The pouring rain is the last thing that Gregory Wathelet will remember about today. It may have soaked right through his jacket and put an extra gust of cold air under his horse’s tail, but when he thinks about leading the victory gallop of the 2017 Rolex Grand Prix of Aachen, it will be the inimitable thrill of winning one of the most difficult, and most exciting, show jumping competitions in the world that comes to mind.
The soft spoken professional from Belgium and the 11-year-old Westfalen mare (Cornet Obolensky x Liberty Life) performed as winners do, making the three massive rounds of jumping look not easy, but rather, smooth and doable in front of 40,000 fans in the main stadium of CHIO Aachen in Aachen, Germany.
Forty riders qualified for this leg of the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping, which is part of four, Grand Slam classes around the world (more on that later.) Course designer Frank Rothenberger built two, unique 1.60m tracks, and prepared for a jumpoff, although he didn’t think he’d need it. Last year in this class, only one rider, Philipp Weishaupt, jumped clear to the win. But this year there was no shortage of clears, or for that matter, drama.
The very first rider out of the gate, France’s Pernard Briand Chevalier and Qadillac du Heup, took a head over heels tumble at the open water after the mare tripped. A scary moment ensued as the mare stood with blood heavily dripping from a puncture wound where her stud met her belly. But after a quick on-field check by the vets, she walked off the field to safely recover.
From there the clear rounds began to add up. German hopes soared when Laura Klaphake went clear to thunderous cheers aboard the flashy Catch Me If You Can 21. Young Frank Schttert of The Netherlands added a clear to the board with Chianti’s Champion, and Portugal’s Luciana Diniz, Holland’s Marc Houtzager, the USA’s Laura Kraut, and Eric Lamaze of Canada with Fine Lady 5 woud make it a half dozen Round 1 clears.
After the open water early on course in Round 1, riders turned right in seven strides to a wide oxer, then had to get their horses collected in six strides to get to an airy double combination. That was the trouble spot for many, and with the top 18 coming back for Round 2, it meant that the lucky riders were the four faulters.
Round 2 was slightly more straightforward, with eight going clear, but as the jumpoff was determined by a faultless record, just four would advance to the jumpoff. Andreas Kruezer of Germany came within a single time fault of advancing aboard Cavilot, who never touched a pole, but went over the time in Round 1.
The jumpoff is where things got heated, with Houtzager and the ten-year-old Westfalian stallion by Champion du Lys that is owned by Jos Lansink and Willy Vd Ham, starting things off with a clear round. His time of 53.66 was promptly topped by an ecstatic Diniz, who flew home in 47.40 seconds with Fit For Fun, her Rio 2016 Olympic mount.
But the lead wouldn’t last when Wathelet followed aboard Coree. They went for it in 46.60 seconds, and when Kraut pulled a heartbreaking last rail with Zeremonie, it sent about 100 people rushing into the warmup paddock to where Wathelet was watching.
“In the first round, I felt like Coree was going good, we had good control and a good connection. Today, she jumped really perfect everywhere, and then in the jumpoff she felt so amazing,” Wathelet said. “I knew she was going to go quick, and I knew I had to take some risk. I’m really proud of her today.”
In the press conference, Wathelet remarked with the smallest trace of soreness that Coree had been like most of his horses, that is, always available for sale and at the risk of being sold from under him. So it was with deep gratitude that he acknowledged owner Judith Golkel, who purchased the mare in 2015 in order to keep Wathelet in the saddle. He’s been riding her since she was 8-years-old, and he’d won a class here and there with her, but this win eclipses all previous accomplishments, evening coming close, if not topping, Wathelet’s individual silver medal at the 2015 FEI European Championships, which was also held at Aachen.
Wathelet was quickly asked about his plans for the Spruce Meadows Masters in September, the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping grand prix of which happens to fall on his 37th birthday. But with this victory at Aachen still shining in his eyes, he made it clear he was not quite ready to commit to those plans.
We’ll find out soon enough. Wathelet is now the new Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping contender, eligible for all kinds of bonuses should he go on the win the other three legs of the Grand Slam. The winner of three subsequent legs of the Grand Slam (Aachen, Spruce Meadows, Geneva, ‘s Hertogenbosch) earns a 1 million euro bonus, and—new in 2018—the winner of four in a row could earn another million on top of that. And as we learned this weekend, it’s one prize in show jumping that truly is up for grabs for anyone in the sport that can reach for it.
See the complete results list at this link.