The 2009/2010 Rolex FEI World Cup Jumping Final, which kicks off with preliminary classes at the Palexpo Arena in Geneva, Switzerland, on Wednesday, April 14, has been blown wide open by the late withdrawal of Ireland's Jessica Kürten.
When three-time champion Germany's Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, who gave birth to her first baby just six weeks ago, confirmed last week that she will not defend the title, then Kürten's position as long-time favorite was further strengthened.
But the Irish rider who topped the Western European League qualifying series by a considerable margin is counting her lucky stars that the helmet she was wearing when she took a nasty fall while training a young horse last Friday did its job. It was completely crushed as it protected her from a serious head injury. Although she was hospitalized and doesn't feel well enough to compete this week, Kürten said she’ll be back in action very soon.
Kürten had already decided that she would not bring her sensational mare, Castle Forbes Libertina, to Geneva, so whether she would in fact have been a serious contender is a matter of conjecture.
In her absence, however, the spotlight moves across the vast field of talent that has emerged from the 13 leagues all around the world during the qualifying season—some young and relatively inexperienced, some considerably older and with a lot more mileage on the clock, but all dreaming the dream of holding that coveted trophy aloft, and many with an interesting story to tell.
Marcus Ehning's recent victory in the Grand Prix in Paris will have put the German star in the right frame of mind. He claimed the Rolex FEI World Cup trophy with Anka in Las Vegas, Nev., in 2003 and again with Sandro Boy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 2006, and he's hungry to do it all again.
It’s been 17 years since his German teammate Ludger Beerbaum won the title riding the great Ratina Z, but Ludger's latest lady, the lovely 10-year-old mare Gotha, is really coming into her own this season and should prove a valuable asset to his week's work.
Four years ago it was Switzerland's Beat Mandli who headed the line-up with Ideo du Thot in Las Vegas. Now, on home turf and following a sensational run of consistent form, it is the man who stands atop the Rolex World Rankings for the third consecutive month, Pius Schwizer, who may prove the one to beat.
Charm And Substance
Schwizer is no shrinking violet, as anyone who has ridden against him in a jump-off can confirm, but this is a man of charm and substance. He is firmly rooted in the Swiss soil where he used to work with his father, Leo, on the family pig farm in his younger years—training as a butcher and living a lifestyle far from the glamorous world in which he competes today. His grounded attitude and lively sense of humor are powerful tools for the 47-year-old who put his country on the road to that historic victory at last summer's Alltech FEI European Championships in Windsor, Great Britain.
And the Swiss challenge is firmly backed up by Steve Guerdat, as well as Niklaus Schurtenberger and Jane Richard who have received wild-card entries.
Richard could hardly believe her luck when she got the late call last Wednesday. "It was my birthday," said the Italian-based rider who had just turned 27. "I couldn't have had a better present!"
France will be represented by reigning European Champion Kevin Staut, Patrice Deleveau and the exciting Penelope Leprevost, while the enigmatic Natale Chiaudani lines out for Italy.
Swedish chances have been bolstered by the late addition of Olympic silver medalist Rolf-Goran Bengtsson, winner of the last Western European qualifying leg in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands last month who will join that other cool customer Svante Johansson to fly their national flag, while Michael Whitaker is Britain's sole representative.
The Irish were more than pleased when qualifying three riders for the final for the very first time, and the remaining two will be giving it their best shot.
Dermott Lennon, who claimed the individual title at the World Equestrian Games in Jerez, Spain, in 2002 has returned to centerstage as his partnership with Hallmark Elite has matured and their third-place finish at the penultimate qualifier in Gothenburg last month suggests they are "in the zone.”
The surprise package however is 22-year-old Darragh Kenny who has been taking the U.S. circuit by storm. The Irish lad's undeniable talent has blossomed under the expert guidance of trainers and horse producers Missy Clarke and John Brennan of North Run Farm in Vermont where he has been based since last year, and he has done extraordinarily well to earn his passage in the company of America's best.
Double Olympic gold-medalist McLain Ward brings the brilliant Sapphire with whom he finished runner-up at last year's Rolex FEI World Cup Jumping final, and the fascinating U.S. contingent also includes the "Master of Faster" Richard Spooner, 2008 runner-up Rich Fellers, Hillary Dobbs with the little 15.3-hand Quincy B and the versatile Joie Gatlin. She is as accomplished in the U.S. hunter arenas as she is in the jumping ring, and she can turn her hand to a bit of stunt riding if required, as she regularly works in the movie business with her father, Jerry, who is a stunt-coordinator.
Most fascinating of all perhaps is the presence of 45-year-old Mario Deslauriers who was only 19 when he won the World Cup title with Aramis in Gothenburg, Sweden, in 1984. He was competing for Canada then, but last year he took up U.S. citizenship, and it will be quite something if he is in the shake-up next Sunday—26 years after his first triumph.
Russia, Estonia, Venezuela, Lithuania, Portugal, Australia, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Mexico, The Netherlands and Canada will all be sending out riders, but the Brazilian contingent has been cut short by the tragic loss of Yuri Mansur's Ideal de Balia who died last week following a colic operation.
The 30-year-old rider from Sao Paolo learned his trade while working as a groom with Ludo Philippaerts in Belgium and, having finished second in the South American league, was relishing the thought of competing in the same ring as so many of his heroes this week, but fate has intervened to shatter that dream.
As former Swiss champion Markus Fuchs once said however, true champions are the ones who get back on their feet as soon as they fall to the ground, and Yuri intends to line out with his other horses in the ancillary competitions. Carrying Brazilian hopes alone therefore is the only man who has ever won three consecutive finals—Rodrigo Pessoa who, with the great Baloubet du Rouet, was unbeatable between 1998 and 2000. The stage is set. Let the battle begin......
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