Photo: GCL / Stefano Grasso
There was major upset at the Global Champions League of Valkenswaard after the heavyweight Hamburg Diamonds knocked home city team Valkenswaard United off the Championship lead with a phenomenal win in the reigning champions’ backyard.
Harrie Smolders and Jos Verlooy delivered a formidable two rounds to take the top spot for the Diamonds, with the team collecting a tally of 265 points - eight points clear of nearest rivals Valkenswaard United who sit on 257 points. Co-Founder Jan Tops spoke of the ever-evolving and hot contested Championship battle during the press conference, saying “nearly every week the lead changes, it’s incredible.” Second today went to Madrid in Motion after home heroes Leopold van Asten and Maikel van der Vleuten jumped the only team double clear in a difficult, technical course. Third went to the Cascais Charms, featuring in-form Carlos Lopez and young German talent Andreas Kreuzer.
Spectators flocked to the spectacular Tops International Arena to witness the world’s best in action for the GCL of Valkenswaard final, and the 13th leg in the high-octane Championship race. VIPs, including Bruce and Patti Springsteen, who watched their daughter Jessica compete for the Shanghai Swans, had the perfect view of the huge sand arena as the rain held off for an afternoon of top sport and entertainment.
Course designer Uliano Vezzani ramped up the challenges for the riders, producing a technical course set to test the best and leaving little room for error as they battled for valuable ranking points. The biggest troublemaker was the final line, with a big oxer off a turn before the option of four or five strides - many were caught out as they pushed too hard, or checked and lost power. Other poles rolled at the Global Champions League combination as riders came in too deep to the second part, as well as the tulip double set down the length of the VIP. Another wide oxer down the longside of the arena where spectators stood watching the action required full focus from both horse and rider, and the skinny bicycle fence made a return with its gappy poles, and bright blue colour catching the eye of many horses.
It would be a big scoring weekend, as many of the team riders failed to jump cleanly, adding to their combined tally from yesterday’s result.
The crowd roared in approval after Leopold van Asten of the Madrid in Motion team went clear with VDL Beauty, with the local rider punching the air in delight after they tackled the tricky final line. Extra pressure was heaped onto the shoulders of compatriot and teammate Maikel van der Vleuten who needed a strong result to keep the team up the order. Chantilly Pegasus’ rider Sergio Alvarez Moya put in a stunning round to finish clear, as did Gregory Wathelet of the Vienna Eagles with Eldorado van het Vijverhof, but their team tally would mean they would stay off the podium this weekend despite their valiant try.
Drama came as Valkenswaard United’s Alberto Zorzi took out the GCL combination with Fair Light van T Heike, adding another four faults to their four carried over from yesterday. But their hopes of keeping hold of the Championship title was not lost, after Jos Verlooy of the Hamburg Diamonds rolled a pole at the very same oxer, leaving just a fence in hand for the final two team riders to battle with.
Miami Glory’s Scott Brash looked ice cool with Ursula XII, powering around the course to try match teammate Paris Sellon’s superb round from earlier. But the crowd groaned as the pair rolled the final fence, collecting four faults to add to their overall score. Doha Fursan Qatar’s Bassem Hassan Mohammed put in a steady round with the big striding Gunder, jumping clear to the delight of his teammates but picking up an agonising time fault.
Cheers rang out once more after Maikel van der Vleuten of Madrid in Motion went clear on top stallion VDL Groep Verdi TN - matching his teammate’s clean score to shoot the team up the results to second overall, a popular podium with the local spectators.
Further drama came for the home team after Marcus Ehning picked up another four faults with Funky Fred for Valkenswaard United meaning the team would fall further down the order. All eyes would be on Dutch hero Harrie Smolders and his top stallion Emerald as they entered the ring with potential to take over the Championship lead resting heavily on their shoulders. The crowd watched with baited breath as Smolders cruised around the arena, the scopey Emerald making short work of the course before taking the turn for the final, challenging line. The crowd were on the edge of their seat as Emerald came a little deep to the oxer, but recovered jumping cleanly and on through the final fences. Cheers and whistles went up as the popular rider went clear, with teammate Jos celebrating from the kiss n’ cry. The clear would mean the Hamburg Diamonds would take the win, as well as move back up to the overall rankings where they now take back the lead.
It looks to be a two horse race to the finish and with just 8 points between the Diamonds and United, as every fence will count as the battle for the Championship gallops on. The League now looks to Rome, Italy, where the penultimate round of the 15-leg Championship will take centre stage in the beautiful Stadio dei Marmi.
Jan Tops, Co-Founder Global Champions League: “It’s been amazing. Nearly every week the lead changes, it’s incredible - I think now that we have only two more to go it’s really down to two teams; the Diamonds and Valkenswaard United. The Diamonds took it this weekend - Harrie is incredibly strong as a team rider, and as an individual, and when paired together with Jos it’s fantastic. There are two more shows to go, but my opinion is the [final will be decided] in Doha. You cannot relax - there’s no drop score; you have to be accurate all the time. That’s what makes it so exciting - any team on the right day can win. This crowd have been here [for many years], I was very proud to see the turnout this afternoon, especially with the rain. Valkenswaard is one of our best.”
Harrie Smolders, Hamburg Diamonds 1st place: “I think our horse power is good at the moment - to have them all in the right shape at the right moment is not so easy. Emerald is in a flow the last few weeks - we wanted to save him a little bit yesterday as we were hoping we could do well in both the GCL and GCT. He did fantastic - the first round of the GCL was very difficult, with only five clears. But it’s fantastic when a plan comes together! Uliano put a really technical course together with a difficult end - it makes the sport exciting to see just a few clears, and the pressure was full on. With Madrid in Motion I had to go clean and faster, so I knew what I had to do!"
Jos Verlooy, Hamburg Diamonds 1st place: “We have good horses, but we just had to make sure we rode good. It worked out! It’s amazing [riding with Harrie] - I always rode with him, but to ride in a team together and then to win is even more amazing. That’s why I really like the [GCL]. Harrie’s in great form so I had high hopes today.”
Maikel van der Vleuten, Madrid in Motion, 2nd place: “We have two good competitive horses which is the reason we made the decision to swap. So far we haven’t been that lucky, but I think we can be very happy with our second place today.”
Leopold van Asten, Madrid in Motion, 2nd place: “I tried to do a good round, and Maikel did a fantastic round. Then we had to wait for Harrie, but he hasn’t made so many faults this year! So we didn’t really expect to win. But we’re happy that in Valkenswaard we could do our best performance this year.”
Andreas Kreuzer, Cascais Charms, 3rd place: “The season has been up and down for us. It’s the highest level we have in Europe, and around the world, so we need to be there every week. Now we know how to put our horses in the right places and everything came together here today. My horse jumped great - he makes my life so much easier, especially when the pressure is on with the team. It’s a very special atmosphere for everyone as you know you cannot have one bad round otherwise the team is out, so it’s extra pressure, but a horse like mine takes that pressure away.”