Both events are qualifiers in this year’s Longines FEI Nations Cup championship, but they are outside Ireland’s European qualifying division, which doesn’t spark into life for another couple of months. Ireland’s qualifiers start in April and will take place in Slovakia, France, Sweden, Great Britain and at Dublin Horse Show.
There is plenty to play for this weekend though, as the Longines sponsorship has upped the nations cup prize money considerably, so it is all the more worthwhile for countries not chasing qualifying points to be in the mix.
Ireland will arrive in Ocala as defending champions, having triumphed over the host nation last year by a margin of four faults, and Blake, who was in charge on that occasion as well, will be hoping for more of the same. Cian O’Connor clinched it with his second clear round on Seringat, and the pairing went on to claim the Grand Prix at the meeting as well with another double-clear performance.
This time around O’Connor is set to partner Clenur, hoping to follow on from last Saturday’s third place in the lucrative five-star Grand Prix in Wellington, also in Florida, during week five of the Winter Equestrian Festival. Only two made the jump-off in that event, with O’Connor claiming third after being next best of the rest with a marginal time fault in the first round. He feels that it was a bonus to claim such a big purse having had to jump only one round. “It was great to have only done the one round last Saturday as not only did it earn me a decent cheque but also acted as a nice warm up for this weekend’s team outing,” he told the Examiner. The prospect of him doing the nations cup/grand prix double again at Ocala though is in question since the events are now reversed. “I’m thinking i won’t jump the Grand Prix as it’s on Friday now and it’s important we put our best foot forward for the team event on Sunday,” O’Connor said.
Also in the Irish squad for the $450,000 contest are Daniel Coyle (Cita), Darragh Kenny (Go Easy de Muze); Paul O’Shea (Skara Glen’s Machu Picchu) and Shane Sweetnam (Chaqui Z). Host nation USA have named a strong squad for the contest. Manager Robert Ridland will choose from Lauren Hough, Laura Kraut, Beezie Madden, Devin Ryan and McLain Ward in a bid to wrestle back the event from the Irish, though of course the Americans have already had a measure of ‘revenge’ having scooped the Aga Khan Trophy at Dublin Horse Show last August when Ireland’s thoughts were more concentrated on the looming European Championships.
As well as the Ocala meeting, the action continues elsewhere in Florida as the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington moves into week six. There was a decent Irish haul out of week five which was at five-star level.. Darragh Kenny claimed second with USA Normande in Friday’s $70,000 Bainbridge Classic, while Cian O’Connor scored the biggest Irish payday with the aforementioned third on Clenur in Saturday’s $384,000 Fidelity Investments Grand Prix. Sunday saw the two-star $50,000 Equiline Grand Prix produce an Irish one-two with Paul O’Shea taking the contest on Imerald van’t Voorhof ahead of Conor Swail and GK Coco Chanel. Week six starts today at three-star level. The Grand Prix on Friday night comes with a prize fund of $132,000.
Meanwhile for the UAE meeting Taylor Vard’s squad consists of Shane Breen (Laith), Anthony Condon (Zira VH Kapelhof Z), Cameron Hanley (Quirex), Paul Kennedy (Cartown Danger Mouse) and David Simpson (Keoki). A number of the meeting’s individual five-star events get underway today, with the nations cup being contested on Saturday.
Back home, the Irish Pony Society has released the fixtures for its Sports Pony Challenge which had its debut last season. Run by the society’s Hunter Pony Committee, this year’s series features an increase in classes and prize money. The fixtures will be at Killossery Lodge (April 3rd), Wexford Equestrian (May 12th), Ravensdale (May 20th) and Limerick (June 2nd). The final will take place at Barnadown on July 12th. Entry is open to both IPS members and non-members.