By Louise Parkes
Lebanese athlete, Marek Maitala, swept to victory in the FEI World Jumping Challenge 2016 Final at Rabat in Morocco which, for the second year in a row, came down to a thrilling three-way jump-off for the medals yesterday. And it was a really close call, with Bermuda’s Philip Correia also producing three fantastic clear rounds in the closing competition, but having to settle for silver when fractionally slower against the clock, while the host nation’s Yassine Bennani claimed the bronze.
This 15th edition of the Final, which was originally organised by PSI at the Kasselman Stables in Hagen, Germany back in 2000, attracted 22 riders from 18 nations and took place at the Dar Es Salam Equestrian centre which is home to the Fédération Royal Marocaine des Sports Equestres. The flags of Algeria, Bermuda, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Iran, Jamaica, Lebanon, Morocco, New Zealand, South Africa, Syria, Uzbekistan, Venezuela and Zimbabwe all flew high, and competitors enjoyed a tremendously welcoming atmosphere throughout the tournament.
Open to Category A riders from 10 FEI regional zones, the Final was staged over five competitions beginning with a Warm-Up in which 12 horse-and-rider combinations shared pole position when jumping clear.
A total of 28 horses were presented at the veterinary inspection last Thursday (21st April) following which the all-important draw took place. Riders compete with borrowed horses so, as always, tension was high as each athlete was allocated a mount which they hoped would take them onto the very top step of the podium. The horses selected for the Final are experienced campaigners, competing regularly in classes from 1.20m up to Grand Prix level, and the Moroccan National Federation went through a rigorous scouting process to find the best available.
The first qualifier was a 1.15m Speed competition, and as only the top 50 percent of participants go through to the final afternoon a good first effort is vital to make the cut. And the competitors demonstrated their skill and determination when 14 jumped clear, four finished with just four faults and two completed with eight on the board, leaving 20 still in the hunt for a place in the limelight on Sunday afternoon.
New Zealand’s Steffi Whittaker produced a particularly impressive result when jumping fault-free with the aptly-named Fantastique du Rif Z who replaced her original ride, Matis de Sainte-Hermelle, following an injury in the stable overnight. Fantastique was a very different ride, but Whittaker coped superbly and went into the second qualifier still very much in the race for gold. In contrast, the hopes and dreams of Uzbekistan’s Nurjan Tuyakbaev and India’s Rushil Patel were dashed when both were eliminated for falls at this early stage. However they both returned to put on a great performance in Sunday’s Farewell consolation class.
It was Iran’s Soroush Gharavi who claimed pole position in the first qualifier, steering the 14-year-old French gelding Orcchis Courcelle home to pin the eventual champion, Maitala, into runner-up spot when more than four seconds faster in this Speed class while Correia also showed early promise when slotting into third place here.
The second qualifier was an exciting two-round affair in which Correia, riding Kilt Bessiere, came out on top. There were 13 fault-free first rounds, but German course designer, Christoph Johnen, ensured the 11 qualifying places for the final afternoon would be hard-earned, and tested them with a technical second track to which only five found the key.
Maitala had to settle for sixth this time out when posting the fastest four faults with Lansquenet du Bisp, while Chile’s Shannon Clifford slotted in ahead of him in fifth with Contessa. Morocco’s Yassine Bennani rose to prominence when filling fourth spot with Quinquina du Moulin, Colombia’s Paula Cardiozo finished third with Rubis de Berni and Morocco’s Saad Jabri was runner-up with Asmoun de Zouada.
The last day began with the Farewell class for those who didn’t qualify for the deciding final competition, and it was sweet revenge for India’s Rushil Patel who put the disappointment of elimination in the first qualifier behind him to finish in runner-up spot behind the super-fast Syrian, Homan Al Shehab, who looked competitive from the outset with First Luanda. Indonesia’s Kumiadi Mustopo lined up third here with Zwaantje VD Kapel while Jamaica’s Julian Hyde finished fourth with Roc Ephebe ahead of Algeria’s Chief Bouabdelah and Ronce du Murier in fifth place.
Battle to the end
As the medal-decider got underway later in the afternoon it was clear it would be a battle to the very end. All 11 horse-and-rider partnerships started out on a zero score once again, and five kept a clean sheet in the first round in which Bolivia’s Jorge Galindo picked up just a single time fault with Calbie Caillant.
Only three of those five managed to stay clear second time out however, and now it would come down to a nail-biting jump-off to decide the medal placings.
First through the timers was Correia who really put it up to the rest of them when breaking the beam in 43.02 seconds, but Morocco's Bennani was in no mood to be intimated, scorching home five seconds faster but unfortunately leaving one fence on the floor. So now it was all down to the last man in, Lebanon’s Maitala who drew gasps from the crowd when hesitating at the penultimate fence only to clear the line in 42.93 seconds which gave the 20-year-old a narrow 0.09 second margin of superiority over his Bermudan rival and the 2016 FEI World Jumping Challenge gold medal.
The event was a triumph on a whole range of levels, including promotion for the sport that included advertising and TV coverage. It was also an opportunity for officials from the region, both FEI and National, to gain invaluable experience.
His Highness Prince Moulay Abdellah El Alaoui, President of the Fédération Royale Marocaine des Sports Equestres, was delighted to play host and was extremely proud of his team, and of the owners who loaned their horses for “a truly unique competition which brings people together”. He pointed out that although the level of competition in terms of height may not be the same as at the elite level, it is such events that bring developing NFs a step closer to it. “Our aim was for everyone involved in this event to go back home with good memories, and if we have managed to do this, then for us the event was successful”, His Highness said.
And FEI President, Ingmar Devos who made the trip to Morocco especially for the event, was delighted with the way the Final, which is staged within the frame-work of the FEI’s Solidarity Programme, played itself out. “This is the dream for any championship Final, having a jump off for the three medals” he said.
FEI World Jumping Challenge Final 2016: GOLD - Marek Maitala LIB; SILVER - Philip Correia BER; BRONZE - Yasmine Bennani MAR.
Full results here