Leonard bullish Ireland can strike gold in Olympics

WITH the Olympic year in the offing, chief show jumping selector Peter Leonard is confident Ireland can produce the goods and win the country’s first gold medal in the code.

The Limerick man says his confidence is based on the superb results achieved by Irish riders in the past four years, following the decision not to send a team to the Sydney Olympics.

"Sydney was a wake-up call in terms of getting new blood into the team. At the time, the selectors felt we did not have sufficient ammunition to go to Australia," he said, discounting the cost of transporting the horses as the basis for the decision.

"The selectors went in search of new blood and we went on to win 10 nations cups that season. We also became European champions and in 2002 we produced a world champion in the form of Dermott Lennon, plus qualifying for the Samsung Super League. This year, our objective was to qualify for the Olympics, which we achieved, and to get a good result in the Super League, in which we finished runner-up," said Leonard who rattled off further statistics to underpin his optimism. "We competed in a record number of nations cups in 2003, 16 in total, and finished second or better in 50% of them. In fact we won four and finished second in four," he said.

But the outlook is not all blue skies. In particular, Leonard is dismayed about the prospects for Dermott Lennon's world championship winning mare Liscalgot, who has been sidelined for some time by injury. However, he says the total commitment to the cause demonstrated by the other top riders is heartening.

"The doubts surrounding the fitness of Dermott Lennon's mare are a major concern. Other than that, Peter Charles is working with his latest ride It's Magic Max and all is going to plan. Cian O'Connor and Robert Splaine are resting their two mounts, but we expect they will be back in work in early spring. Jessica Kurten has a new prospect in Quibell, so we also hope to see more of her in the new year. Billy Twomey, whose horse Luidam is recovering from surgery, will be one of the stronger contenders, having won the grand prix in La Baule and being runner up in Dublin, while Splaine's victory in the grand prix in St Gallen and his second place in La Baule also mark him out for contention for one of the team five places. Kevin Babington, winner of the King George V Cup, has been a consistent performer with Carling King, so, when you put it all together, it was not a bad showing in 2003," said Leonard, who takes up the reins as chairman the International Affairs Committee for the third year in succession in 2004, subject to national executive approval.

Praising the parts played by chef d'quipes Tommy Wade and Lieutenant Colonel Gerry Mullins, Leonard went on to highlight the importance of a squad system in the chase for Olympic glory.

"In 2003, we had nine new caps Glen Leddy, Carl Hanley, Kieran Howley, Michael Kerins, Dave Quigley, Clem McMahon, Paul O'Shea, Conor Swail and Marie Burke and we hope these will take the pressure off the main riders next year in the nations cup campaign, so they can concentrate on preparation for Athens.

"We will take a leaf out of the Germans' book. They saved their top combinations for the Europeans and achieved their goal. They only fielded their top teams in the Europeans, Calgary and Aachen, where, incidentally, they lost to Ireland.

"We did not do so well in the Europeans, because our team went to Hickstead and Dublin and I feel we asked too much from them," he said.

Leonard also said the Irish Sports Council had backed show jumping as a medal-winning prospect, so the Olympics would be payback time.

"Winning a medal in Athens is crucial to the sport, as we have received major funding from the Sports Council. The downside was illustrated in Britain last week, when their show jumping team lost its lottery funding after failing to qualify for the Olympics. So it would be nice to deliver," he said.

"All in all, though, in the past four years a lot has gone our way, so one would have to deduct that we have a good chance if we can hold it all together. It's all dependent on keeping the horses sound," he said, echoing the wish of all Irish show jumping fans.

PAT DUGGAN this week replaced Joan Keane as chairman of the Munster Region of the Show Jumping Association of Ireland.

The Kerry-based Corkman was vice-chairman of the region and joins Ted Gibney, Norman Wheeler, Joan Keane and Finbarr Harrington as the region's representatives on the national executive for the coming year.

Joan Keane and Norman Wheeler will represent Munster on the Management and Finance committee.

The Munster Championships will be held on September 13, with a venue to be decided. The format will be discussed early next year.

After a long discussion on the late starting of shows, a Munster proposal is being sent to head office that entries at shows countrywide would close at a time stated in the monthly SJAI bulletin. The proposal calls for a draw to be made of the entries, with provision made to accommodate riders with multiple entries, according to a press release issued yesterday by the Munster Region. Each event will run in strict numerical order. The first horse must jump 30 minutes after the published closing of entry. Entries for the next and subsequent events will close when the first round of the previous class is finished.

Late entries will only be allowed to jump hors concours, according to the proposal.

The press release also pointed out that the Munster Region boasted the largest number of shows in 2003, amounting to 338, Connacht had 335, with Leinster staging 309 and the Northern Region just 206.

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