Team Austria had plenty to celebrate after their superb victory in the first leg of the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ 2023 series in Abu Dhabi (UAE) today. In a third-round head-to-head against Great Britain’s Joe Whitaker, it was Austrian pathfinder Christoph Obernauer who clinched it with a brilliant ride on the 10-year-old gelding Kleons Renegade.
Ireland finished third and the next two teams, Saudi Arabia and the hosts from the United Arab Emirates, clinched the two Middle East qualifying spots on offer for the series finale in Barcelona (ESP) later in the year when lining up in fourth and fifth places respectively, while Syria finished last of the six competing countries.
The 12-fence track set by Italian course designer Uliano Vezzani proved testing, and there were only five clears in the first round. When Austria and Great Britain produced two each of these then they were already on level pegging at the halfway stage, carrying just four faults apiece going into round two.
Obernauer had a single mistake first time out but was foot-perfect at his second attempt. However team-mate and Chef D’Equipe, Gerfried Puck, followed his opening clear with a pole down at the penultimate triple combination with the 10-year-old stallion Equitron Naxcel V before Katharina Rhomberg and the bold but brilliant Cuma posted their second clear of the day to pull it right back. Despite a big score from the last-line combination of Bianca Babanitz and Caipidor, the Austrians were now firmly established on an eight-fault two-round tally, and when the British matched that it would come down to a jump-off to decide the result.
Di Lampard’s British side got off to an unsteady start when pathfinder Will Funnell racked up 18 faults during his first effort with the home-bred Equine America Billy Picador, but clears from Tim Gredley (Medoc de Toxandria) and Joe Whitaker (Hulahupe JR) meant that only Donald Whitaker’s four faults with the 10-year-old mare Millfield Colette had to be counted at the halfway point.
And when Funnell made a brilliant recovery with a clear second time out and Donald Whitaker followed suit, then they only had to add one of the four-fault results from Gredley and Joe Whitaker to force a jump-off with the Austrians.
Man on a mission
First to go against the clock, Obernauer was a man on a mission, setting off with a determined run that brought him home through the timers in 33.68 seconds. Joe Whitaker was already down on the clock when hitting the final planks when following him into the ring, the clock showing 34.69 seconds despite a really game run from his handsome 11-year-old chestnut stallion Hulahupe JR as he crossed the line.
Today’s win has given a big confidence boost to the Austrian side.
“At last we now have a really good team and we must keep it together - now we have a couple of horses that can jump on the highest level so it’s going the right way!”, Obernauer said. The 36-year-old rider is based at his family’s equestrian centre in Kitzbuhel in the Austrian Tyrol - “a place that is famous for skiing, but not for riding!”, he pointed out with a laugh this evening.
He has had the 10-year-old Kleons Renegade since he was a four-year-old so the pair know each other very well, and they competed on the Austrian team at last summer’s ECCO FEI World Championship in Denmark.
“He’s a really fast horse and when I’m riding well he can jump everything. He has plenty of experience but this is the biggest achievement in our career together so far!”, he pointed out. They competed in the Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ Western European League qualifiers in London (GBR) and Mechelen (BEL) last month, “so now he has a bit of a break but hopefully we will go to more Nations Cups because we want to qualify a team for Olympic Games (Paris 2024)”, he explained.
The plan is already made, now it’s a matter of whether they can make it happen….”we need to finish in the top three of the non-qualified Group at the European Championships (in Milan, 29 August to 3 September) I think. And after today - maybe we can do it!”, he said with determination.
Team-mate Rhomberg was in the same frame of mind, especially after pocketing the €50,000 bonus for producing the only double-clear of today’s competition.
“I’m so very happy and proud - for sure this is my best result so far!”, she said. The talented, enthusiastic but hard-pulling Cuma certainly tests her strength in the ring, but it’s clear he thoroughly enjoys his job.
“I’ve had him since he was eight years old so this is our third year together and I only recently started him in big classes. This is the first big Nations Cup for him and now we work pretty well together. Yes he’s very strong and I need a lot of power to ride him but I try my best and so does he - he’s just amazing!”, said the 30-year-old athlete who is based near the Swiss/German border in Austria.
On only her second Nations Cup appearance anchor rider Babanitz had a difficult day with a big number of faults but she too was pleased with the result, while for 49 year old Gerfried Puck today was a day he will cherish for some time to come.
“I cannot remember the last time Austria won a Nations Cup and it might even be the first time ever Austria has won a 5* Nations Cup - we are really proud of our result today!”, he said. “It was a long journey to get our team here but it turned out great!”, he added.