Team Ireland rounded up the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ 2022 Europe Division 1 series with the perfect win in front of the home crowd at the Royal Dublin Society Showgrounds in Dublin (IRL) today. It was the 24th victory for the host nation in the long history of the Aga Khan Cup that dates all the way back to 1926 and which is the most coveted prize for every Irish jumping rider.
But Michael Blake’s side was pushed every inch of the way by a feisty French foursome who forced a jump-off to decide the result, and it came down to a duel between their Hickstead hero Marc Dilasser and Irish pathfinder Conor Swail who clinched it with a thrilling ride.
A total of seven nations lined out, and Team Norway were under extreme pressure as they were lying last on the Europe Division 1 leaderboard as the action began. Only the best seven of the nine countries competing in the Division 1 series are guaranteed a place at the Longines Final in Barcelona (ESP) at the end of the September, so for the Norwegians there was a great deal hanging in the balance. However it wasn’t to be their day. Tied on a 20-fault scoreline along with Team USA at the halfway stage they couldn’t recover and finished last behind the Americans who slotted into sixth place while Brazil finished fifth and The Netherlands completed in fourth.
The Swiss arrived with a strong side that included reigning Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ champion Martin Fuchs, whose father and team trainer, Thomas Fuchs, was a member of the last Swiss side to lift the Dublin honours back in 1983. However despite double-clears from both Fuchs Jnr. riding Conner Jei and 2012 Olympic champion Steve Guerdat with the exciting mare Dynamix de Belheme, Michel Sorg’s side had to settle for third place on their two-round tally of eight faults.
In the bag
The Irish looked to already have it in the bag when posting the only zero score of the first round, Max Wachman’s single error at the final fence providing the discard. But the French were close behind, counting only the foot in the open water at fence eight for Kevin Staut’s Visconti du Telman after clears from Dilasser (Arioto du Gevres) and Edward Levy (Uno de Cerisy) while Megane Moissonier (Cordial) provided their team discard when hitting both elements of the penultimate double.
As round two got underway the Irish still looked comfortable when Conor Swail’s Count Me In bounced around the track for his second clear of the day. But when Wachman’s Berlux Z clipped the last element of the triple combination and then Shane Sweetnam’s James Kaan Cruz kicked out the very last fence the home crowd were feeling nervous.
Cian O’Connor needed to jump his second clear of the day with Kilkenny if the hosts were to stay on level pegging with the French and force a jump-off. But this is a man well used to pressure. He knew what he had to do. “Kilkenny felt like he owned the ring today so it was on me not to make a mistake”, he said afterwards. And the grey, who drew gasps of delight from the crowd for his spectacular jumping over the water, returned with nothing to add so it was game-on against the French.
Dilasser set the target over Alan Wade’s jump-off course, leaving all the fences in place and breaking the beam in 31.81 seconds to throw it down to the Irishman. But Swail never looked in any doubt when shaving more than a second off that with a brilliant run from the 15-year-old horse that carried him to eighth place individually at this year’s Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ Final in Leipzig (GER) and helped him rocket up the world rankings to the number four spot.
No doubt, that was, until he galloped through the finish and looked up at the scoreboard. The time said 30.31 seconds but he had the number 2 beside his name on the graphics so he thought for a moment he hadn’t been fast enough after all. But the crowd knew better and it wasn’t long until he was celebrating the best possible result with them.
Quite some week
Irish Chef d’Equipe Michael Blake has had quite some week, his team earning Olympic qualification when finishing fourth, and just pipped for bronze, at the ECCO FEI World Championships in Herning, Denmark only seven days ago. To come home and then win the precious Aga Khan trophy as winners of the Dublin leg of the Longines series was quite some bonus.
But in the aftermath of that success in Denmark Blake had a health blip, and he was only discharged from St Vincent’s Hospital, just down the road from the Dublin show venue, on Tuesday. “I almost made a deal with god for this one!”, he said this evening with a laugh. But he had been confident of victory, and his team didn’t let him down.
At just 18 years old Wachman was by far the youngest team-member. Grandson of John and Sue Magnier from the world-famous Coolmore Stud, the world’s largest breeding operation of racehorses, he hasn’t even graduated from school yet and is awaiting the results of his final-year examinations.
In 2019 he won double-gold at the FEI European Pony Championships in Strzegom (POL) and he finished fifth individually at this summer’s Young Riders Europeans in Oliva (ESP). Trained by team-mate O’Connor and riding the horse that carried French star Simon Delestre at last summer’s Tokyo Olympic Games he gave a great account of himself today. “It’s a dream come true to be on this team!”, he said tonight.
Shane Sweetnam was annoyed with himself for the last-fence error with James Kann Cruz second time out but he acknowledged that he is riding one of the most exciting horses to come out of Ireland for a very long time. The nine-year-old was formerly ridden by multiple Irish national champion Francis Connors, and Sweetnam said he fell in love with the grey gelding the moment he sat on him. “He’s a fantastic horse!”, he said.
And Irish breeders have plenty to celebrate tonight because O’Connor’s ride, Kilkenny, was also bred on the Emerald Isle. The bronze medallist from the London 2012 Olympic Games is a real Nations Cup veteran with almost 140 caps under his belt and this was his sixteenth appearance in a team at Dublin Horse Show and the fourth Dublin victory of his career. “I’m thrilled for Kilkenny, this was a big day for him!”, O’Connor said.
Meanwhile the man of the moment, Conor Swail, reflected on the fact that he has competed at the Royal Dublin Society showgrounds since he was a very small child. “The first time I rode here was in the 128cms ponies and I fell off at the third fence!”, he said with a giggle. It was a very different story today.
“This was amazing for me, my third time to compete for the Aga Khan Cup and it’s fantastic - it’s a lifetime goal and it’s an incredible achievement to be Irish and to win the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup of Ireland”, he said. But he wasn’t surprised when the appropriately-named Count Me in helped clinched it for him. “He’s a really special horse and he’s so fast - I knew him long before I got him and always thought he was wonderful”, he pointed out.
Course designer Alan Wade said “the French and Swiss pushed Ireland to do their best today and we saw good sport - no, we saw top sport!”, and nobody was arguing with that.
Show Director Pat Hanly agreed. “We couldn’t have imagined a better result and it was so fantastic to have such an enthusiastic crowd. It was a super day with an amazing winning team who are great ambassadors for the sport!”