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May 12, 2006

Checkmate Wins The Game In Gothenburg

Following on the heels of their World Cup qualifier victory three weeks earlier at 's-Hertogenbosch (the Netherlands), Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum and Checkmate won again at Gothenburg (Sweden), April 13-16, in the 12th and final qualifier of the Western European League for the FEI World Cup Final.

In Gothenburg's two biggest classes before the World Cup qualifier held on Easter Sunday, Michaels-Beerbaum did not push the pace with either Checkmate or Le Mans. Instead, she left victory to her strongest competitor for the World Cup Final, Ireland's Jessica Kurten, who won aboard Quibell and Castle Forbes Libertina, respectively. But, in the World Cup qualifier, Kurten, who, like Michaels-Beerbaum resides in Germany, had knocked a rail in the first round aboard Quibell and did not qualify for the nine-horse jump-off.

To the delight of the 12,000 Swedish spectators, Maria Gretzer and Spender S (0-0/32.98) finished second to Michaels-Beerbaum in the $132,319 class.  In November of 2005, Gretzer was appointed chef d'equipe of the Swedish show jumping team. Four Swedish combinations qualified for the jump-off.

The 2004 Olympic team silver medalist, Rolf-Goran Bengtsson, the winner of the Neum�nster and Braunschweig grand prix classes in Germany in February, had a pole down aboard Mac Kinley at the final fence of the jump-off; otherwise he would have been runner-up instead of sixth. His teammate from the Athens Olympics, Peter Eriksson, gave away the victory with one pole down and took fifth.

The French rider Jean-Marc Nicolas earned his ticket for the World Cup Final with a third place. Competing in Kuala Lumpur is of special importance for him, since he was the coach for the Malaysian show jumping team for five years. They won the team bronze medal in the Asian Games during his tenure.

"In Malaysia the people know me only as a trainer but not as a rider, and I am looking forward for them to get to know me as a rider as well. I am very sure that the audience will stand behind me. I was so much looking forward to qualifying for the Final that I would even swim there, if necessary," he added with a laugh.

Michaels-Beerbaum, who was already qualified for the Final as the defending champion, has also won the Western European League with her Gothenburg victory.

"It is always fun to be in the top," said Michaels-Beerbaum, who planned to ride Checkmate in the Final. "Since it will be his first indoor championship, I do not consider myself a top favorite for the final win. My top favorite is Jessica Kurten, but there is a group of top riders who could win the final, and Marcus Ehning belongs among them, in my eyes."

In Friday's preliminary World Cup class, Michaels-Beerbaum didn't take any risks, and she plans to do the same at Kuala Lumpur--not to go for victory in the first leg, a speed class. "I have to try to keep Checkmate as calm and under control as possible," she said. "He always wants to go fast already."

With one and two poles down in the initial round, respectively, it looked as if double European Champion Marco Kutscher and Pia-Luise Aufrecht, who had been ranked 20th and 21st before Gothenburg, could not qualify for the Final. But after Thomas Fruhmann of Austria, Nick Skelton of Great Britain, Toni Hassmann and Patrick McEntee of Belgium and Maria Gretzer of Sweden declined their spots at the World Cup Final, Kutscher and Aufrecht got the opportunity to compete at Kuala Lumpur.

Once again Germany qualified the most riders among the top 19 (18 plus Michaels-Beerbaum) from the Western European League. Besides the title defender, the qualified Germans included Marcus Ehning, Markus Beerbaum, Ludger Beerbaum, Alois Pollmann-Schweckhorst, Heinrich-Hermann Engemann and Toni Hassmann.

On Easter Monday came the news that Ludger Beerbaum and Kutscher would also decline to participate at Kuala Lumpur since Gladdys and Controe would not be 100 percent fit. The last flight going to Kuala Lumpur for riders and horses was on Sunday, April 23, and the horses could not be flown back until two days after the show.

Kurten, however, definitely plans to go. With her victories at Gothenburg in the World Cup preliminary class and the grand prix, she underlined her position as challenger of Michaels-Beerbaum. "That I always win is not true, I would say. But, it is true, in the last months I have had more first than second places. My two horses are in shape and I am too," she said.

Kurten wants to ride Quibell in the World Cup Final, but she does not travel well. "If she does not arrive totally fit at Kuala Lumpur, I will ride Libertina in the legs of the Final and Quibell only in the additional classes," she said. "Libertina is the best horse I ever had under my saddle, but she is two years younger than Quibell and less experienced. This was her first victory in a grand prix."

For Niklas Jonsson, Gothenburg was his first international show since his young riders days. The 30-year-old professional had to sell his top mount 10 years ago.

"I needed 10 years to build up a new barn and to have top mounts again. Since it went very well in the last months for me in national competitions, I have asked our chef d'equipe, Maria Gretzer, if I would be allowed to compete at the Gothenburg Horse Show, and she said, 'Yes, do it!' "

This was obviously the right advice, since the tall Swedish rider and the 10-year-old, Swedish gelding Vayom took 11th in the World Cup preliminary class. He also has a second top mount, which he proved on Saturday evening with a seventh place in the grand prix aboard the 9-year-old, Swedish mare Amorina.

Asked if his international debut on such a high level was not a bit risky, he was very cool: "It is all sand and fences," he said.

Jonsson chose not to start in the World Cup class. For the time being the two top placings made him so happy that he did not want to challenge fate.
 
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