It was a night for the next generation at the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ Final 2021 at the Real Club de Polo in Barcelona, Spain tonight when a team filled with fresh young faces claimed the Challenge Cup trophy for Great Britain.
Clear rounds from 22-year-old Harry Charles riding Romeo 88 and 23-year-old Emily Moffitt partnering Winning Good anchored the British scoreline. So the four faults picked up by team pathfinders, 32-year-old Holly Smith and Denver, was all they had to count when posting a convincing victory without having to call on anchorman and longtime legend John Whitaker and Unick du Francport.
In the first round things didn’t go Britain’s way, so they found themselves in the five-way battle between Division 1 teams today when both Canada and Uzebekistan withdrew. And it was a night filled with nervous tension, because one of those five nations would be relegated to the EEF Nations Cup series in 2022 when finishing last.
In a bizarre turnaround, the newly-crowned European champions from Switzerland were amongst those battling to stay in the top league, and they were really feeling the pressure when they had to start with just a three-man side after Bryan Balsiger’s TwentyTwo des Bisches was unfit to compete. The electricity in the air in the closing stages was immense, but it was Team Italy who found themselves in the relegation spot when they put 43 faults on the board. Their place in Division 1 will be taken by the Czech Republic when the 2022 season gets underway.
France finished second tonight with a finally tally of 10 faults, Norway finished third with 21 and the Swiss slotted into fourth with an uncharacteristic 25.
The French were first to go, and with just single time faults from Penelope Leprevost (GFE Excalibur de la Tour Vidal) and Marc Dilasser (Arioto de Gevres), they looked set to discard the eight collected by Gregory Cottard (Bibici) when Mathieu Billot and Quel Filou set off as their last partnership. But the 15-year-old gelding was clearly not on form when putting in a stop, and when the pair retired then that handed it to the British.
The Swiss had to count all three of their results, with eight from Steve Guerdat (Victorio des Frotards), nine from Edwin Smits (Farezzo) and eight more from Martin Fuchs and Chaplin making up their unusually large scoreline. Fuchs and Guerdat were both on that gold medal winning European team in Reisenbeck, Germany just four weeks ago but on different horses. Guerdat said tonight that it was “a strange week for us here. I don’t want to say I was very confident but you don’t expect us all to be that bad two days in a row. It was hard watching at the end”, he admitted.
But if it was a tough day for the reigning European champions it was an even tougher one for Team Italy for whom nothing seemed to go right today, with three fences down for Piergiorgio Bucci (Naiade d’Elsendam Z), 14 faults from Fabio Brotto 9Vanita Delle Roane), 17 from Antonio Garofalo (Conquestador) and retirement for Riccardo Pisani (Chaclot).
The British were at the other end of the spectrum, making it all look pretty easy, and John Whitaker, who at 66 has a lifetime of glory already behind him, joked about not having to compete when the rest of his side did all the hard work and left him on the sidelines.
“The three young ones really did an unbelievable job today. Yesterday didn’t really go to plan, but we were still fighting today – or at least they were fighting and they pulled it off in style!”, said the man who first competed in Barcelona back in 1984.
His nephew, Jack Whitaker who turns 20 next week, was fifth man for the British side and there is a real sense of Team Great Britain rebuilding itself at last after a long period in the doldrums. As Holly Smith pointed out tonight, “we haven’t been having the best time of it but I think I speak for everybody, we are all so connected, and things will change and this is the start of it!”
Moffitt confirmed the sense of a new beginning too. “When we came here we knew it was a case of sink or swim, but we swam so I’m happy with that!”
Talking about her 12-year-old gelding Winning Good she said she was very disappointed when picking up five faults yesterday when Britain finished tenth of the 15 competing nations. “We know we are capable of a double-clear but we are not robots and things can happen and I was really happy that we were back to doing what we do best today – and my horse is the love of my life. Everything about him is amazing and he just wants to do it. He loves it so much!”, she said.
Harry Charles has been really developing into a top-class rider over the last year, and his faultless rounds yesterday and again today earned him a handsome €50,000 bonus which he admitted was very nice indeed. Today was a watershed moment in his career for a number of reasons.
“I was under a bit of pressure as third rider today but John was right behind us ready to go.”
His father Peter Charles, former individual European champion and Olympic team gold medallist at London 2012, proudly pinned the Longines sash to his son’s jacket before tonight’s prizegiving ceremony. It was a huge moment for them both.
“My dad is my trainer and he’s been brilliant all my life. He kind of stopped his own career to help us, but he says he gets no bigger joy than watching us compete so he really is the backbone of it all!”, Harry said earlier tonight.
“I’ve been at this 5-Star level a couple of years and I’ve got more consistent and have the horsepower now, so it’s starting to come through more than it previously did, and I’m getting more confident in the ring this summer as well. It’s all coming together really nicely, and I couldn’t be more excited for the future!”, he continued.
He said getting the ride on Ann Thompson’s Romeo last year has turned everything around for him. “He’s the best horse I’ve ever had and he’s really taken me to a new level – in terms of experience, building up to a major championship, going to the Olympics as my first Championship, being around the other riders like Scott (Brash) and Ben (Maher). This Final is kind of like a mini-Championship here, coming on the back of Tokyo. I’ve learned a lot and it’s been a helluva year!”, he added.
British Chef d’Equipe, Di Lampard said she was really proud of her young side today. “When they needed to they stepped up to the plate in style, all of them, and with John in the wings – he obviously didn’t touch a fence tonight”, she pointed out with a laugh.
“It’s been progression, a new generation coming through, they’ve been consistent all year and it’s been a big learning year for them. Hopefully we can look forward to big things next year”, she said. And she had great praise for the exceptional skill of course designer Santiago Varela who also built the tracks at this summer’s Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
She said to him, “we appreciate your courses, they’re so educational, they get the riders really thinking and they’re really kind to our horses too. We love meeting up with you Santi, you really do a great job!”
Tonight’s success ticked a box for her also. “It’s always been on my bucket list to have a win here, so we’ve started with the Challenge Cup and hopefully we can come back and do more next year. On behalf of all the riders I’d like to thank Daniel (Daniel Giro, Show Director) for organising this wonderful event!”, she added.
There’s one more day to go however before the fate of the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ 2021 title is decided. The eight best teams from yesterday’s first round – Germany, Spain, The Netherlands, Brazil, Sweden, Ireland, USA and Belgium – have made the cut, and first into the arena at 15.00 will be Belgium’s Nicola Philippaerts, one of seven riders hoping to take a share, if not all, of the €100,000 bonus on offer for a second clear round in this super-tough €1.25m finale.