The reigning Olympic and World team gold medallists from Sweden flexed their not-inconsiderable muscles when taking the lead on the opening day of the FEI Jumping European Championship 2023 at San Siro racecourse in Milan, Italy today.
However with scores converted into points, they go into tomorrow’s first round of the second competition with only a narrow advantage over the defending European champions from Switzerland, while Germany lies in overnight third, fractionally ahead of Ireland in fourth place.
Super performances from all four Swedish team members gave them the edge, Wilma Hellström setting out their stall with a great clear round from the one-eyed Cicci BJN before Rolf-Göran Bengtsson steered the grey stallion Zuccero into temporary pole position when also foot-perfect in 73.60 seconds.
Jens Fredricson blew that target out of the water however when galloping through the timers in 71.98 seconds with Markan Cosmopolit, and that would prove unbeatable at the end of the day. Others might be quicker, but they wouldn’t leave all the timber in place and would therefore be penalised with expensive seconds to add.
One of those would be the last Swedish team member and world number one Henrik von Eckermann who broke the beam in the super-fast time of 69.38 but who clipped the first element of the double at fence three with the mare Iliana to add four more seconds to their tally. Despite that, Team Sweden’s finishing total, when converted into points, leaves them with 1.51 penalties, just 0.41 ahead of the chasing Swiss.
The very first rider into the arena today, Switzerland’s Bryan Balsiger, showed nerves of steel when bringing Dubai du Bois Pinchet home clear. And although team-mate Edouard Schmitz and Gamin van’t Naastveldhof had two down both Martin Fuchs with Leone Jei and Steve Guerdat with Dynamix de Belheme produced spectacular clears.
Germany got off to an edgy start when Gerrit Nieberg and Ben 432 picked up 16 faults, but although Jana Wargers and Limbridge had one down they were fast. So when Philipp Weishaupt was clear and super-quick with Zineday and Marcus Ehning and Stargold left just one on the floor it was enough to secure third spot on the team leaderboard at this early stage. Their tally of 5.31 points leaves the Germans just 0.69 ahead of the Irish who were quietly impressive, Eoin McMahon sealing a good day for the Boys in Green with a great run from the former Ludger Beerbaum ride, the mare Mila.
His clear in 73.88 seconds would be good enough to settle him in overnight eighth place on the individual leaderboard, just behind Sweden’s Bengtsson in seventh and von Eckermann in sixth.
The fastest man of the day, Julien Epaillard, lies fifth for France with Dubai du Cedre and this pair would hold the lead tonight but for a mistake at the second element of the last of the three doubles included in today’s track, all of which proved very influential. Switzerland’s Guerdat lies fourth, Germany’s Weishaupt is in third, Switzerland’s Fuchs holds second spot while Sweden’s Fredricson will be out in front when the action resumes tomorrow afternoon.
Talking about today’s winning ride, Fredricson said he found a good rhythm the whole way around the course and that both he and his 12-year-old gelding felt motivated and relaxed. The Swedes are clearly confident about their prospects this week.
“We have a lot of experience now in championships and we have learned a lot over the years,” Fredricson pointed out. They are not getting too carried away about being in the early lead on both the team and individual leaderboards this evening however.
“I don’t think anyone on the team is surprised, we had a very good feeling but we know this is just the start. These Championships are a bit like a slalom, and today was only the first downhill run!” he added.
Von Eckermann was surprised by his mistake with the relatively inexperienced Iliana but was still well-pleased with today’s result. “I had a great feeling with the mare, she was very calm, and I don’t know why I had the fence down….but otherwise everything went according to plan and I was still quick enough so I could help the team. We have three really good scores, I think we are in the lead and that’s what we wanted for today – now only six more clear rounds and it’s done!” he said with a laugh.
Guerdat described Switzerland’s day as “a good team performance. The Swedish were even better but it’s looking quite good, we are on form but it’s still a very long way so we have to stay calm, keep the form and ride good,” he pointed out.
Despite bringing Dynamix home in the fourth-quickest time of the day he wasn’t happy with his own performance. “I didn’t give her a good ride but she’s amazing and she helped me today, so I hope I can keep her form and improve mine – then we will be good!” he said.
He really liked today’s course which proved the perfect first-day test. “It didn’t ride as nice as it walked, it was a much more difficult course than what we walked first.
“There were a lot of mistakes, and you didn’t have to go crazy fast to be in front which is what you want for a Speed class in a Championship – so hats off to the course designer, it was good sport today!” he said.
Team-mate Fuchs was also pleased with how things worked out today. Talking about his thrilling round which held the lead until Fredricson overtook him he said, “Leone Jei was fantastic. I had a good plan going in, leaving out a few strides without taking too much risk. He has such a big stride and has the experience at this level so I can do my course as I planned.”
The Longines oxer at fence eight – 1.50m high by 1.60m wide and on a left-bending line after the open water – was one of the main bogey fences of the day, and the world number four athlete who took team gold and individual silver with the same horse at the last European Championship in 2021 described how he tackled it with such ease.
“I left out a stride to the water and after the water jump, which is only possible with a horse with such a big canter as Leone. He always over-jumps the water so that helped me a lot in that line because I didn’t have to add. Pulling back it would have been difficult, but like this I could give him some space and let him use the canter that he has,” he explained.
The Swiss have their eyes firmly fixed on team gold. “Our main focus is on the Nations Cup, we have a very strong team and we want to defend our title. We had a great season so we want to keep it up, and everyone will try this week to defend the title and then we will see on Sunday where it brings us (in the battle for individual medals). The goal is also to win a spot for Paris but if we defend our title we will be in Paris for sure, so we try to medal here and not worry about Paris just yet!” he pointed out.
There are three tickets for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games up for grabs this week sand, following today’s opening competition, fifth-placed Austria and sixth-placed Italy are right in the hunt. But there are two more days of jumping to go before that piece of the puzzle falls into place.
Meanwhile tonight’s individual leader, Jens Fredricson, is a happy man. Before he went in the ring today he psyched himself up by listening to his favourite rock music, and after his ride the 55-year-old rider got a phone call from his father, Ingvar Fredricson – a call that any son would like to get.
“He told me he’d watched me on TV today and that this was the best round I have ever ridden. He’s been watching me for 42 years, so that’s a bit special!”Jens said. Even more reason for the Swedish jumping star to want to hold onto that precious lead over the coming days. But the story of the FEI Jumping European Championship 2023 is only beginning to play itself out.
The action resumes tomorrow at 13.15 when teams and individuals tackle the first round of the second competition, so don’t miss a hoofbeat….
All Startlists and Results here.