By Berry Pattison
Spain reigned supreme at the FEI European Endurance Championships for Juniors and Young Riders last weekend in Pontoncello Park, with Gil Berenguer Carrera and Nina bin Menfis securing individual gold and leading Spain to team honours.
A total of 16 nations from as far afield as Russia, Slovakia, Denmark and Norway were represented by 57 athletes at this year’s Championships, staged in a 350,000 square metre green oasis just 10 kilometres from the Romeo and Juliet city of Verona, which hosted the opening ceremony at the Amphitheatre Arena, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
On Friday, the pre-ride vetting day, the organisers worked hard to recover the venue and stables following torrential rain, which left the event site under water. With a severe storm forecast for the following day, the event officials and organising committee then took the decision for safety reasons to start the competition at 5.30am on Saturday.
The 124km route was made up of three loops, with two repeated, making five in total. Crews had six opportunities to meet their athletes during the first 36km loop, and with the first 17 combinations arriving within five minutes at vet gate one, the competition was tense from the outset.
First FEI medals
Spanish athlete Gil Berenguer Carrera with Nina bin Menfis entered the first vet gate in the lead, and held this for most of the day. Consistently fast presentations of under a minute, and a fast cruising speed on track, won him his first FEI medal and podium finish at an FEI Championship, having narrowly missed out when finishing fifth in the 2012 Championships in Mont le Soie (BEL).
Silver went to a familiar face on the international Endurance scene, French athlete Nina Lissarrague. Now in her final year as a Young Rider, Lissarrague, who has completed three Junior/Young Rider Championships and each time scooped team or individual medals, added yet another to her collection. Partnered with the French-owned, nine-year-old grey mare Ainhoa Catharissime, she rode a perfect race climbing her way up through the ranks as the day progressed.
Spain’s Paula Muntala Sancez on Shagya Irisz was ecstatic to claim a podium finish at her first Championship, finishing just 1.5 minutes behind Lissarrague to take the bronze.
The team competition was a thrilling spectacle of competitive riding, tactics and showmanship.
As the day unfolded, it looked as though France would take the title yet again, but unfortunately this wasn’t to be their year. The 15-year-old grey mare Lollypop des Eymes, partnered by French athlete Lena Payen, was judged to be lame at the finish, leaving France with just two successful completions and dashing their hopes of yet another team gold.
This left the door open for a tight finish between Spain and Belgium. Spain put in an incredible performance, with all five combinations completing the testing course. With their top three results taken into consideration for the team placing, Spain claimed gold with a three-minute advantage, with host nation Italy taking team bronze just over 15 minutes behind the silver medallists from Belgium.
The weather forecasters had their prediction absolutely right and, with just four horses left out on the course, a dramatic storm hit. But despite torrential rain, gusting winds, thunder and sheet lightening, all four horses made it home safely thanks to the emergency protocols that were in place at the venue. And with the horses snuggled up in their warm stables, the decision was sensibly taken to hold the medal ceremony indoors!
Ian Williams, FEI Director of Endurance, who is retiring from the FEI at the end of the year, said: “It is always a pleasure to attend such a Championship, with a proactive and responsive Organising Committee ensuring the very best for all involved.
“It was with great pride that I attended my last Junior/Young Rider Championship and was reminded of the essence and importance of our discipline for the future. Endurance requires hard work, dedication and a strong bond with your horse to be continually successful. It is also an opportunity to forge lifelong friendships across nations. With ambassadors such as we have seen this weekend, I think we can rest assured that our sport is in safe, young hands as our future rapidly becomes our present.”
Gold: Gil Berrenguer Carrera (ESP) with Nina bin Menfis (21.77kph/05:49:40)
Silver: Nina Lissarague (FRA) with Ainhoa Catharissime (21.127kph/05:52:09)
Bronze: Paula Muntala Sancez (ESP) with Shagya Irisz (21.037kph/05:53:40)
Gold: Spain (Gil Berrenguer Carrera/Nina bin Menfis, Paula Muntala Sancez/Shagya Irisz, Maite Pradero Ledo/Hiaben), 18:06:12
Silver: Belgium (Raphael van Cauter/Michka de Navarre, Morgane Boulanger/Fanatyk de Werister, Isabeau Anciaux/Ffaramir), 18:09:02
Bronze: Italy (Carolina Tavassoli/Pallas, Costanza Laliscia/Medusa del Ma, Marina Roghi/Lellera), 18:26:57
Photo Caption: Spain (centre) won team gold at the FEI European Championships for Young Riders and Juniors 2014 at Pontoncello Park near Verona, with Belgium securing silver and Italy bronze. (Sandra Durazzano/FEI).