It was no easy task to win the CSI4* Grand Prix in Liege on Sunday afternoon, but somehow Niels Bruynseels managed to make it look a lot less difficult than what it actually was. The 1.60 competition was a tough conclusion to the show, which also staged a hard Grand Prix qualifier on Saturday night - and in the end only eight of the 48 riders made it to the jump-off in front of a huge crowd of spectators.
The thirteen-fence-first-round-track caused a lot of heartache, even for the best of the competitors. It was a line with a plank tight out of a turn as fence nine, followed by three forward strides to a huge oxer and then a short five strides to a black vertical that caused the most drama. The fact that the black vertical was placed towards a huge door of the same color made it hard to see for many of the horses, and plenty jumped more or less straight through it. Worst it was for Kevin Staut who parted ways with his horse at this fence. Also Kevin's team mate Patrice Delaveau had problems, and retired after a stop in the triple combination on Carinjo HDC (Cascavelle x Landgraf). The two were not alone in struggling, like on Saturday over half of the riders ended on a score of eight or worse.
Those who made clear rounds got celebrated properly though, and in the end it was set for a jump-off with a very good field of riders. Home rider Rik Hemeryck opened up, but had to see the STX vertical fall to the ground - settling for four faults but on a very good time at 34.78 seconds. In the end it would be good enough for fourth. Turkey's Derin Demirsoy followed, but had the last vertical down on a slower time than that of Rik.
John Whitaker was next, and did what he is best at - riding fast clear rounds. Aboard Argento (Arko x Gasper), the living legend set the time to beat at 35.11 seconds and the crowds exploded celebrating the British rider as one of their own. It definetly looked hard to beat Whitaker for those to come.
Belgium's own Jerome Guery gave it his best though, and came so close on Papillon Z (Perhaps x Cassini I). Guery was a bit lucky perhaps, as the grey stallion rattled a few poles along the way - but they stayed in the cups and the two crossed the finish line on a time of 35.95 slotting in behind John. Paul Estermann had a good time too, but Castlefield Eclipse (Obos Quality x Furisto) lowered the element out of the combination leaving them on four faults and to the 6th place in the end.
Niels Bruynseels was the next challenger on Cas de Liberte (Cracky Z x Chellano Z). The Belgian rider set off with a determined canter, and left little doubt that he was in for the win. With a great rhythm thorughout, and some very tight turns Niels was lifted on and upwards by the crowds - and when he crossed the finish line he had done the seemingly impossible shaving the time down to 34.42 seconds taking over the lead.
Poor Pieter Devos also rode fast at 35.12 seconds but the last vertical fell, and in the end the Belgian rider finished fifth. Egypt's Karim Elzoghby was the last rider in the ring, but like Estermann he had the b-element of the combinattion down - ending 7th.
The crowds could celebrate two home riders on the podium, with Bruynseels on top and Guery in third divided by no one else than John Whitaker in second.
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