Wellington, Fla.—March 3
Nations Cup night during the Winter Equestrian Festival is always a big deal for the Irish team. Fans rent out the upper deck of the ringside bar, draping the railing in flags, streamers and a massive banner reading “Irish Embassy.”
They even brought a blow horn, which they played after every Irish rider streaked across the finish line, and with each resounding blare of the horn (which surprisingly did not bother the horses in the slightest) it became clearer that the Irish would run away with the night.
Tied on 0 faults with Brazil after Round 1, and with the United States close behind on a score of 5, the Irish kept their cool and posted a second-round total of 4 faults.
Troubles arose for both Brazil and the United States in Round 2—every Brazilian rider faulted in the second round, landing them in third on the podium with a second-round score of 16, while the U.S. team got a pair of eight-fault scores, dropping one and finishing on 8 to take over second place.
By the time Irish anchor rider Cian O’Connor rode into the ring for his final round, he knew if he pulled off a clear, the win was Ireland’s. It was the same situation he’d been in for the FEI Ocala Nations Cup (Fla.) two weeks before. So when he made it down the final line on Seringat and felt the horse clear the final vertical, he was already celebrating, whipping off his helmet to salute the raucous embassy fans.
“He was on his toes, especially coming down the last line. I had to use all my strength to pull him off the combination,” O’Connor said of Seringat, who was also the horse who helped pull off Ireland’s Ocala Nations Cup win and followed that up with the blue in the $100,000 City of Ocala Grand Prix.
“It’s great to win. [Coach] Michael [Blake] made two changes to the team from Ocala this week,” O’Connor said. “Paul [O’Shea] jumped a double clear, and Conor [Swail] clear and 4. It’s a fantastic team effort.
“It’s great that we have these new combinations coming along as well because we’ll need all of them for the Nations Cup series when we go back to Europe,” O’Connor added. The Irish team competes in the Western European FEI Nations Cup League in order to qualify for the FEI Nations Cup Final. The Wellington version of the Nations Cup wasn’t a part of that qualifying process for any of the teams, however.
“Michael [Blake] made a good plan and talked to all of the riders that were over here,” said Shane Sweetnam, who was up on Chaqui Z. “Obviously myself and Cian were lucky enough to be on both teams that won, but the lads that were involved [in Ocala] that won were here in the practice ring again helping out—Kevin [Babington] and Richie [Moloney]. Really, really the team spirit is fantastic. I’ve got to give it to Michael.”
“Ireland has won now three times, and thankfully I’ve been on all three [teams],” Conor Swail said with a laugh. He was up on Rubens LS La Silla for Friday night’s win. “It’s been a good record for me. We all mucked in and dug in the trenches there, and I think we all did a great job tonight.”
Considerably less chatty in his post-win press conference was team mate Paul O’Shea, and it became clear why he was so tight-lipped.
“One thing actually that was funny, well not funny, but he’s never jumped water at a show,” O’Shea said of his horse Skara Glen’s Machu Picchu, looking across the table at Blake with a devilish grin. “I didn’t tell Michael that, and he never asked me. So I didn’t tell him.
“But he has such a good mind, so I didn’t think it would be a problem,” O’Shea continued. “We did get to jump it on Wednesday [in practice], and he has such a good mind. He’s a very, very straightforward horse.”
Something tells us that given the outcome of the night, Blake will let O’Shea’s little white lie slide.
“For me, I’m a very proud Irishman, and I’m absolutely delighted. We came here to win,” Blake said. “We went to Ocala to win. And it’s very easy to win with these guys because they’re really, really good. If you want to win with these guys, basically you have a bit of a plan and tell them where they’re going, they’re going to turn up. That’s what they did on both occasions.
“People say, ‘why did you change the winning team from Ocala?’” Blake continued. “I changed the winning team because I was looking at Paul and Conor, and I think their form is fantastic. I didn’t think they were quite ready in time for Ocala, but I knew they’d be ready now in my opinion. I am delighted with this, and it’s fantastic. The Irish team will be getting to this table a lot more this year.”
Before the start of the Nation’s Cup on Friday night, Laura Kraut retired her horse Cedric in a very emotional ceremony. Click here for full coverage.
Click here for full results from the class, and check out the March 20 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse magazine for more in-depth coverage from the Nations Cup week at WEF.