The opening leg of the FEI Nations Cup Top League was a thriller right to the very last fence was jumped; and it was Belgium that took home the win after an exciting jump-off against the Netherlands. Sweden produced a remarkable four clear rounds in the second part of the competition to end up third – a great result as this is their first season back in the Top League after competing in the Promotional League last year.
After the first round in La Baule, it was Belgium and the Netherlands that were in the lead on a zero score. Philippe Le Jeune and the power house Vigo d’Arsouilles STX jumped a fantastic clear round for Belgium, as did Dirk Demeersman on Bufero van het Panishof and Gregory Wathelet on the talented Euphony Cadjanine Z. Niels Bruynseels also did fantastic on Conisha van de Helle and had a single time penalty, which could be struck out as the lowest score. The Netherlands also produced three fabulous clear rounds from the veteran Albert Voorn on the lovely Tobalio, Leon Thijssen on the bouncy Numero Uno-stallion Tyson and from in-form Marc Houtzager on Sterrehof’s Opium.
With a four penalty score Great Britain was not far behind though, and neither were Sweden on five penalties and Germany on six. Two great clear rounds from Nick Skelton on the amazing Big Star – who again and again lives up to his name – and Peter Charles on Murka’s Vindicat W, kept Britain in the top. With a clear from Peder Fredricson and only one time penalty from Henrik von Eckermann, Sweden also showed that they were serious candidates for the top three.
The course did not cause too many problems. It was a twelve fence track that included a combination at 3a and b, while the water came at fence eight followed by a line to an oxer at nine and then the triple combination at 10a, b and c – before a last line with a vertical to a huge oxer waited. Most of the faults came somewhere in the triple combination – a vertical-oxer-vertical – Ireland was one of the teams that had to see three of their riders getting faults here in the first round.
Switzerland redeemed themselves in round two, with clear rounds from Steve Guerdat, Werner Muff and Pius Schwizer – the latter being double clear on his super mare Carlina. Eventually they finished tied fifth overall on 12 penalties. Unfortunately for France, things did not work out so well on home soil and they finished last despite two lovely clear rounds from Penelope Leprevost on Topinambour. Ireland saw Jessica Kürten and Cian O’Connor deliver two great clear rounds, while Shane Sweetnham – clear in round one – had four faults, as did Denis Lynch. Together with the Swiss team they ended on 12 penalties.
Germany managed to stay at their score of six penalties in round two. All four riders left the fences intact, and it was only Thomas Voss on Carinjo that had a single time fault that could be left out after Janne Friederike Meyer, Hans Dieter Dreher and Philipp Weishaupt all rode clear. Great Britain did not have luck on their side though; Guy Williams, Peter Charles and Ben Maher all had fences down. Nick Skelton on the other hand put a smile on Chef d’Equipe Rob Hoekstra’s face with another clear from the impressive Big Star. The British team were also left at 12 penalties.
Sweden did the seemingly impossible when they produced four clear rounds in the second part of the competition. With their supposedly strongest riders in Beijing this weekend, there were no huge expectations for the Swedish team – but boy, did they deliver the goods. Three Fredricsons; Jens, Peder and Lisen made light work of the challenges on Lunatic, H&M Arctic Aurora Borealis and the cute Matrix – taking all the pressure away from Henrik von Eckermann’s young shoulders as he entered the ring on Allerdings as last to go for Sweden. But Henrik – who is so accurate and a real perfectionist – put the blue and yellow icing on the cake with yet another clear. They were left with their score of five penalties from the first round, and could in the end celebrate a podium place as number three together with Chef d’Equipe Sylve Söderstrand.
It was not a done deal before the Netherlands and Belgium had ridden their last rounds though. With Sweden and Germany breathing the two teams down the neck, the top two teams could not afford one single penalty from their last riders to go as both teams were left on a four penalty score after three riders had gone the second time around. Leon Thijssen had produced another clear for the Dutch team, while both of the Dutch Alberts [Zoer and Voorn] had one down. On the Belgian team Le Jeune demonstrated why he is reining World Champion and produced yet another clear with his beautiful chestnut stallion. Demeersman had one down, while Brunyseels was unlucky when the last two fences fell. But as last to go, Marc Houtzager for the Netherlands and Gregory Wathelet for Belgium did certainly not crack under the pressure – and they both produced second clear rounds. A jump-off was secured!
It was the veteran Albert Voorn who went neck to neck against the much younger Gregory Wathelet in the jump-off. Voorn had to put some pressure on, which of course involved speeding up his twelve year old Numero Uno-gelding – unfortunately he had one down on the way around the grass arena, but stopped the clock at 44.16. The time certainly demanded Wathelet to challenge himself; go for a steady clear or set the pace straight away in case a fence fell? The Belgian rider went for the latter on his ten year old Canabis Z-mare, and was probably very glad he did as the first element of the previous triple combination was hit and fell to the ground. As everybody held their breath over the last oxer it was a question about the time, was it good enough? Crossing the finish line on 41.71 it no doubt was, and the Belgian team could celebrate a fabulous start on the Top League season.
Standing in the Top League after round one in La Baule:
1. Belgium, 10
2. The Netherlands, 7
3. Sweden, 6
4. Germany, 5
5. Switzerland, 3
5. Great Britain, 3
5. Ireland, 3
8. France, 1
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