The brand new Longines League of Nations™ series got off to a flying start today with a nail-biting contest in which Team Germany won through at the Al Forsan International Sports Resort in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
It could hardly have been scripted better, with the result depending on the very last ride of the day when a single error by Mark McAuley and GRS Lady Amaro prevented a jump-off between the winners and Team Ireland who led from the outset but who had to settle for runner-up spot ahead of Sweden in third place.
Germany finished on an eight-fault scoreline while Ireland completed with 12, and the Swedes were rewarded for their quicker times to fill third spot when sharing a 20-fault final scoreline with Brazil.
Christian Kukuk (Mumbai), Jörne Sprehe (Sprehe Hot Easy), David Will (My Prins van Dorperheide) and Christian Ahlmann (Blueberry) posted today’s historic German victory, and their chef d’équipe Otto Becker said “it’s a super start in the Olympic season, and I’m very happy and proud of my four riders!”
Olympic course designer, Spain’s Santiago Varela, set them a technical 12-fence track that required the full attention of both riders and horses every inch of the way. Bizarrely, the opening oxer proved one of the big bogeys, lowered by four horse-and-rider combinations in the first round and another four in round two, but it was the line from the oxer at fence five to the open water at six and on to a double of verticals at fence seven that proved the undoing of most.
As world number one Henrik von Eckermann said after his pathfinding round for Sweden with Iliana, this stretch of the track was the most challenging. However he was one of four to complete double-clear runs today, the other three posted by his wife, Switzerland’s Janika Sprunger with the talented 10-year-old mare Orelie, Irish pathfinder Richard Howley with Equine America Consulent de Prelet Z and Germany’s Jörne Sprehe with Sprehe Hot Easy.
As the number-one ranked team in the world the Irish had the best of the draw and so were last to go in the first round. And they made the most of that advantage when clears from McAuley, Howley and Mikey Pender (HHS Calais) left them on a zero scoreline at the halfway stage ahead of Sweden and Germany on four, Switzerland and Brazil on eight, the UAE – who were not counting points but were competing as host nation – on 11 faults, and Great Britain and USA on 12 apiece.
The Netherlands, France and Belgium lost out when only these top eight teams went through to the second round, and with only three riders per nation this time out and every score counting the intensity increased at a rapid rate. It was fast, furious and mistakes would prove very costly indeed.
The Americans completed with 28 faults on the board, the British finished with 36 and the UAE racked up an additional 35 to drop out of contention on a final total of 46. With just 12 to add Team Brazil finished with 20 and double-faults from both Elian Baumann (Little Lumpi E) and Barbara Schnieper (Canice) settled the Swiss tally at 24. But meanwhile the Germans were piling on the pressure.
Kukuk’s only mistake with Mumbai in the first round was at the troublesome double at fence seven, but putting in an extra stride this time it came up just right and the pair sailed on home for an effortless clear. So when Sprehe produced a second sensational run with her 12-year-old mare Hot Easy then Team Germany was clearly threatening because Von Eckermann’s second clear was followed by a 12-fault result from Peder Fredricson and Alcapone des Carmille, so the Olympic, World and European champions from Sweden were losing their grip.
Meanwhile although the Irish got off to the perfect start with Howley’s second clear, mistakes from Mikey Pender and HHS Calais at the oxer at three and again at the final oxer left them vulnerable.
It all came down to the final two into the ring, Germany’s David Will levelling the score with Ireland at eight faults each when clipping the penultimate oxer. So a jump-off was in prospect if Ireland’s McAuley could leave all the timber intact. But that difficult distance from the open water to the first of the double of verticals proved the Irishman’s undoing in an otherwise foot-perfect last-to-go run with the mare who made it all look so elementary first time out. The pendulum had swung, and the one-fence advantage went in favour of the Germans at the end of the day.
Jörne Sprehe was delighted with the win. “It’s a really good feeling, Easy was jumping amazing and I’m very proud of her. For me she is the best horse ever!” she said.
Christian Kukuk was also well pleased with Mumbai’s performance. “It’s actually the first 5* show for him since the Europeans and he always needs a few rounds to get back in the rhythm, especially at this level that is normal, but I had a good feeling and I said after having one down in the first round I’m very excited for the second round. It was very good for him, in the second round he showed all his potential and I think our team should be very proud today.”
David Will said, “I’m thrilled with the whole team, especially Jörne with her double-clear, she was exceptionally good today. I’m very happy with my horse, he jumped great. In the first round it was a bit my mistake, I didn’t wait enough going to the last fence and we had that down. In the second round he jumped even better which proves his quality. And I was maybe thinking a bit too much about my fault at the last fence in the first round and then I had a light fault at the second-last, but overall my horse was class!”
And asked if he was unhappy about not being called up for the second round, Christian Ahlmann said, “No! I was really happy with my round and it was the first time she jumped a proper 1.60m course with me so I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen today. So we had a super round, everything worked like it should and I’m really happy with that!”
For Irish chef d’équipe Michael Blake there was a little disappointment “because at half-time we looked like we could snatch it. But overall if you told me this morning we were going to be second, against the strong teams that were there, I would have been happy overall. In the end it didn’t go our way, but that’s the sport!” he said.
As Howley pointed out today’s second-place finish is still good news. “This puts us in a great position moving forward, today was top-level sport, a difficult course with very strong teams here so I think it was a great result. If we had one fence less we were in a jump-off for first place so we weren’t far away!” he said.
Today’s result see Germany top of the Longines League of Nations™ leaderboard having earned the maximum 100 points, with Ireland in second with 90 and Sweden third with 80. All teams picked up points today except for UAE who are not eligible.
Speaking on behalf of the Organising Committee Mohamed Al Nakhi congratulated the German winners and described the excitement. “We saw some great sport, a new format, we weren’t sure how it would turn out and you could see the result flipping right there at the end between Ireland and Germany. We thought we would have a jump-off, it didn’t turn out that way but I think it was great sport!”
Next stop for the series is Ocala (USA) in March, with the two remaining legs taking place in June at St Gallen (SUI) and Rotterdam (NED) after which the top eight of the ten competing nations will make the cut to the very first Longines League of Nations™ Final in Barcelona (ESP) in October.
Full results here.