Every part of this week’s World Championships test event at Pratoni del Vivaro has been a fact-finding mission, and today’s showjumping was certainly no different: this is an eventing course design debut for Uliano Vezziani, whose remit is ordinarily CSI5* showjumping, and who designs courses for the Global Champions league and World Cups among his accomplishments. He is, perhaps, perfectly suited for this role, though: he’s pushed for the re-introduction of grass arenas at major Italian showjumping venues, which allowed him to take a considered, clever approach to his job today, which he will reprise in September.
Of the 46 starters, just 16 produced clear rounds in the final phase, and 14 of those finished inside the 93 seconds allowed — a mere 30.4% of the entire field. This is actually a touch higher than Pratoni’s usual rate of attrition at this level, but certainly proved that the showjumping here can be plenty influential. This is in part because of the clever decision not to use one of the surfaced arenas for the final phase but rather, to make use of a spacious and gently undulating grass arena next to the dressage arena. Surrounded on two sides by grandstands and with plentiful viewing space on the hill on the arena’s far side, it made for an exciting spot for spectators — and also challenged riders to make savvy decisions with the plentiful space and fluctuations in their approaches.
Ultimately, it would be cross-country leaders Robin Godel and Grandeur de Lully CH who triumphed, delivering an impeccable clear just over half a second over the time allowed to secure the win — and to tip the balance in the team competition, too, which hung on a knife’s edge throughout the afternoon’s final rounds.
“It’s very wonderful for us — it’s a good beginning of the season, and it’s a place that’s been great for us as a team,” says Robin. “To have Andrew Nicholson has really helped us — we really see the difference with him. Today I didn’t feel a lot of pressure; of course, I was very focused, but not a lot of pressure. It was good pressure.”
Ingrid Klimke‘s Equistros Siena Just Do It had dropped out of the lead into overnight third yesterday, but a fault-free round today pushed them back up into second and showed a real progression for the ten-year-old Westfalian, whose talent had previously often been overshadowed by tempestuous exuberance. Her much-improved 22.7 on the flat, which beat out stablemate SAP Hale Bob OLD in the first phase, her 5.2 time penalties yesterday, and her faultless round today make her a very exciting prospect for Ingrid’s championship aims.
France’s Nicolas Touzaint, who became the European Champion here in 2007, made the most of his knowledge and positive experience of the venue to finish third with Absolut Gold HDC, who climbed from first-phase twelfth place, adding just 0.8 time penalties to his dressage score of 28.6 and producing a foot-perfect round today. Last year’s Pau victors Tim Price and Falco took fourth after finishing less than half a second over the allowed time, while 22-year-old Swiss rider Nadja Minder continued to make an enormously positive impression, taking fifth on team horse Toblerone.
Just two horse-and-rider pairs finished on their dressage scores: Switzerland’s Mélody Johner and Toubleu du Rueire took eighth place on 35.4, while Swedish pathfinders Malin Josefsson and Golden Midnight ended up twelfth on 37.9.
The team competition came down to the wire, largely because of the final phase’s order of go: individual representatives went first, followed by team riders in reverse order of merit. While France had led by just a tenth of a penalty after yesterday’s cross-country, second-placed Switzerland’s margin to catch them up widened after Beat Sax and Secret IV knocked three rails, putting them into the drop score spot. While that didn’t give France, who’d added four penalty’s in Christopher Six‘s round with Totem de Brecey, a rail in hand, Nadja Minder‘s knocked pole at fence eight with Toblerone gave them another 3.4 penalties to play with — and with just one French rider, and one Swiss rider, left to go, the tension in the stands was palpable.
But Maxime Livio‘s surprise two rails with his European Championships ride Api du Libaire put Switzerland into the top spot, and after Robin Godel pulled off the goods, they secured the team win — as well as the individual — by more than a rail over France. It’s an excellent start to the Nations Cup series for the Swiss, but more importantly, it’s an interesting exercise in comparison: Switzerland won the Nations Cup here in 2019, but did so in a much different style. There, they played it safe, delivering slow, steady rounds and allowing other teams to knock themselves out of contention on cross-country day with mistakes on course. This time, though, they were prepared to take calculated, educated risks and ride much more aggressively, which resulted in four out of four Swiss team riders, plus one individual, coming home clear inside the time over yesterday’s cross-country course.
