More riders than ever will take part at this week's FEI European Show Jumping Championship in Mannheim, Germany where a total of 87 competitors from 27 nations will be in action. The previous record was established at Donaueschingen, Germany in 2003 when 71 riders from 24 nations lined out, but the significant improvement in the competitiveness of representatives from Eastern European countries has swollen the numbers this time around.
These Championships have come a long way since the first event was staged in Rotterdam, The Netherlands in 1957 when only eight riders turned up, and with Mannheim providing the final qualification opportunity for the 2008 Olympic Games we can expect a mighty battle.....
There are only three Olympic qualifying spots remaining, but the host team from Germany is not under pressure having already qualified along with The Netherlands, The Ukraine and Switzerland. The mission for the remainder of the 18 teams however is to be as highly-placed as possible in order to make the cut.
Amongst those still hoping to get to Hong Kong next summer are four teams from the Samsung Super League with FEI series - Great Britain, Sweden, Belgium and France - but stalking them are Ireland, Italy and Denmark who currently hold the top three positions in the highly-competitive second-division FEI Nations Cup series this season.
Austria won the Belgian leg of that league in June, while the Spanish cannot be discounted as they field a combination of some battle-hardened riders and experienced horses including Le Reve du Nabab with Sergio Alvarez Moya on board and the former British team stallion Cabri d'Elle who will be partnered by Paola Amilibia Puig. The Norwegians too have plenty of mileage on the clock and Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and Russia are also in the mix.
Each Championship tends to throw up some new talent from the less high-profile countries, so it will be interesting to see who catches the eye this time around. Portugal, Estonia, The Czech Republic, Finland, Greece, Israel and Latvia send out individuals and there are bound to be a few surprises amongst them.
The ones to beat however are the Germans whose vice-like grip includes team gold at the last two Championships and three consecutive individual European titles. And, as if they needed any further confidence boosting, they hold the top three places on the latest Rolex World Rankings with Ludger Beerbaum in pole position ahead of Christian Ahlmann in second and Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum in third. Ludger Beerbaum claimed the individual title at Arnhem in 2001 riding Gladdys S and then, with Goldfever, took silver behind Ahlmann riding Coster at Donaueschingen in 2003 while Marco Kutscher and Montender did the business for Germany at San Patrignano in Italy in 2005. Both Beerbaum and Ahlmann are again in the German side, and with Marcus Ehning and Noltes Kuchengirl, who has learned a lot since last summer's World Equestrian Games in Aachen, Heinrich Hermann Engemann and Aboyeur W and Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum and Shutterfly under Kurt Gravemeier's command the defending champions seem truly formidable. Engemann and Aboyeur received a late call-up when Rene Tebbel's Coup de Coeur was struck down with colic after arriving in Mannheim and were still on route to Germany on Tuesday having helped their team to victory in last Friday's seventh leg of the Samsung Super League with FEI series in Dublin.
The Dutch are likely to give the host country a run for their money. They send out three of their WEG 2006 gold medal winning team including Jeroen Dubbeldam (BMC Up and Down), Albert Zoer (Okidoki) and Gerco Schroder (Eurocommerce Berlin) along with Marc Houtzager (Opium VS) and Vincent Voorn (Audi's Alpapillon-Armanie). The Swiss were looking very strong until Beat Mandli's 2007 FEI World Cup™ winning ride Ideo du Thot had to be withdrawn due to injury leaving 2005 European silver medallist Christina Liebherr (LB No Mercy) heading up the side that also includes Werner Muff (Plot Blue), Niklaus Schurtenberger (Cantus) and Pius Schwizer (Nobless M). The French are relying on experience in the shape of Florian Angot (First de Launay), Hubert Bourdy (Toulon), Olivier Guillon (Ionesco de Brekka) and Michel Hecart (Itot du Chateau) along with their star rookie Kevin Staut (Kraque Boom Bois Margot). The British have opted for three veterans - John and Michael Whitaker riding Peppermill and Suncal Portofino respectively and Tim Stockdale with Fresh Director Corlato - along with relative newcomers Ellen Whitaker (Locarne) and David McPherson (Pilgrim 11). The British record at these Championships is impressive with a total of six medals, but nothing compares to the German total of 13, and it is going to take something special to prevent the host country from stretching their lead even further.
It will cause quite a stir if the Ukrainians, who were only just squeezed out of a medal placing at WEG last year, finish higher up the order this time out. The side includes riders that have transferred from Germany and Belgium along with the team's Ukrainian owner Oleksandr Onyshchenko and is likely to be effective. And of course the Belgians have the reigning World Champion to back them up. Jos Lansink will line out with the super-stallion Al Kaheel Cavalor Cumano who stole everyone's heart in Aachen last summer and is joined by Niels Bruynseels (Item de Quintin), Philippe Lejeune (Vigo d'Arsouilles), Patrick McEntee (Sherry Mury Marais Z) and Judy-Ann Melchior (Grande Dame Z).
The action kicks off on Wednesday with the Speed class which counts toward the team competition. The first round of the Nations Cup take place on Thursday with the second round concluding on Friday and the top-25 then go through to the individual final on Sunday.
Yesterday (Tuesday) the draw for order-of-go was completed and the teams will line out as follows: 1, Poland; 2, Ukraine; 3, Norway; 4, The Netherlands; 5, Spain; 6, Denmark; 7, Sweden; 8,Ireland; 9, Bulgaria; 10, Italy; 11, Great Britain; 12, Belgium; 13, Romania; 14, Germany; 15, Switzerland; 16, Russia; 17, Austria; 18, France.
The incentive of Olympic qualification is bound to give an extra edge to an already captivating week of Championship show jumping.....