The late withdrawal of FEI European Champion Roger Yves Bost has put a damper on the host country’s chances at the 36th FEI World Cup Jumping Final, as final preparations are put on the Lyon venue with just a week to go.
France has only once taken the FEI World Cup Jumping title when the brilliant Bruno Broucqsault and Dileme de Cephe sprang a big surprise in Milan, Italy, back in 2004. But France boasts the team that won the hotly contested inaugural Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup Jumping Final last September, while its representatives have also been in great form on the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping Western European League throughout the winter months.
Add to that the incentive of hosting the forthcoming Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy in four months’ time and the subsequent pressure to be at their best when that moment arrives, and it seems French riders have every reason to be driven to success when the lights go on in the Eurexpo stadium in Lyon next week.
A total of 41 riders from 20 nations will vie for honours in Lyon from April 17 to 21. Finalists have emerged from 16 qualifying Leagues around the globe. USA has the largest rider representation at the final with 11, and Germany is next with five.
The record books show that the two most successful nations are the USA and Germany with nine wins apiece. The Americans were truly dominant during the early years of the series which quickly captured the imagination and interest of public and press alike from its start in 1978.
US riders won seven times over the first nine seasons, but they would have to wait a long, lonely quarter of a century before Rich Fellers and the comeback king of equestrian sport, the Irish-bred stallion Flexible, brought the glory back across the Atlantic again after victory at ‘s-Hertogenbosch (NED) in 2012. And suddenly the German stranglehold on the champion’s leaderboard was broken when Beezie Madden returned last year and the US flag was hoisted once again, this time over the Scandinavium Arena in Gothenburg (SWE), drawing the USA and Germany level in terms of winning performances. The Swedish city has a long and close link with this series, hosting the Final on 13 occasions and already confirmed as the venue for the 2016 decider.
It took Germany quite a long time to get into the frame, Ludger Beerbaum taking their first FEI World Cup Jumping title with the great mare, Ratina Z, at Gothenburg in 1994. It would be another nine years before Otto Becker, now Chef d’Equipe for the German Jumping team, managed to repeat the feat, but from then on the Germans have been the ones to beat. Marcus Ehning recorded the first of his three wins at Las Vegas (USA) in 2003 riding Anka, and Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum followed suit at the same venue in 2005 partnering the magical Shutterfly.
Ehning returned to the winner’s podium at Kuala Lumpur (MAS) in 2006 riding Sandro Boy and Michaels-Beerbaum proved unbeatable with Shutterly in both 2008, at Gothenburg, and 2009 back in Las Vegas, before Ehning claimed the honours again at Geneva (SUI) in 2010 thanks to his two horses Noltes Kűchengirl and Plot Blue. Christian Ahlmann brought the German tally to nine on home turf at Leipzig (GER) in 2011, and he joins Ehning, Daniel Deusser, Lars Nieberg and Ludger Beerbaum in the five-strong German contingent at Lyon this year where Ehning is the only three-time champion bidding for a record fourth win.
Making it all the more remarkable is the fact that the rider, who celebrates his 40th birthday during this year’s Final on Sunday 19 April, brings the now 17-year-old veteran, Plot Blue, to do battle alongside the impressive 11-year-old grey stallion Cornado NRW this time around. For sure Ehning will be one to watch out for as his knowledge and experience will be put to good use as he strives to step into the record books as the first four-time champion.
Much of the appeal of the FEI World Cup Jumping series lies in the fact that it comes at the end of a long qualifying season, particularly for the contenders from Europe and the USA. Places are hard-earned, and although new names will emerge from more remote regions to impress and extend promise for the future, it tends to be the seasoned campaigners who shine when it comes to the deciding day.
The format for the Final is as tough as it comes, beginning with a speed competition that is designed to give a skillful rider with an unlucky knockdown the chance to still stay in touch with the leaders. In the second competition there is a first round and then a jump-off against the clock, after which the points awarded for the first two competitions are transformed into penalties that are carried through to the last day.
Following a rest day, the last competition is a Grand Prix over two rounds which is open to the 30 best-placed athletes, at the end of which the new champion will be crowned. The image of a rider holding the prestigious FEI World Cup Jumping trophy aloft is one of the most coveted in the sport. It is widely recognised as a prize that is more than difficult to win and a watershed moment in the career of every athlete and their horse.
So many of the magical partnerships throughout the last 36 years have their names carved into this piece of jumping history, including the early US champions such as Conrad Homfeld with Balbuco (1980) and Abdullah (1985), Michael Matz and Jet Run (1981), Melanie Smith and Calypso (1982), Norman dello Joio and I Love You (1983), Leslie Burr Lenehan (now Burr-Howard) and McLain (1986) and Katherine Burdsall with The Natural (1987).
Legends abound on the Roll of Honour – Canada’s Ian Millar and the great Big Ben who proved untouchable in 1988 and 1989 despite the close attention of other greats like the brilliant little Jappeloup ridden by Frenchman Pierre Durand and Britain’s John Whitaker with Milton. Whitaker too would have his time in the spotlight with a double in 1990 and 1991 from his much-loved grey who had a huge following world-wide.
But not even these greats could match the result achieved by Brazil’s Rodrigo Pessoa and the super-stallion Baloubet du Rouet. The fourth of the three-time winners, alongside Germany’s Ehning and Michaels-Beerbaum, and Austria’s Hugo Simon who did a back-to-back double with ET FRH 17 years after his inaugural season victory, Pessoa recorded an as yet unmatched three-in-a-row victory roll between 1998 and 2000. Pessoa will not, however, line up this time around when his country will be represented by the less-well-known Yuri Mansur Guerios.
All eyes will be on world number one in the Longines Rankings, Great Britain’s Scott Brash, who has enjoyed a hugely successful season on the winter circuit at Wellington, Florida and who is likely to come out with all guns blazing. He will be joined by compatriot and fellow FEI European team gold medallist Michael Whitaker, who has rarely missed a Final in the last 36 seasons. Billy Twomey will fly the Irish flag, while 20-year-old Nicola Philippaerts, winner of the last leg of the Western European League at Gothenburg last month, will be in action for Belgium alongside Francois Mathy Jr.
Australia’s Edwina Tops-Alexander is never one to be discounted, while Portugal’s Luciana Diniz has a strong record at this final, and with the reigning Olympic champion, Switzerland’s Steve Guerdat, in the mix along with fellow-countryman Pius Schwizer it’s going to be a mighty battle from start to finish.
The Americans also travel with much more than just hope as their star-studded field of runners includes a mass of young talent along with a depth of experience in the shape of Kent Farrington, McLain Ward and defending champion Madden, who is under no illusions about the difficulty of repeating her historic 2013 victory.