Cian O’Connor & Seringat. Ph. ©Simon Stafford/FEI
As last to go in the final minutes of Round Two at the $100,000 FEI Nations Cup CSIO4* in Ocala, Florida, all pressure lay solidly on Cian O’Connor’s shoulders. Walking through the ingate to the silence of the crowd, he knew that the difference of one rail would prevent Team Ireland from securing victory in the first, North American leg of the 2017 FEI Nations Cup Jumping Series.
Team USA’s Beezie Madden had just exited the arena after an all-important clear round aboard Breitling LS. One rail from Team Ireland would force a jumpoff. Two down, and they would drop down to 3rd place.
The crowd held their breath as O’Connor guided Seringat around the course and took aim at the influential triple combination, the penultimate fence on course. He took a long spot to the final oxer but Seringat, an 11-year-old Selle Francis gelding (Chef Rouge x Guillaume Tell) kept the poles in the cups and the crowd erupted in ground shaking applause..
It was Team Ireland’s second CSIO4* Nations Cup win in Ocala, Florida in three years, giving the team of O’Connor, Shane Sweetnam and Chaqui Z, Kevin Babington and Shorapur, and Richie Moloney with Carrabis Z much to celebrate, along with their chef d’equipe Michael Blake. Team USA finished in 2nd place, and Team Canada took the 3rd place spot.
“Obviously, it’s a huge win for Team Ireland,” said O’Connor. “Every time we go out, we want to try and do well as a team. When you come back into the second round, you’re just trying to stay calm and focused and jump each jump. Beezie going clear put on a little bit of pressure, but I had good confidence in my horse that could do a good job, and it was great to be able to contribute well.”
“When you come back into the second round, you’re just trying to stay calm and focused and jump each jump.”
Seven nations came to participate in the first qualifying event in this part of the world, and the only FEI Nations Cup qualifier in the USA. Only four of the seven nations; Canada, the USA, Mexico, and El Salvador were eligible to rack up qualifying points.
The 1.60 course, set by Brazil’s Marina Azevedo, had a time allowed of 74 seconds and consisted of 12 obstacles, including an open water. The first five riders on course all rode beautiful clears, though their feat didn’t turn out to represent how the remainder of the class would go, as multiple faults began to stack up.
That triple combination at Fence 11abc was the most grueling test on course. It caught out nearly every rider as they entered the final stretch for home. Daniella Stranksy, third to go in Venezuela’s rotation, lost her balance over fence 11A and parted ways with her horse Copa Cabana in the middle of the combination. Although Stranksy walked away to the applause of the crowd, though that would mark the end of the competition for Team Venezuela, whose only clear came from Emanuel Andrade and Ricore Courcelle.
“It had to be tough enough for this group, and it’s very hard to build for different groups of very high level riders and horses,” said Azevedo. “At the same time, we have a medium level so we have to think, where we can put it high and spread and put in many different distances.”
At the end of Round 1, Ireland was in the lead on 4 faults, Mexico and the USA were on an equal 8, Canada on 12, and Colombia on 28. Venezuela and El Salvador did not return for Round 2.
Canada’s Tiffany Foster, who had one of three double clears aboard Victor and the first clear of round two carried Team Canada to its eventual 3rd place finish on 24 total faults; hers would be the only clear rounds of the day for Canada.
And the American team of Madden, Mclain Ward and Rothchild, Lillie Keenan and Super Socks, and Lauren Hough with Cornet 39 would finish on 16 total faults; each Team USA rider picked up a rail in Round 2, except for Madden.
So it was Ireland’s 12 faults over the two rounds that remained good enough for the win.
“I think we put in a big effort. We’re very organized and Michael has done a great job getting the boys in line,” said Sweetnam. “I think the course designer did a fantastic job. At this level, it needs to be like that, it can’t be a walk in the park and she didn’t kill anyone. Obviously, the combination took a bit of jumping and we were quite confident coming down but we still had to do it and Cian came up at the end to really deliver for us.”
Ireland recently appointed Michael Blake to the position of Chef d’equipe, and the day marked a successful start to his new role.
“This win means a lot to me. When I got a call from them a few months ago, I was so proud that I was going to get a chance to represent, for me, some of the best riders in the world,” said Blake. “I believe that for someone to do their best, they have to be organized, so this team was selected quite some time ago. You can’t do your best if you don’t know when your best is supposed to be and when you’ll be asked to do it.”
O’Connor, seasoned in the art of performing well under pressure, spoke highly of what it means to be part of a team victory for his country.
“There’s nobody here that wouldn’t say you get the biggest pulse when you compete in a team event.”
“I suppose that you learn to deal with the extra pressure at the end. I kind of ride a bit better when I’m under pressure,” he said. “There’s nobody here that wouldn’t say you get the biggest pulse when you compete in a team event. It’s not just an individual class, it’s about being organized and about being able to deliver when it counts.”
With the Ocala win, Team Ireland is buoyed for an exciting season to come in 2017.
“We have eight riders in the [world] top 15, that’s not an accident,” said Blake. “We need to circle around and put in giant efforts and that’s what we intend to do from here on in. We plan on going to 24 Nations Cups this year, and we hope to be sitting at this table.”
See the complete results at this link.