Clinical display sees Britain lift Aga Khan

A beaming British show jumping manager Rob Hoekstra declared “we love this trophy” after his team yesterday claimed the famed ‘Aga Khan’ at the Discover Ireland Dublin Horse Show.

Britain's Nick Skelton clears a fence on  Big Star during the Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup Discover Ireland Dublin Horse at the  RDS yesterday.  Picture: Barry Cregg/ Sportsfile

It was Britain’s 27th time to win the nations cup and nobody could deny that they did not deserve it. Setting down a firm foundation in the first round, they built victory in the second round with three text-book clear rounds. It was a clinical display that saw them deny Ireland and the Netherlands, who emerged as the main challengers.

If Hoekstra was delighted, Ireland manager Robert Splaine bemoaned having to hand over the trophy, particularly as early indications gave rise to hopes that a repeat of last year’s victory was a possibility.

“I am very disappointed not to win on home turf,” said Splaine, after his team shared third with the US. “After winning last year, there was an expectation of something serious happening again. It was wonderful to win it last year. We had the trophy on the mantlepiece, we wanted to keep it there, but we needed to jump more clear rounds. We didn’t do that, so that’s the price you pay. You needed three clear rounds and the British did what we wanted to do,” said Corkman Splaine, who derived some consolation from finishing fifth in the Furusiyya Series Europe Division 1 to qualify for September’s final in Barcelona.

It would be an exaggeration to describe the competition as one of heady excitement, but only because it was such a tense, closely-fought affair.

After Germany opened with four faults, the following three riders produced clears, almost scoffing at designer Alan Wade’s course of fences, previously mooted as a serious challenge due to their height.

However, the subtle technicalities of Wade’s presentation soon became obvious and, in particular, it was the penultimate fence, the treble that caused problems for Irish riders. The middle section was the only blemish on a super round from pathfinder Dermott Lennon and Loughview Lou Lou. The same element also caught out Shane Breen after he had also lowered the third with the stallion Balloon, before Down man Conor Swail and Lansdowne produced a rousing cheer with a clear. Cian O’Connor, too, looked to be in his comfort zone on his Olympic bronze medal winner Blue Loyd, only for the middle part of the treble to again elicit groans from the fans.

By the half-way stage, Ireland were sharing second place on eight faults with Britain, after Nick Skelton (Big Star) and Ben Maher (Cella) had each four-faulted, with Robert Smith (Voila) adding eight, before Scott Brash (Hello Sanctos) kept them in the hunt with a clear.

An expectant air hung over the RDS, particularly as the Netherlands were ahead by only four faults.

Former world champion Lennon laid down a marker upon his return, in complete harmony with Judith Sossic’s 11-year-old mare for the perfect opening. Breen again added eight faults and, while the crowd were willing on Swail and the chestnut stallion in hope of another clear, the chestnut stallion rolled the final part of the treble this time.

At this stage the British had jumped two clear rounds, courtesy of Skelton and Maher, with Smith again completing on eight faults. Another clear from Scott — for one of only four double clears in the contest — left them on eight faults, good enough to dash the Irish, who were on 12, even before O’Connor again finished on four to bring the total to 16.

However, a clear from the final rider in the competition, Gert Bruggink (Primeval Dejavu), of the Netherlands, would force a jump-off with Britain. Bruggink had been clear in round one and was looking good, until the treble again came into play.

The fact that Britain, the Olympic champions, came to Dublin second last in the league was a consideration, said Hoekstra. “Being second last was a pressure. We knew we had to be top four, but we never really came to be top four, we came to try and win it, which was lucky how it turned out. We’ve had a few new combinations this year in nations cups, but today everything came together.

“I think the guys just wanted to win and that is what we concentrated on. We knew if we could do our own job well, we were going to be difficult to beat.

“We have not had the best season in nations cups, but when they come under pressure they come to the fore. I’m really proud of them.”

He aimed a playful dig at the Germans, saying “it’s a pity” they did not qualify for the final, having pulled out of the Swiss leg due to the rain-sodden surface to deny themselves points.

O’Connor was pragmatic in his summation.

“It’s always a good competition for us here in Dublin, a big atmosphere and a big buzz and we were happy with the way the horses jumped. All the horses jumped really well, but you won’t win by making little mistakes here and there. We have to accept that. We didn’t jump enough clear rounds.”

He was pleased with Blue Loyd, who was loaned to O’Connor for the competition by his new owner Canadian Nikki Walker.

“He has not jumped at that level for a long time. It just shows why he won the bronze medal. He’s such a fighter and we had an unlucky mistake both rounds, but that’s the way it goes.”

Much attention will be focused on O’Connor tomorrow as he allows Irish fans the opportunity to see his new ride in a top-class competition, the much talked-about Cooper.

“Cooper is in good form for the grand prix. I’m building him towards next season. This is only his learning year. Next year’s World Equestrian Games and Olympic qualification is the plan.”

Meanwhile, Splaine said he expected to name his four-man team for the European Championships soon, selecting from his five-man squad of Corkmen Shane Sweetnam and Billy Twomey, Conor Swail, Mayo rider Cameron Hanley and Shane Breen. The championships begin in Denmark in 10 days.

Today’s action in Dublin will feature the €30,000 Land Rover Puissance, with tomorrow’s €200,000 Longines Grand Prix the main course in a weekend of top-class action.

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