In the thrilling opening Speed leg of the Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ Final 2023 in Omaha (USA) tonight, the reigning double world champions, Sweden’s Henrik von Eckermann and the amazing King Edward, proved unbeatable once again.
Taking full advantage of getting the best of the draw when last of the 40 starters from 19 nations to tackle the 13-fence track set by Portuguese course designer Bernardo Costa Cabral, the dynamic duo pinned longtime leaders Britain’s Scott Brash and Hello Jefferson into runner-up spot and Germany’s Daniel Deusser and Scuderia 1918 Tobago Z into third.
“I was happy to be going last and of course I’m very happy now - it was a good start!”, said von Eckermann who, riding Toveks Mary Lou, finished third the last time the Final took place in Omaha in 2017, and again the following year in Paris (FRA).
A strong finish in this first competition is key to taking the coveted title. So for
Switzerland’s Pius Schwizer (Vancouver de Lanlore), Sweden’s Wilma Hellstrom (Cicci BJN), Denmark’s Andreas Schou (Darc de Lux), The Netherlands’ Harrie Smolders (Monaco NOP), USA’s Hunter Holloway (Pepita Con Spita), Brazil’s Yuri Mansur (Vitiki) and USA’s Aaron Val (Prescott) who filled the remaining top-ten placings it’s all very much to play for over the next few days.
Smolders and Monaco, runners-up at last year’s Final, set the early target in 60.59 seconds when sixth to go, but Schwizer shaved more than a second off that when next into the ring before Brash raced through the timers in 59.23 to go into a lead that would last for much of the rest of the evening.
“I’m very happy with Jefferson, I thought he jumped fantastic”, the British rider said. “He’s amazing, he’s capable of winning anything. I’ve always believed in him and it’s just about things going right on the day and so far so good!
“He’s a quick horse but he gets tense so I try to do the round that’s comfortable for him. I was very happy with the first half and then just at the end he got a little bit keen…he lost his relaxation a bit but he jumped the last good and hopefully we can keep him settled for tomorrow”, he added.
Just before the ground maintenance break halfway through the competition, Hellstrom and Cicci BJN also put in a superb performance. The 12-year-old one-eyed wonder-mare and her 29-year-old rider have grown into a real force of nature over the winter season and never looked like touching a pole before galloping through the timers in 60.26 to put themselves right up there with the main contenders.
But for defending champion, Switzerland’s Martin Fuchs, there was deep disappointment when Leone Jei lowered both the second element of the double at 10 and the first element of the following double at 11. Lying 22nd tonight he is a long way off the leading pack.
It wasn’t until Deusser, 2014 series champion, and his brilliant stallion Tobago Z set off that Brash’s lead looked vulnerable. Cruising through the tricky turns and popping the three sets of doubles that proved the undoing of many throughout the competition, the pair pushed Schwizer down the line when stopping the clock on 59.45 seconds to take over second place. Now there were just four left to go and the Brash was still out in front. But von Eckermann would demote them all with one his trademark breathtaking rounds from King Edward.
Setting off like they were on fire, the Swedish pair always looked threatening, and despite a good rattle at the double at ten they broke the beam in 59.09 and had the world at their feet once again. Von Eckermann admitted that the last-to-go draw definitely helped.
“It was an advantage to watch a little bit to see how much risk do you really need to take without getting too crazy. I got my plan done - Scott’s horse is completely different so I just did my plan that suited my horse. Like to the triple bar (fence 6) I could do one less, he did nine I did eight, so I knew there I have a bit of time, and on the other ones I kept the pace going, and also we did nine (strides) to the last when many did ten. These small things meant that I was in front”, the Swedish star said with his usual modesty.
Brash however was quite comfortable with his runner-up finish while Deusser said he was “quite satisfied” with his third-place finish tonight.
“I walked the course and made my plan before the first one went into the ring, I also saw Scott in between and I knew it would be very difficult to beat him tonight so when I came out and I was second I was very happy about it. But Henrik at the end of the class and trying to win the class is always dangerous!” Deusser pointed out.
Von Eckermann isn’t getting carried away by his lead after today’s first competition however because there are still two more days of jumping to come and, as he said tonight, “it’s still a long way to go”. He’s not taking anything for granted.
“In Gothenburg (at the end of February) I had two down and if I have that tomorrow I’m gone, so it’s still very far away. But of course I have the best position and that’s what I like because I don’t have to hunt anyone. I just have to make sure that I’m good enough now and then we’ll see where it ends”, he said wisely.
The fences go up in tomorrow’s Jump-Off class so there is still plenty of opportunity to move up the leaderboard. America’s McLain Ward who lifted the trophy the last time the Final took place in Omaha is lying 11th and is well in touch when the action resumes at 19.15 local time.
So don’t miss a hoofbeat….