Saudi Arabia’s Abdullah Al Sharbatly sprang a big surprise today when, riding the brilliant mare Seldana di Campalto, he produced two more amazing clear rounds to earn his place in the Final Four competition which will decide the individual Jumping medals at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games™ in Kentucky, USA.  The 28 year old will join three giants of the sport in the exciting contest which tests horsemanship skills to the limit as the riders exchange horses.  But Al Sharbatly has no fear of competing against the reigning Olympic Champion Eric Lamaze from Canada, former World Champion Rodrigo Pessoa from Brazil and Belgium’s Philippe Le Jeune.

After securing the coveted top-four qualifying spot tonight the Saudi rider said “you never know what’s going to happen. Even if you ride perfectly well tomorrow you need a little luck and I think we will see a big surprise!”.

With America’s Laura Kraut and her Olympic gold medal winning ride Cedric scratched from the startlist after this morning’s veterinary inspection there was a 29-strong field in today’s first round in which course designer Conrad Homfeld once again tested control and accuracy.  Home hero McLain Ward produced the first clear with Sapphire when seventh to go, and only four others would follow suit in this round in which the faults were evenly spread around the 12-fence course.  However it was the penultimate triple combination which proved the bogey, the middle oxer in particular claiming a large number of victims, and it was here that Germany’s Carsten-Otto Nagel’s great run with Corradina came unstuck with four very expensive faults that dropped them from overnight third down to sixth.

As the second round got underway over a completely new track the leaderboard was already dramatically changed, with Al Sharbatly lying fifth behind Pessoa in fourth, Sweden’s Rolf-Goran Bengtsson in third, Lamaze in second and Le Jeune in pole position.  Overnight leader Pessoa had slipped three places after a single first-round mistake at that bogey element of the triple combination but sixth-placed Bengtsson, fourth-placed Lamaze and second-in-line Le Jeune kept a clean sheet.

The second round track jumped considerably easier than the first, and there were 13 clears this time out. Nagel looked like he might just sneak back into contention when Corradina was fault-free, but when Al Sharbatly and Pessoa left all the poles intact the German partnership began to disappear from the reckoning.  Bengtsson lost his grip on third spot when Ninja la Silla hit the oxer at fence five and that allowed the other two to move up, and when Lamaze and the hard-running Hickstead also went clear and then Le Jeune returned with just a single time fault on the board the Final Four was decided.

There was a combination of amazement and curiosity about Al Sharbatly in the aftermath.  He has only been riding the fabulous Seldana di Campalto for six weeks.  The rider has been mainly based in his home country, with occasional visits to the European circuit, but he is talented and experienced  – a former winner of the FEI Children’s Championship and a gold medallist at the Pan-American Games when he was just 16.  He set himself a plan this year and he’s already executing it with amazing efficiency. “I bought this horse to try to qualify for the next Olympic Games, not for the World Championship – of course I wanted to win the World Championship, everyone does – I was just really happy for the first few days to jump clear but my horse is amazing, she is the only horse to jump five clear rounds here this week!” he said.

Seldana di Campalto was ridden by Natale Chiaudani to take team silver for Italy at last summer’s Alltech FEI European Championships™ in Windsor, Great Britain, but the mare has quickly adapted to her new rider after being sold in August and they have cemented a super partnership in just a few weeks.  “I’ve only taken her to two shows before this, at Gijon and Madrid, so it’s been a short preparation for coming here!” Al Sharbatly explained.

All four qualified riders are excited about tomorrow night’s competition and the challenge of riding each other’s horses.  Pessoa said all the horses are very different.  “When you come to a class like this you try to adapt to the horses – it’s about what you see, what you think, the impression that you get – you’ve only got a few minutes to get to know each one and you hope you can get a bit of a feeling for the horse in that time” explained the 1998 World Champion who is bidding for his second title.

