is fully recovered after breaking his neck in a fall last October. It seemed at the time that the popular 47 year old rider’s career must surely be finished. But, typically determined, he climbed back in the saddle five months later and has rocketed back into the top end of the sport with a vengeance over the past two months.
The early fences presented relatively few problems, but from the 1.60m vertical at fence five the questions began in earnest, although the 4-metre-wide water that followed never produced a splash all afternoon. But if riders didn’t rebalance quickly on the left-hand bend to the following wide oxer at seven, then there would be trouble ahead. Because the following line of oxer to vertical needed a forward ride to meet all the fences in a good spot, and they were pretty uncompromising.
But the most difficult line was yet to come. Turning right-handed to a massive oxer at 10, riders then had to straighten out for the slightly bending line to the penultimate triple combination which was the bogey on the course. The opening element here was a 1.90m triple bar and was followed by two verticals, with a tight distance inside and, to add to the degree of difficulty, a narrow plank on top of the final element. Time and again this hit the floor as horses couldn’t adjust their stride quickly enough. And then it was right-handed down to the final oxer and home.
The winning team’s Jeroen Dubbeldam, who picked up just a single first-round time penalty, explained afterwards – “it’s always difficult when you have a triple combination like that at the end of a course. The horse has lost some of its power by the time it gets there, and in this case the oxer before it look a lot out of them – it was very wide. On top of that, having a triple bar going into the triple combination is very difficult, and the double verticals were very short – it wasn’t an easy course” said the 2000 Olympic champion.
It seemed the prediction that it would be a walk-over for the Germans might prove correct when, at the end of round one, the defending series champions were carrying just the single time penalty collected by pathfinders Christian Ahlmann and Codex One. Anchorman Marcus Ehning’s double-error with Plot Blue could be discounted when Rene Tebbel (Light On) and Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum (Bella Donna) both went clear.
They had a five-point lead over the Dutch going into the second round after Dubbeldam (BMC Utascha) and Marc Houtzager (Sterrehof’s Voltaire) exceeded the time allowed of 77 seconds for a single time fault and Leon Thijssen (Tyson) lowered the final element of the triple combination. Schroder provided the Dutch discard score first time out when hitting the same plank at the penultimate fence and the final oxer.
The Swiss and British carried eight faults into round two and, in the final analysis, it was these leading four teams who battled it out in the closing stages when the Belgian side of Niels Bruynseels (Conisha van de Helle), Dirk Demeersman (Bufero van het Panishof), Rik Hemeryck (Quarco de Kerambars0 and Gregory Wathelet (Euphony Cadjanine Z) disappeared from the reckoning with an additional 16 faults to finish on a total of 25.
In an odd turn of events, anchor riders proved particularly vulnerable. Normally relied upon to steady team fortunes, the final competitors from seven of the eight teams provided the discount score first time out. Swedish chances disintegrated when, despite clears from Jens (Lunatic) and Peder Fredricson (H&M Arctic Aurora Borealis), Helen Persson’s 13 faults with Chamonix H were followed by the retirement of Linda Heed and Bee Wonderful who got into a muddle at the triple combination. Heed didn’t start in the second round, and with 35 more faults to add the Swedes had to settle for last place at the end of the day. The Irish only produced one clear round – from Jessica Kuerten and Voss at their second attempt – and remain at the bottom of the leaderboard behind the French whose anchor partnership of Olivier Guillon and Lord de Theize had a difficult time, with 20 first-round penalties followed by retirement in round two.
The Swiss really rose to the occasion on their home ground, producing three second-round clears – from Muff, Sprunger and Crotta – that piled the pressure on the British who also shared an eight-fault tally at the halfway stage. The British responded equally well when pathfinders Nick Skelton and Carlo and anchor partnership John Whitaker and Maxillian improved from first-round four-fault results to stay clear, while Stockdale never put a foot wrong all day with his 11 year old gelding who had been considerably less impressive at this same event 12 months ago.
With a final score of eight for both the Swiss and British, it was now up to the Dutch and Germans to hold fast, but while Ahlmann came up trumps with a second-round clear, it fell apart for the leaders when both Tebbel and Michaels-Beerbaum double-faulted. Even without the assistance of last-line rider Ehning, their final score could not be better than 9 faults, so a back-to-back victory had slipped from their grasp. It still wasn’t over for the Dutch however.
Thijssen and Dubbeldam both kept a clean sheet at their second attempt, but Houtzager fell victim to the big oxer at 10, so it all hung in the balance as Schroder and Eurocommerce New Orleans returned to the ring. A fence down would mean they would have to settle for fourth place on a final score of 10 faults, and two time faults would lead to a three-way jump-off against the Swiss and British.
