Great Britain has three combinations competing at the FEI Jumping World Cup Final in Leipzig, Germany, all with their eyes firmly on the prize following a strong start yesterday.
This afternoon featured the second round of the competition, which is the final opportunity for riders to gain points ahead of the winner being named on Sunday. Clear rounds were proving hard to come by in today’s second round, built by Frank Rothenberger, with both the clock and the course proving tricky. There were problems across the board, with an imposing wall at three, a sizeable water tray in the Liverpool at seven and the flimsy plank at the top of the final fence at 13 causing the most issues.
JOHN WHITAKER AND EQUINE AMERICA UNICK DU FRANCPORT
By the time John Whitaker, first of the Brits to ride today, entered the arena with his own and Clare Whitaker’s Equine America Unick du Francport, there was only one clear round on the scoreboard out of the 14 previous rounds – it was achieved by defending champion Steve Guerdat and Victorio Des Frotards, who will have been disappointed when a lacklustre round yesterday left him down the placings.
However, there are few riders in Leipzig who can claim the experience of John and he showed all that skill as he set off round the course. A check to Unick du Francport on the curving line towards the Liverpool had the crowds holding their breath because it looked as though they might not make the distance but, as the commentator pointed out, the bay gelding ‘had a genius on his back’ and they pair cleared the fence with ease. The rest of the round passed smoothly, and they cleared the last with a time of 71.36 seconds – the second combination through to the jump-off.
Jack Whitaker and Equine America Valmy de la Lande
There was a moment of confusion as Jack Whitaker and Equine America Valmy de la Lande entered the arena to the sight of the arena party pre-emptively starting to dismantle the fences – clearly, back-to-back Whitakers had caused a misunderstanding. The poles were quickly put back in place, and the pair began their round.
While Jack may not have the experience of his uncle John, he certainly has the Whitaker talent and is able to get the best out of his spirited mount, who’s owned and was previously ridden by Jack’s father Michael. The stylish grey stallion brought to mind visions of the legendary Pegasus as he soared over the fences with plenty of room to spare, and the pair never looked troubled by the time as they cruised round. As they crossed the finish line, the clock stopped on 69.20 and Great Britain had another combination through to the jump-off.
HARRY CHARLES AND ROMEO 88
One of only three riders to bring two horses to Leipzig, Harry Charles today brought forward his Olympic mount, Ann Thompson and his own Romeo 88, having ridden Stardust in yesterday’s speed class. The pair had shown moments of brilliance in Tokyo last summer, so the hope was that they could replicate some of that magic today in their first World Cup Final.
Harry and Romeo set off quickly, using smooth, tight turns to stay up on the clock as they powered round the course. This tactic allowed Harry the scope to add an extra stride coming into the final upright, the flimsy top plank of which had been catching riders out all afternoon, and they cleared the fence with ease. A time of 69.65 confirmed it – all three British riders were through to the jump-off.
A total of seven combinations made it through to the jump-off out of a field of 33. First in was Switzerland’s Steve Guerdat, who provided just how tricky the challenge would be when he had two fences down with Victorio Des Frotards – another round that hadn’t gone to plan for the defending champion.
John Whitaker was the first to come forward for Great Britain. He and Equine America Unick du Francport set out with great gusto, taking an absolute flyer to the Liverpool that had previously been fence seven. It was all going smoothly until the penultimate fence – a huge upright with very shallow cups that the horses had to jump towards the arena gate – and the top pole hit the sand. They picked up to clear the last and crossed the clock with a time of 45.02 seconds.
Immediately following John was his nephew Jack. With Valmy de la Lande known for getting quite hot, Jack made the decision to prioritise a clear over speed – which the pair achieved, maintaining their form as the only pair not to fault throughout the competition so far. The clock stopped on 48.66 seconds – while not the fastest, a gauntlet had been thrown down to the four riders still to go.
“I just tried to stick to my plan and not over-think it too much,” explained Jack after his round. “I keep fairly relaxed most of the time and I try not to let it get to my head. I thought that as long as I could jump clear, I’d be in a good position come Sunday. My lad can sometimes get a bit hot when I go fast, so I didn’t want to risk it – there’s not point risking it for this one class when there’s still Sunday to come.”
Gregory Cottard and Bibici of France took up Jack’s challenge but were unable to go clear, and then it was the turn of Jack’s good friend and compatriot, Harry Charles. Piloting Romeo 88 through the economical lines that are becoming his calling card, Harry shaved off the seconds to stop the clock just ahead of Jack with a time of 47.14 seconds – Britain were one-two on the leaderboard.
With two riders still to go, it was now a nervous wait for Jack and Harry to see how they’d place. Next in was Dutch combination Harrie Smolders and Monaco, who clocked up the fastest time of the day with 41.37 seconds but came unstuck at the penultimate fence to have one down. Last in was 2017 World Cup Final winner McClain Ward and the chestnut gelding Contagious. The pair certainly meant business as they tackled the course, leaving nothing on the table to come home clear in a time of 44.03 – nearly three seconds faster than Harry and Romeo.
“I’m really happy,” said Harry afterwards. “To honest, I didn’t plan to finish that high up in the order when I went in to do the jump-off, and I’m just a bit lucky that people before me had faults. I’m delighted with my horse, he’s had a bit of a break from the top level – today’s his first big class back and, to finish second behind McClain, it couldn’t have gone any better.
“As you saw today, that’s the reason [I brought two horses]. I’d hoped to finish a bit higher up yesterday, but my mare gave a great job. She’s quite inexperienced to go in on the first day, but then today I had Romeo – the trusty old steed, very experienced, and he did that really well. So, hopefully, we’re not too far away for Sunday.
“I knew McClain was going to beat me, there was no doubt. I didn’t even watch it because I knew, but fair play. He had a good one yesterday and a good one today – he’s the one to beat on Sunday.”
The scoring system was the same as yesterday’s speed class – as the winning rider, McClain Ward will receive 36 points (one more point than the number of combinations who’d started the competition), with the points counting down through the field. This would be added to the points accrued yesterday to provide a final total, which will be converted into penalties using an algorithm and used to work out the rankings for Sunday’s final.
The final round of the FEI Jumping World Cup Final will take place on Sunday, with coverage starting at 13:45 BST. Harry Charles is currently in third place with five penalties, while Jack Whitaker sits in joint ninth with eight and John Whitaker sits equal 11th with 10 – meaning it’s still all to play for.
Before all that, the FEI Dressage World Cup Final will reach its climax on Saturday with the Freestyle competition, with Britain represented by Lottie Fry and Dark Legend.
All start lists and results for the FEI World Cup Final series are available here.