This can be attributed in large part to the help of Andrew Nicholson, who began helping the Swiss team with their cross-country training and performances in the lead-up to the 2019 European Championships, but he’s quick — and rightly so — to point out that the riders have always had the ability.
“They’re nice people to work with, because they try very, very hard and they listen to everything you say — which makes it a little bit more pressure when you see them leave the startbox, because you know they’re going to ride the lines you’ve told them,” says Andrew with a laugh. “You have to really hope that that works, and trust that they’ll do it. I was very proud of them yesterday, and to see them in the jumping today, I think they’re unbelievable.”
No man is an island, not even Andrew Nicholson: his role in the Swiss camp is as part of a bigger machine that’s become more cohesive over the past couple of years, and he’s also encouraged his riders to work together and learn from each other’s successes and mistakes to fast-track their journey to serious competitive results.
“We’ve got a very good crew — the dressage coach and the jumping coaches. We don’t have a lot of people on the edges, but the ones we have are tops. When you can train them, and there’s groups of riders together, you can encourage them to watch each other and feed off each other. Then, when they get to the big competitions, like this team competition, they can remember what the other riders did wrong in training that could help them on the day — you can say one simple thing that they’ve been told in training, and it can really help. It’s that sort of team that you want to make a difference with, and at the end of the day, what makes a good team result is three good individual results.”
The French continue to look very strong ahead of September’s World Championships, while Sweden’s ongoing quest to build team mileage and move from consistent Nations Cup performers to world-stage contenders continues on apace: the three team riders whose scores were counted finished in eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth, with team debutant Aminda Ingulfson best of the bunch on Joystick. Swedish riders also delivered the two fastest clears of the day, with Malin Josefsson and Golden Midnight the fastest and Aminda and Joystick the second fastest — but their third place saw them slightly off the pace on the score board with a margin of 14.5 penalties between them and France.
“In the dressage we didn’t get the points that we wanted because we didn’t deserve more, basically, but I think that we made it happen,” says Swedish chef d’equipe Fred Bergendorff. “We started too far behind from the beginning, but even so, they’re working well. I’d like to get better than where we are at the moment; we’re too far behind, and when you have the very best horses in the world here in September, everything will be a little bit sharper and to climb like we did today might not happen in the same way. We have to start in a better point.”
Now that we find ourselves on the back end of the pandemic, though, and with travel restrictions lifted, Fred and his team — who are based across the UK, Sweden, and Germany, are finding it slightly easier to gain that sort of cohesion that’s been helping the Swiss so much. Their lack of proximity, though, remains one of their primary challenges to overcome en route to domination on the world stage, but Fred is optimistic: “We have a bit of a limited budget, so we can’t travel around [for training] that much with the riders, but as a coaching team we want to be better, and as riders they want to be better. Sometimes you have horses that are a bit more difficult in the dressage, and sometimes you have riders that find it a bit harder than the cross-country, and that’s sort of how it goes at the moment, but it is on the way up, I do know that. We’ve got exciting young horses and exciting riders, too — like Sofia Sjoborg, who we had as an individual at the Europeans and who went to Badminton last week [before coming here], and Aminda Ingulfson, who hasn’t been at this level very long. She’s a real fighter, and we have a few of these riders for whom just being on the team isn’t good enough. That’s exactly how I want it.”
Both the Italian National Championships and the Italian Armed Forces National Championships also took place throughout this week’s CCIO4*-S, though there was significant crossover between the entrants — whose sporting efforts are funded, in large part, by their participation in the Forces — and the eventual winner of both was the same: Susanna Bordone and Imperial van de Holtakkers knocked one rail after having climbed from eighth place in the first phase to second place after cross-country, ultimately usurping two-phase leaders Pietro Grandis and Scuderia 1918 Future when the latter tipped three rails, slipping to third place.
Second place — and the only clear in this line-up — went to Emiliano Portale and the impressive young stallion Aracne dell’Esercito Italiano, who was ninth at the start of the competition after a mercurial dressage performance earned them a 35.9. They climbed to fourth place yesterday, picking up 7.6 time penalties despite the horse’s exceptional gallop, and their clear inside the time today allowed them to finish in fine style.
Stay tuned for plenty more from Pratoni’s test event, including analysis, the secrets of the hills as told by designer Giuseppe della Chiesa, chats with chef d’equipes and North American representatives, and plenty more. Go Eventing.