Team Ukraine claimed the single spot on offer for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Group C Jumping qualifier staged in Budapest (HUN) today. In a line-up of six nations they pinned Czech Republic into runner-up spot while the hosts finished third, just a single fault ahead of Bulgaria in fourth place. Lithuania finished fifth while the team from Greece failed to complete when their first two riders were eliminated on course.
Aki Ylanne from Finland presented them with a strong 12-fence challenge that would ensure the cream came out on top. It was a big ask, but a tremendous experience, for all the horse-and-rider combinations with questions to be answered throughout the entire track, and the time-allowed of 77 seconds proved all but impossible to get for the vast majority.
The opening wall was immediately followed by a triple-bar, then an oxer and some eye-catching brown planks before turning right-handed to the double of oxers at fence five with its long two-stride distance. The innocuous-looking vertical at six proved highly influential, perhaps because riders were already setting up for the right-hand bend to the open water which put paid to Czech chances and threatened to unhinge the Ukrainian effort too.
This was followed by another oxer, then a left-bend to a vertical with two circular water-trays, and then a big oxer had to be tackled before turning right-handed down the final line which consisted of a triple combination and then one last oxer to bring them home.
The Ukrainians were already out in front when carrying just 14 faults at the end of the first round despite elimination for third-line rider Ulrich Kirchhoff. The 51-year-old looked set to cruise around the course with the handsome 10-year-old gelding Al Pacino until it all went seriously wrong at the open water where the man who was a double-gold medallist when competing under the German flag at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta (USA) was given the ejector seat and eliminated for his fall.
But team pathfinder, 35-year-old Ferenc Szentirmai, lowered only the second element of the double in the first round in which he also collected two time-faults, and when he led the way into the second round with only two more time faults to add then he bolstered Ukrainian chances.
It was a big-scoring afternoon, and only four of the six teams returned to do battle once again. The Greeks were already eliminated after Ioli Mytilineou’s gelding, Broadway, refused to take on the triple combination, just one fence from home, and then Anna-Maria Papageorgiou’s mare, Vania, registered refusals at the oxer at fence three and again at the vertical at six. Meanwhile having collected 79 faults first time out, Team Lithuania decided they would call it a day at the halfway stage.
Bulgaria carried 34 faults into round two, Hungary carried 29 and Czech Republic were the Ukrainians closest rivals, just nine points behind the leaders with 23 faults on the board as the action resumed. But when Zuzana Zelinkova’s opening nine faults with Caleri ll were followed by a second elimination, and this time a fall, for second-line rider Emma Augier de Moussac at the open water, then the Czech challenge was seriously undermined. Now the scores of both Ondrej Zvara with Cento Lano and Ales Opatrny and Forewer would have to be counted, and when Zvara racked up 17 faults it already seemed like the writing was on the wall.
However Ukraine’s Andre Schroder and Allegro picked up 18 faults on their second run, so all eyes were on Kirchhoff as he re-entered the ring. Another disaster at the water and the competition would be blown wide open, but Kirchhoff masterfully managed to get Al Pacino around this time, so when he crossed the line with just nine faults on the board then things were looking considerably more optimistic for the eventual winners whose tally now stood at 43 faults.
A clear from anchorman, Opatrny, would leave the Czech side on a final tally of 41, but mistakes at the second element of the double at five and again in the middle of the triple combination, along with a single time fault, rounded the Czech total up to 58 so the game was up. Team Ukraine could not now be beaten, and they looked set to win by a massive margin as Tebbel, who had collected only two time faults with Saxo de la Cour in the previous round, brought the competition to a close.
But it would be drama to the very end as the seven-time FEI World Cup finalist, who won team silver at the World Equestrian Games in Stockholm (SWE) almost 30 years ago, collected 16 faults on his run that included a stop at the very last. In the end the winning margin was still a handsome one, their final total of 41 faults leaving them 17 faults ahead of Czech Republic in second place, but today’s competition proved once again just how unpredictable the sport of team Jumping can be, and how every single ride counts at the end of the day.
The second of the two Olympic qualifiers for countries in Group C will take place in Moscow (RUS) on Sunday, 30 June, where there will be one further slot at Tokyo 2020 up for grabs.
Result: 1, Ukraine 50 faults; 2, Czech Republic 58 faults; 3, Hungary 64; 4, Bulgaria 65; 5, Lithuania 79; 6, Greece Eliminated.
Full result here