There’s nothing quite like a win in front of your home crowd, and on Dec. 30 Wilm Vermeir brought the spectators to their feet with a spectacular victory in the ninth leg of the Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ 2022/2023 Western European League on home ground at Mechelen in Belgium.
This Christmas fixture is always special, and even before the competition began the atmosphere in the arena was already electric and filled with emotion as the crowd sang their national anthem. And they were rewarded with the result they wanted when 43-year-old Vermeir and his faithful family-owned gelding Iq van het Steentje snatched victory when last to go in a sensational five-way jump-off against the clock.
Vermeir knew what he had to do. German pathfinder Hans-Dieter Dreher had thrown down a huge challenge when racing through the timers in 35.19 seconds with the lovely grey stallion Cous Cous to set a strong early lead. But the Belgian pair galloped home relentlessly to take the win in 34.45 seconds and set the arena alight.
Their all-or-nothing run to the final vertical was breathtaking. “If I’d had the last fence down it would have been an unbelievable disappointment for everybody, but everything was on our side ‒ the jump-off was perfect, the horse was perfect, it was all just super good!” the happy Belgian athlete said after Germany’s Daniel Deusser slotted into third ahead of Belgium’s Pieter Devos and Gilles Thomas in fourth and fifth places.
Eddy Geysemans’ 13-obstacle first-round track was testing.
“It was a scopy course, the triple combination (fence 7) was not easy and the horses had to give everything there, and then the following vertical was high and close to the side of the ring so that was already a difficult line. And the one before the last one was a difficult oxer. I gave Iq too much space there ‒ but he is fantastic!” Vermeir explained.
That massive oxer at fence 12 was 1.52m high and 1.60m wide and proved pivotal throughout the early stages of the competition. This was no day for the faint-hearted, with several fences, including the wall at four and the planks at fence 10, standing at 1.63m high.
First of the five to go against the clock, Dreher really put it up to to the rest when his handsome 10-year-old horse broke the beam in 35.19 and although Belgium’s Pieter Devos and the 15-year-old mare Mom’s Toupie de la Roque left all the poles in place they were almost a second slower through the finish.
Next in, 24-year-old Gilles Thomas looked set to shake up the leaderboard with a thrilling ride on the leggy Casall mare Calleryama, but as they thundered down to the final vertical she took her eye off the fence and ran out to the right for a four-fault penalty in a slow time. So the young Belgian who has firmly established himself at the top end of the sport this year would have to settle for fifth place in the final analysis.
Germany’s Deusser was next to set off, and no-one doubted that he’d be giving it his best shot. When the World Cup was last staged in Mechelen in 2019 he reigned supreme with Killer Queen, and because his family and friends are closely associated with the Mechelen fixture the 2014 series champion is always keen to put his best foot forward. But after producing a classic clear in the first round he said the jump-off course was not built to suit his horse, and although Scuderia 1918 Tobago Z was foot-perfect once again their time of 35.39 wouldn’t challenge for the lead.
As Vermeir returned to the ring for the final time you could hear a pin drop. Could he wrest victory from Dreher’s firm grasp and make it a home win? He wasn’t going to think too long or too hard about it. He was partnering a horse who he has known all his life, and they were simply going to give it everything they had.
Iq is not the quickest horse on the planet and Vermeir was delighted when the first-round time-allowed of 73 seconds was so generous because he reckoned that helped them jump clear. But it was that deep understanding that develops between horse and rider over time that clinched it for them in the end, Iq listening to every word as Vermeir talked him around the track and responding instinctively to every movement of his rider’s body as they weaved their way down to the last line where their race to the final fence had everyone gripping the edges of their seats.
“There was not so much in my mind galloping to that last jump. I just had to go as the distance was long and hope he did not touch the pole!” he said afterwards. It stayed firmly in place, and when the clock showed 34.45 seconds for the winning time the arena erupted with a roar of approval.
Iq (Toulon/Kannan/BWP) is a treasured horse, much loved by the entire Vermeir family. “He came directly to us as a foal. My brother rode him until he was a six-year-old and then he came to me, so the family has him 14 years and he’s very special to us all!” the winner pointed out.
The gelding is officially owned by Wilm’s brother Bert. “This year I did a lot of Nations Cups with him and we have a very good understanding between us. He means a lot to us all and we will never sell him!”, said the rider who has produced many top horses during his career from his base near Lummen in Belgium.
Second-placed Dreher was happy with the result he achieved from the eye-catching young stallion Cous Cous. “It was his first 1.60m today,” he said, and he praised the crowd for their enthusiastic support for every rider in today’s competition.
Third-placed Deusser said he was also content. “I am very happy with how my horse jumped and I can’t remember when he last had a fence down. My jump-off was not perfect, my turns were not optimal but I am very happy for Wilm ‒ he would have been difficult to beat this afternoon!” he pointed out.
Both Deusser and Dreher plan to compete in the next round of the 14-leg Western European League in Basel, Switzerland in two weeks’ time while today’s winner Vermeir will head to Leipzig, Germany the following weekend. With a strong string of results Deusser is already qualified for the Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ Final 2023 in Omaha, USA next April and lies second on the Western European leaderboard which continues to be headed by world number one, Henrik von Eckermann from Sweden.
Protesters tried to spoil the Mechelen party today by entering the arena when The Netherlands’ Willem Greve and Grandorado TN NOP were taking their turn but they didn’t succeed. Instead, Jumping Mechelen 2022 produced yet another spectacular day of super sport.
“We had a lot of people all week but the atmosphere today was amazing!” said Event Director Peter Bollen. “It was the perfect edition, full stands, three Belgian riders in the jump-off and a Belgian win ‒ this is the best birthday present we could wish for!”