The final hour is at hand for Ireland’s show jumpers to deliver their country out of the Olympic wilderness. Not since Athens 2004 has Ireland qualified a show jumping team for the Games, and tomorrow sees the Irish riders embark on their last chance to make Tokyo 2020.
A total of 18 teams line out in Barcelona for the opening day of the FEI Nations Cup Final which takes place over tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday, with one Olympic place to be won. The action will play out at the Real Club de Polo, which hosted the equestrian events at the 1992 Games.
Barren years aside, this is now a chance for the show jumpers to continue the good news story for Irish equestrian sport that started with the eventing team securing their Tokyo qualification when taking the silver medal at last year’s World Equestrian Games, and continued this past August at the European Championships at which the dressage riders scooped their passage to Japan.
Unfortunately the show jumpers missed out by one place at both of those events, but they have this final chance to put things right this week.
Manager Rodrigo Pessoa has kept faith with the same squad he chose for the European Championships in August. His final four will come once again from Darragh Kenny (Balou du Reventon), Paul O’Shea (Skara Glen’s Machu Picchu), Peter Moloney (Chianti’s Champion), Cian O’Connor (PSG Final) and Shane Sweetnam (Alejandro).
Eleven of the 18 teams involved this week are already qualified for Tokyo. The other seven — Ireland, Egypt, Norway, Italy, Portugal, Colombia and Spain — will be in a sub-plot for that coveted slot.
That place will go to whichever of those seven finishes highest in the concluding placings at this annual team finale, which features prize money close to €2 million. It’s the first time that the Nations Cup Final has carried an Olympic qualification place and, while they would not have wanted it to come down to this ‘last chance saloon’, the Irish will be determined to take full advantage.
None of the above seven Olympic hopefuls can be discounted, but the chief contenders would appear to be the Irish and the Italians. It seems rather unjust that the two cannot make it to Tokyo, given that both are established in the upper echelons of the sport, but they are victims of the geography of the Olympic qualifying divisions, being stuck in the most competitive region in the world which offered only three Tokyo slots at their sectoral qualifier which was the aforementioned Europeans (the World Equestrian Games were open to all the countries of the world and were a separate route from the divisional qualifiers).
Ireland’s fate could possibly be decided by tomorrow when the first round takes place. Eight teams will progress to Sunday’s conclusion, and the best possible outcome for Ireland would be if they make that cut and none of their Tokyo-chasing rivals do.
If that happens then the Olympic place would be in the bag. If they don’t make the eight-team cut, then Ireland must hope that none of their rivals do either. In that scenario, the Olympic place will then be decided by an additional competition on Saturday night, termed the Challenge Cup. It’s the traditional ‘consolation’ class for teams who don’t progress to the deciding round of the Nations Cup Final, but if it comes down to being the Olympic place decider, it will be much more than just a consolation for one lucky country.
Should Ireland secure their Olympic place they will, for the first time ever, complete a three-discipline Irish sweep of team qualification for an Olympic Games. Apart from hosts Japan, only six nations have qualified teams in all three disciplines — Australia, Brazil, Great Britain, Germany, Sweden and USA.
Failure to qualify a show jumping team will mean Ireland can only have a single representative for the individual show jumping competition in Tokyo — a qualification that has to be earned.
Ahead of the above senior conclusion to the team season, the youth Nations Cup Finals took place this past weekend in Belgium where the Gary Marshall-managed Irish pony team of John McEntee, Ella Quigley, Ryan Sweetnam and Rhys Williams finished third behind Great Britain and Germany.
Mentioning the Irish dressage team, it was a good weekend for Heike Holstein and her European Championship mount Sambuca, the pairing claiming victory at the National Championships in Cavan on Saturday with a Grand Prix score of 68.043%.
It was Holstein’s 13th time to land the title. “I was very happy with how relaxed Sambuca was, proving that she has matured a lot since Cavan last year,” she said.
“We had a few mistakes which were totally my fault but that’s good as I will learn from them.” Second place went to Rachel Dowley on Cadens with 62.772%, while Belinda Brereton took third place on 60.870% with Captain Negro C.