In a thrilling finale to the FEI Children’s International Classics Final 2015 at Opglabbeek in Belgium today, the host nation’s Max Sebrechts clinched individual gold ahead of Colombia’s Isabela Lemos Campo in silver while Waled Alghamdi from Saudi Arabia clinched the bronze.
These Championships. which are designed to encourage and develop young talent, were well supported throughout the 34-leg qualifying series that visited venues all across the globe once again this season. Starting out at McLeans Island in Canterbury, New Zealand last February the series concluded at the Club Hipico Uruguayo in Solymar, Uruguay in October 2015.
Competitions are divided into gold, silver and bronze tours, with only gold tour riders eligible to compete at the world Final where the visitors complete on borrowed horses over courses up to 1.30m in height. A total of 28 competitors from 14 countries - Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, France, Germany, Guatemala, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, Saudi Arabia and South Africa - lined out for what turned into a highly competitive event from start to finish.
Riding an unknown horse is challenging enough, but competing in such an important event on a horse you have only sat on the previous day is a huge test for any athlete. However once again the FEI Children’s International Classics Final demonstrated the enormous range of talented young people on the world circuit when the visiting riders were paired up with unknown mounts and coped brilliantly.
Host nation athletes are permitted to bring two of their own horses, with a draw establishing which of the two they will ride, and a further draw pairs up the foreign athletes with the remaining horses on offer. The eventual champion didn’t get to ride the horse he hoped for, his mare Serieuse du Rouet going to Mexico’s Shirelle Ganon Moragrega while he had to settle for his gelding, Fantast. But in the end his 11-year-old chestnut lived up to his name to give his young rider the ultimate prize.
There was an even greater challenge for 14-year-old Waled Alghamdi when he was drawn with the 11-year-old Action-Breaker gelding Firestone AB, one of the biggest and strongest horses on offer. But the slender young Saudi Arabian athlete just took it in his stride and demonstrated his exceptional skill when steering the big bay into runner-up spot in Thursday’s First Qualifier. It was The Netherlands’ Collin Zwartjens who came out on top here with Ultradam while the eventual champion, Sebrechts, had to sit back and watch Mexico’s Chirelle Ganon Moragrega ride his mare, Serieuse, into third place.
But Sebrechts wasn’t far behind, lining up fifth behind another Belgian, Antoni Draga with Caramel D’En Haut, while Isabela Lemos Campo slotted into 13th spot this time out with Filou de Haistreux but then improved to fourth the following day to put herself well into the frame.
In pole position
The Second Qualifier saw host-nation runners filling the top three places led by Sebrechts in pole position. In a 13-way jump-off he wielded his authority when leaving his nearest rival, Thibeau Spits with Carlina DH, trailing by almost 0.40 seconds while Thomas Thometschek and Godess Greenfield slotted into third ahead of Lemos Campo.
Alghamdi finished well down the line in 24th spot when collecting eight faults this time out with the horse that was clearly not his perfect match. But this is a determined young man. He was competing as the substitute rider for his country and was only offered the place at the Final two weeks ago so had little time to prepare. But he grabbed the opportunity with both hands. “I was very excited to be allowed to compete at the Final and I knew I might face difficulties but I did some extra training to try to understand my horse (Firestone AB)” he explained this evening. As it turned out, that extra effort proved well worthwhile.
The first two classes decided the Team award, with gold going to a truly international foursome that consisted of Second Qualifier winner Zwartjens joined by New Zealand’s Leeshelle Small (Mama Mia Picobello Z), Mexico’s Shirelle Ganon Moragrega (Serieuse de Rouet) and Belgium’s Caro-Belle de Hornois (Caluscha). Sebrechts and fellow-Belgian Thibeau Spits joined with Argentina’s Avril Belen Rosso Cuaino (Folie) and Germany’s Diana Maria Gleissner (Wielis) to take the silver while Alghamdi was on the bronze-medal-winning team alongside Belgian counterpart Rune Reynders (Izzy) and Canada’s Madison Hildermann (Flow).
Course designer Ramin Shafiee from Iran set them a 13-fence test in today’s medal-decider in which the top-16 competed on equal terms. There were seven clears over the first course and Belgium’s Nadege Taveirne produced the quickest jump-off time but left one on the floor with Gonzales van Sappenleen. Germany’s Joan Wecke left all the poles in place with Aphrodite van het Netehof in 47.61 seconds, but Waled Alghamdi shaved almost six seconds off that with a great ride to put himself in with a big chance.
Lemos Camp was second-last to go and piled on the pressure when stopping the clock in 41.71 to take the lead, but Sebrechts was fractionally faster, breaking the beam in 41.59 to seal gold and demote his Colombian rival to silver medal position while Alghamdi took the bronze.
The young Saudi Arabian earned the admiration of onlookers for the maturity he showed in handling such a big, bold horse as Firestone. “I did everything I could, but in the Final jump-off I didn’t want to take too much of a risk so I took the long routes, no shortcuts, because my horse has such a big stride and goes quite fast anyway!” Alghamdi explained.
Silver medallist Lemos Campo was grateful for the advice of her borrowed horse’s owners who helped her come to terms with Filou de Haistreux. The young lady who topped the overall standings for the entire 2015 season and who was first of the foreign riders to qualify for the Final said this evening, “it was such a great opportunity to ride here and I was very happy with my horse, but he does have a different temperament to my horses at home. He was a bit spooky and scared, but it was all a good learning process for me - how to handle a different type of horse”, she insisted.
She admitted to being nervous going into the jump-off, “only Max was following me and he had won the Second Qualifier and I know how he rides - I did my best, but he beat me in the end!” she said.
Felt the pressure
Sebrechts also said he felt the pressure in the jump-off. “Yes I was nervous, but I was last to go, and I knew what I had to do. There were a few options on the course but I didn’t want to take all the risk, but I did enough and when I was through the finish line I saw the time was 41.59 and I still didn’t know if I was faster. When it was announced that I was the winner I was unbelievably happy!” he said. And, in time-honoured tradition for junior riders, he was thrown into a nearby water-jump by his fellow-competitors during the post-competition celebrations.
Once again the FEI Children’s International Classics Final brought talented youngsters together for a week of top-quality competition that will serve them well over the coming years and, as usual, some extra events were laid on for them during the week.
The venue at Opglabbeek is only a short distance from the stables of Belgian legend Ludo Philippaerts and Enda Carroll’s Ashford Farm, so one of the highlights of the week was a visit to both stables.
Newly-crowned gold medallist Max Sebrechts said this evening, “I’d like to thank the show organisers for giving us such an amazing week. We’ve had great sport, and we’ve had fantastic fun!”
Result: Gold: Max Sebrechts BEL (Fantast); Silver: Isabela Lemos Campo COL (Filou de Haistreux); Bronze: Waled Alghamdi KSA (Firestone AB).