The Dutchman held his nerve brilliantly however, steering his big grey gelding home with just a single time fault to add despite a rattle at the very last. “We were all very nervous when he was going in,” said Dubbeldam afterwards. “It was pure pressure – but Gerco stayed very cool and did it for us today”.
It was an important day for Dubbeldam from another perspective too, as he is still cementing his partnership with the mare BMC Utascha SFN, who was formerly ridden by fellow-countryman Eric van der Vleuten. And he has the London Olympic Games in his sights.
“Up until now we have had some good shows, but we are still getting used to each other and this is only our third show together outdoors and our very first Nations Cup together. We are getting to know each other now, and it felt good today”.
It must be feeling pretty good for Dutch Chef d’Equipe, Rob Ehrens, also, as his team heads to home ground in Rotterdam on 22 June with a convincing win under their belt and a half-point lead over Belgium and Germany on the FEI Nations Cup 2012 leaderboard.
The Irish quartet of Shane Sweetnam, Jessica Kurten, Cian O’Connor and Billy Twomey finished sixth, with Kurten on her new horse Voss notching up two jumping mistakes and a time penalty first time out, but staging a remarkable recovery in the second round to record Ireland’s only zero score.
Shane Sweetnam and Amaretto Darco opened on four faults, but the Corkman dropped two poles on his second attempt to finish the two rounds on 12 faults.
Cian O’Connor lost a shoe in the first round with Blue Loyd, with the mishap costing him eight faults, but came back with a four fault round after the break.
Billy Twomey had one mistake in the first round with Je t’Aime Flamenco, but a disappointing 12 faults in the second round.
Team Ireland Equestrian’s show jumping manager Robert Splaine said after the competition: “It was an extremely difficult course today with many horses faring badly, but though Ireland has now more in the way of numbers we still do not have enough proven combinations at this level.
“Jessica Kurten’s clear round on her new horse was very promising, and Cian O’Connor, who is getting to know Blue Loyd a lot better, pulled a shoe in the first round just before having his first fence down and this unsettled them, but he came back with just four faults in the second round.
“Many riders got caught out on the the treble combination, which, coming so late on the course proved a very difficult line to negotiate.
“Overall, though, it was good to see an improvement.”
1. The Netherlands 7 faults: Tyson (Leon Thijssen) 4/0, Sterrehof’s Voltaire (Marc Houtzager) 1/4, BMC Utascha SFN (Jeroen Dubbeldam) 1/0, Eurocommerce New Orleans (Gerco Schroder) 9/1.
Equal 2. Switzerland 8 faults: Kiamon (Werner Muff) 0/0, Palloubet d’Halong (Janika Sprunger) 8/0, West Side v Meerputhoeve (Clarissa Crotta) 0/0, Carlina (Pius Schwizer) 12/Ret.
Equal 2. Great Britain 8 faults: Carlo (Nick Skelton) 4/0, Viking (Michael Whitaker) 4/12, Fresh Direct Kalico Bay (Tim Stockdale) 0/0, Maximillian (John Whitaker) 4/0.
4. Germany 9 faults: Codex One (Christian Ahlmann) 1/0, Light On (Rene Tebbel) 0/8, Bella Donna (Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum) 0/8, Plot Blue (Marcus Ehning) 8.0.
5. Belgium 25 faults: Conisha van de helle (Niels Bruynseels) 4/12, Bufero van het Panishof (Dirk Demeersman) 4/4, Quarco de Kerambars (Rik Hemeryck) 1/4, Euphony Cadjanine Z (Gregory Wathelet) 8/8.
6. Ireland 28 faults: Amaretto D’Arco (Shane Sweetnam) 4/8, Voss (Jessica Kuerten) 9/0, Blue Loyd (Cian O’Connor) 8/4, Je T’Aime Flamenco (Billy Twomey) 4/12.
7. France 35 faults: Napoli du Ry (Simon Delestre) 4/4, Orient Express HDC (Patrice Delaveau) 4/10, Mylord Carthago (Penelope Leprevost) 8/5, Lord de Theize (Olivier Guillon) 20/Ret.
8. Sweden 48 faults: Lunatic (Jens Fredricson) 0/4, H&M Arctic Aurora Borealis (Peder Fredricson) 0/18, Chamonix H (Helena Persson) 13/13, Bee Wonderful (Linda Heed) Ret/DNS. Full result here
FEI Nations Cup 2012 – Standings after Round 3 at St Gallen:
1. The Netherlands – 20.5
2. Belgium – 20.0
3. Germany – 20.0
4. Switzerland – 16.5
5. Great Britain – 13.0
6. Sweden – 9.0
7. France – 8.0
8. Ireland – 7.0