Team Germany, under the direction of Chef d’Equipe Otto Becker, won the inaugural leg of the Longines League of Nations™ series leg at Abu Dhabi on Sunday.
Ending their campaign in the United Arab Emirates on only 8 penalty points across two rounds of Jumping, all four team members had at least one clear round, with Jörne Sprehe posting a brilliant double clear aboard Sprehe Hot Easy. The sport on show was as spectacular as the Al Forsan International Sports Resort venue!
Team Ireland, who led the field at the interim, finished second on 12 points. With Chef d’Equipe Michael Blake, the men in the green jackets had only one fence down in the first round but faltered in the end to drop down a slot on the leaderboard.
Sweden took third place, level on penalties with Brazil but faster overall on the Longines clock. Their Chef d’Equipe Hank Ankarcrona had high hopes for them after seeing a double clear from World No.1-ranked Henrik von Eckermann and Iliana, but their 20 points in the end saw that dream fade.
“It’s a really, really good feeling,” said Germany's Sprehe of her performance. “She was jumping amazing,” she added of her Dutch Warmblood mare. “For me, she’s the best horse ever!”
The event held at the beautiful Al Forsan International Sports Resort in the UAE capital had 10 of the world’s highest ranked teams, plus the host nation, battling it out for points to advance to the Final at Barcelona in autumn. Only the top eight will punch a ticket to Spain, and with only four qualifying legs, the competition was fierce from the very first jump.
Santiago Varela Ullastres designed a challenging course to be completed in 78 seconds. Each team put forth four combos, with the worst score discarded in Round 1.
But in Round 2, the ante was upped, as only three athletes — chosen by the Chef d’Equipe — would return on the same course, with no discard. And only the top 8 teams of 11 from Round 1 would compete again.
Abu Dhabi was an opportunity for some newer athletes to get a chance in the pressure cooker, with many athletes also juggling the end of the Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ season and teams building for the Paris Olympic Games this summer.
The same trouble spots caught pairs out in both rounds, particularly the first obstacle, the water jump, and the final line to the finish.
Halfway through, Ireland were in a commanding position on zero penalty points, chased by Sweden and Germany with 4 points apiece. Switzerland and Brazil each had 8 points, followed by the UAE on 11 and Great Britain and the USA on 12.
It wasn’t to be for the teams from the Netherlands, France, and Belgium, who didn’t make the cut — quite a shock as they were figured to be amongst the chief contenders for the podium.
As Round 2 unrolled, it became clear that it would come down to Germany and Ireland for the top spot.
After von Eckermann’s double clear, former European champion Peder Fredricson picked up 12 points with Alcapone des Carmille, dropping them down a notch.
Their fate was sealed when Rolf-Göran Bengtsson added 4 more points aboard Zuccero HV.
The pressure was on
Team Ireland started out the round in incredible form, with Richard Howley — winner of two World Cup legs at Oslo and Helsinki — putting up a double clear with Equine America Consulent de Prelet Z.
But 8 points from Michael Pender with HHS Calais gave Germany the opening to squeak ahead.
With a 4 from Germans David Will (My Prins van Dorperheide), clears from Sprehe and Christian Kukuk (Mumbai), and Christian Ahlmann sitting it out with Blueberry, the pressure was on Mark McAuley, the final Irish competitor.
A clear would mean a jump off with Germany. But when one of the elements on the double combination hit the ground for 4 points with homebred GRS Lady Amaro, there was no luck of the Irish to carry them home. Ireland would end on 12 points to Germany’s 8, giving the latter the victory.
Germany elated by win
“I feel very happy,” said Kukuk, noting that Abu Dhabi was the first 5-star for Mumbai since the European Championship last year. “I had a good feeling. I was very excited for the second round. He showed all his potential.”
David Will said he was “thrilled with the whole team” and singled out Sprehe for her “exceptionally good” showing. “I thought overall my horse was class.”
Chef d’Equipe Otto Becker was elated with his team’s “super start to the season.”
“I’m happy and proud,” said Becker. “All four did great.” He was quick to comment that Ahlmann was the natural choice to leave out of Round 2, as his horse was the newest of the bunch.
Ahlmann — the 2011 World Cup champion — wasn’t upset at all that he didn’t ride, as it was Blueberry’s first 1.60-metre course and the first half yielded a “super round.”
“I’m really happy with that,” Ahlmann said, always a team player. “My three colleagues are super strong.”
In the end, it was Brazil in fourth place, followed by Switzerland, the USA, Great Britain, the United Arab Emirates, the Netherlands, France, and Belgium, in that order.
The UAE will certainly be proud of their top-eight finish, as they build towards Paris this year. And the venue for The President of the UAE Showjumping Cup was spectacular, from the stunning cultural parade at the start to the prize giving at the end.
The action moves to Ocala, Florida in the United States next month, with two subsequent legs at St. Gallen (SUI) and Rotterdam (NED) before the eight final teams travel to Barcelona.
Who will win the Longines League of Nations™ trophy when all the points have been tallied? Get involved in the action during the Longines League of Nations™ series by playing our Chasing Jumps treasure hunt game. Unlock gifts throughout the series thanks to our great competition. Find your first clue here!
Words by Patricia Salem
Images by Martin Dokoupil