Lamaze talked about his recovery after breaking his foot while competing in the Grand Prix at Aachen, Germany in July.  This left him out of action for several weeks and he still walks with a brace for support.  “It doesn’t affect me when I’m riding, only when I’m walking” he explained. He was more concerned about the enforced break for his stallion Hickstead – “he doesn’t do well when he’s off, it’s better for him when he keeps going” he pointed out.  “In Calgary he jumped a bit normal, and here the first day he had a fence down but every day he’s getting better and better – he’s a little horse and he needs to be kept jumping fit” he added.

Lamaze reckoned that Le Jeune’s stallion Vigo d’Arsouilles will be the toughest for him to ride tomorrow – “he’s big and he’s strong” the Olympic champion pointed out, but he thinks Pessoa’s horse Rebozo should suit him because “he’s my type of horse”.  For Le Jeune there is a kind of “deja vu” because when he took team bronze at the FEI World Equestrian Games™ in Jerez, Spain in 2002 he was riding Vigo’s sire Nabab de Reve.  “This is a nice feeling having his son here eight years later” the Belgian rider pointed out.

It is 12 years since Pessoa claimed his first World title in Rome, Italy and he was asked this evening how much he himself has changed during that time.  “Well, I’ve put on a couple of kilos, I’ve had one divorce and one child and new owners, but I’m still the same!” he answered, adding that he still enjoys the thrill of this kind of competition.  “I’ve been lucky with my life and to be in a World Championship Final for a second time is a great opportunity” he insisted.  As a master-horseman, he is probably the favourite to win through tomorrow.  “It’s a unique format and we all know what we have to do if we want to get close to a medal.  The Final Four is a great way to determine a World Champion because you are riding not just the horse you know, but the three others as well”.  He was just 26 when he took the World title for the first time, and, 12 years later, he’s still hungry to do it all again…..

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Facts and Figures:
– 30 horses went into the first round of today’s competition
– 24 horses competed in round 2
– There was one elimination in the first round – G&C Lagran ridden by Venezuela’s Pablo Barrios
– There was one retirement in the first round – Germany’s Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum with Checkmate
– The bogey fence of the first round was the penultimate fence – the triple combination at fence 11
– Reigning Olympic champion Eric Lamaze, who goes into tomorrow’s Final Four competition, broke his foot while competing in the Grand Prix at Aachen in July.
– Four horses and riders go into tomorrow’s final which will decide the new World Champion – Canada’s Eric Lamaze and Hickstead, Belgium’s Philippe Le Jeune with Vigo D’Arsouilles, Brazil’s Rodrigo Pessoa with HH Rebozo and Saudi Arabia’s Abdullah Al Sharbatly with Seldana Di Campalto.
– The riders will exchange horses during tomorrow’s exciting final competition which begins at 8pm local time.
– Abdullah Al Sharbatly’s horse is a mare, the other three horses in tomorrow’s final are all stallions.

Rodrigo Pessoa talking about his horse HH Rebozo “He came from Candice King (US rider), she took her time with him and his performance here owes a lot to her very good work with him”.

Philippe Le Jeune talking about tomorrow’s challenge “you have three minutes and two jumps to get used to the new horse, it’s up to me to do the best I can”.

Eric Lamaze “I’m looking forward to riding the three other horses – it’s going to be fun!”.

Results :
Standings after Today’s Competition – 1, Hickstead (Eric Lamaze) CAN 3.39; 2, Vigo d’Arsouilles (Philippe Le Jeune) BEL 4.11; 3, HH Rebozzo (Rodrigo Pessoa) BRA 6.80; 4, Seldana di Campalto (Abdullah Al Sharbatly) KSA 7.07; 5, Corradina (Carsten-Otto Nagel) GER 7.24; 6, Ninja la Silla (Rolf-Goran Bengtsson) SWE 9.37; 7, Sapphire (McLain Ward) USA 12.27; 8, Chianto (John Pearce) CAN 12.70; 9, AD Ashleigh Drossel Dan (Alvaro Miranda) BRA 12.85; 10, Avenzio 3 (Taizo Sugitani) JPN 13.40.