Photo: GCL / Stefano Grasso
An incredible seventh leg of the Global Champions League saw Vienna Eagles fly into the top position over a nail-bitingly challenging course in Monaco. Gregory Wathelet added to a weekend of success with a second clear in round two, with team-mate Niels Bruynseels on his best horse Cas de Liberte securing a double clear with just one time fault.
Valkenswaard United keep hold of their overall Championship lead with 133 points overall, while Hamburg Diamonds stay in second on 125. Breathing down their necks are the St Tropez Pirates, who sit on a tally of 122 points so far. Watched on by fans who packed the tight arena, and VIPs including Bill Gates, Bruce Springsteen and two time F1 World Champion Mika Häkkinen, it was an electric display of top sport as the world’s best teams hit full throttle.
On winning Vienna Eagles’ Niels said, “It was not a walk in the park, it felt quite difficult,” whilst Gregory added that he hoped to “come back well in Paris.”
The Championship was as intense as ever with riders fighting to come in below the 71 second cut off (extended early on from an original 68s), and only seven clears out in total, and three riders picking up an agonising time fault. The course was tight, fast and furious, with jumps coming up fast for the horses and riders. The two combinations away from the gate causing the most trouble for the riders, with poles rolling from across the world class field as a tricky related distance tested the best. But the pace was unrelenting, with riders needing to keep one eye on the clock, pushing some of the athletes into mistakes.
The importance of strategy in this extremely competitive event was highly apparent as the starting lists were issued showing eight horse changes and three rider substitutions. Eric van der Vleuten replaced Gonzalo Anon Suarez for Madrid in Motion, whilst London Knights added in World Number One Kent Farrington and his top horse Creedance for Enrique Gonzalez, meanwhile Shanghai Swans moved out Daniel Deusser for Roger Yves Bost on Pegase du Murier. Tactics were also the talk of the warm-up arena throughout the evening, as trainers and riders discussed the merits of different stride options, especially towards fence 11 – a big and bold combination.
Scopey, agile and honest horses light on their feet were the ones who shone during the class, with teams carrying through their faults from Round 1. First to go Nicola Philippaerts of the Chantilly Pegasus had everything to do with a team score of 20, but the tight turn back to a gappy vertical was too much for H&M Zilverstar T, with the stunning grey horse refusing at the final moment, adding to their overall score.
Plenty of acceleration meant Shanghai Swans took second place, finishing with just four faults for Jessica Springsteen and a blistering clear for teammate Roger-Yves Bost. However, it was their pace that pushed them ahead of Mexico Amigos who collected the same number of penalties, but lost out due to a slower round.
It was perhaps a sense of déjà vu for St Tropez Pirates, who despite heading into round two in pole position (as last week in Cannes), they dropped to fourth after Simon Delestre and Jerome Guery finished on nine penalties.
As the crowd basked in high temperatures, the riders battled it round a mentally taxing and tough technical course full of tight turns and tricky fences. Both upright stiles caused problems, but it was jump number five, which was topped with a delicate white plank that did not take any prisoners, with several combinations picking up penalties there. However, several large oxers and imposing combinations next to the LED hoardings also led to faults.
In fact, it took until the 17th rider to come through the tunnel for spectators to see a clear. The foot-perfect round came from Max Kühner for the Berlin Lions on his 10 year old bay mare who lived up to her name Electric Touch, as he passed the baton to teammate Anna Kellnerova.
Sheikh Ali Bin Khalid Al Thani of Doha Fursan Qatar took a deeper line into the double, costing the team one time fault, but riding a beautiful clear with Carolina 31. Joining him was the experienced Eric van der Vleuten of Madrid in Motion, who picked up an agonising time fault before teammate Leopold van Asten picked up four with his horse VDL Miss Untouchable, putting them down to a team total of 13 today.
It took a number of other riders to enter the smallest arena on the League circuit until Valkenswaard United’s Alberto Zorzi secured a beautiful clear with Cornetto K well within the time cut-off.
Shock came after Simon Delestre of St Tropez Pirates found trouble in the Longines treble after Chesall refused at the middle element, picking up four faults and a time fault to boot. It was an unwelcome case of history repeating itself as the Pirates tumbled down the order, missing out on a podium position and valuable ranking points.
Away from the podium finishers there were stylish rides from Hamburg Diamonds’ Jos Verlooy on Caracas who added a second clear round to the first he collected on Friday. Jane Richard Philips was one of the riders who swapped horses and was rewarded with a stunning clear for Cannes Stars with Dieudonne de Guldenboom.
Despite a good start in the second round, Valkenswaard United could not repeat the success of last week’s competition in Cannes, despite the clear from Zorzi. His team-mate Janika Sprunger came out with a lot of pace, but picked up 16 faults, dropping the team down to 12 in today’s rankings.
To round off the top six, Cannes Stars took fifth, finishing with 13 points, and Madrid in Motion ended with the same number of penalties, but a slightly slower ride.
But it was the Eagles who soared highest today, with the Swans taking second on the podium and the Mexico Amigos on the third spot. The GCL now looks to Paris, where the eighth round of the exhilarating Championship takes place until the iconic Eiffel Tower.
Jan Tops, Co-Founder of the GCL: “The League at the moment is super exciting. It is also very difficult. The winning team today you saw won with one point. There are eighteen teams and it is very difficult to get four clear rounds. It is great to see - as we are this year – a new team like the Vienna Eagles pushing themselves up. There is not one dominant team winning every week on the podium. So, for me as an organiser it means that you keep the tension until the end.”
"Tonight there were only seven clears, and then only four clears in the Grand Prix, it took a really, really good combination to take the lead and jump those big fences.”
“In the ranking, Valkenswaard United are still in the lead, but it is very tight at the top with Hamburg Diamonds in second, followed by St Tropez Pirates in third. However, the top three teams this weekend are not currently the best, so there is still all to play for and there are exciting times coming up.”
Christian Ahlmann, Mexico Amigos 3rd: “Very, very good day for the team. We climbed up from eleven to five with the first podium. It is much harder than I imagined doing the team competition. We were here and there with half power, or 35%, it wasn’t enough and we weren’t moving into the top ten – but we are on the way now!”
Yuri Mansur, Mexico Amigos 3rd: “Unita Ask did really well. I don’t know her that well, but she did a really good job. I saved Babylotte for today, and she did really well. I learn a lot from [Christian], it is a really good experience.”
Jessica Springsteen, Shanghai Swans 2nd: "It is a lot of fun, I was on a team with Daniel yesterday and we had a good start. He [Bost] made up a lot with the time, which helped a lot for our placing, which was great, as I was a bit slower.”
Roger-Yves Bost, Shanghai Swans 2nd: “I tried to go clear, and I tried to win the competition.”
Niels Bruynseels, Vienna Eagles 1st place: [On the pressure on him in the second round] “I didn’t know if the other team was clear or not so I just did my round. Gregory told me just jump clear and I tried to do it, it was a little bit tricky with the time fault at the end, so I didn’t know if we won or not.”
Gregory Wathelet, Vienna Eagles, 1st place: "The other team jumped amazing and won yesterday, it was double clear in the team competition, and I did my job. I said to Niels, like he said before, you just have to be clear to get the first podium for us and the win here, then it’s for sure a perfect show for us. Like Christian said, it’s for sure harder than we expected for the season. We need to come here on the first day with a ready horse, a Grand Prix horse, and well, we were the time makers at the beginning of the first show, and I hope now we are in a good way for the next ones.”