Ireland take Aga Khan with aplomb

“I’m over the moon. It’s fantastic,” said Ireland show jumping manager Robert Splaine after his team captured the Aga Khan Trophy with aplomb at the Discover Ireland Dublin Horse Show yesterday.

It is Ireland’s first win in the nations cup showcase in eight years and it copperfastened a dramatic turnaround in fortunes for the Corkman and his squad, who spent much of the season anchored to the bottom of the FEI Top League and facing relegation, but ultimately finished in third place.

“Ireland have never been out of the Top League and this is our best finish ever. We have won two competitions this season, which we have never achieved and it is proof Ireland is a real force in show jumping,” said Splaine.

“It’s incredible that we have come from where we were to this, said the Corkman, referencing Ireland’s poor start to the season, before adding “we wanted to do it so much for the crowd and give them something to cheer about and I think we did”.

Ireland led from the outset and, such was the apparent ease of the victory that Olympic bronze medallist Cian O’Connor, to all intents and purposes, proved surplus to requirements.

Clem McMahon and Pacino played the starring role, setting the scene as the Irish pathfinder with a clear on Pacino, the eight-year-old stallion displaying an expressiveness that summed up the Irish display. Kilkenny’s Richie Moloney followed suit, collecting a single time fault with Ahorn Van De Zuuthoeve, before Sligo’s Darragh Kerins and Lisona produced another blemish-free display. Much was expected of O’Connor and he was on course to deliver until the last, when leaving Blue Loyd with too much to do for the discard of four faults.

It was truly a competition to enjoy and savour if you were Irish, with the riders lapping up the eardrum-bursting appreciation showed by the fans as each round built to a first-round lead of just one fault, with France and Sweden sharing second place on four and last year’s winners Britain picking up five faults.

Despite the sense that this was Ireland’s day, Splaine knew better than to begin celebrating.

“I’m probably around too long to be jumping up and down at the half-way stage, as I know the sport and how things can change. We were in a very good position, we just had to make sure we kept plugging away and getting clear rounds. That’s the only way I know to win these competitions,” he said.

McMahon’s return showed Splaine had no reason to worry, giving a masterful display of horsemanship on the exuberant Pacino. Moloney too was foot perfect and, as the excitement mounted, every fence jumped by his fellow US-based Kerins was accompanied by a hush from the packed stands. However, after again making nothing of the penultimate telephone boxes fence — a bogey fence for every other team — he suffered a lapse in concentration to the last, picking up four faults when a clear would have delivered an early victory. It left the team on a maximum score of five faults, with room for improvement if O’Connor was needed.

At this stage, Sweden had suffered a second-half collapse, leaving Britain and France to throw down a challenge. Neither could, however, with John Whitaker (Argento) opting to retire when unable to improve on their nine-fault tally, while Kevin Staut’s error at the fifth with Reveur De Hurtebise HDC meant for a team total of eight faults, first prize of 64,000 euro for Ireland and no need for O’Connor to compete.

The result also meant a dream visit to Europe for the US-based Moloney and Kerins, who maintained their 100% record, having made their Top League debut in last month’s Hickstead victory.

McMahon said of the victory: “It’s what you dream about. I’m jumping here since 1986 in 12.2hh ponies, probably jumping against Darragh. To jump a double clear here and the reception you get, words are hard to find to describe it.”

The Clones rider described Pacino as “a truly exceptional horse“, and amid speculation the stallion could be sold, McMahon spoke of the possibility of a syndicate.

Kerins, who left Sligo 20 years ago and is based in Florida. “I think half of Sligo is here. If I could retire today, I would be happy with everything I have done in my life. This is what it’s all about.”

Meanwhile, International Equestrian Federation (FEI) show jumping director John Roche said a draft copy of proposed changes to the Top League would be delivered to national federations, chefs d’equipe and the International Jumping Riders Club ahead of a meeting on September 12/13 of the FEI jumping committee. The proposed changes, which come amid a mooted five-year sponsorship deal of the league from Saudi Arabia, include a regional qualification system, culminating in semi-finals and a final. Mr Roche said it is likely the hosting of the final would be thrown open to bidders on a global scale.


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