Ocala, Fla. – Feb. 17, 2017 – Seven countries turned out on Friday at HITS Post Time Farm in Ocala, Florida, for the $100,000 FEI Nations Cup™ CSIO4*. Team Ireland earned the win on a total of 12 faults between both rounds, with anchor rider Cian O’Connor finishing on one of three double-clear rounds of the day as last to go to secure the team’s top spot on the podium.
“This win means a lot to me,” said Ireland Chef d’Équipe Michael Blake. “I’ve come from [coaching in the] underage system in Ireland and I didn’t think these guys even knew I existed. When I got the call a few months ago, I was so proud that I was going to get the chance to represent who is, to me, the best bunch of riders in the world. We’re a small country but we keep doing it in this sport. We keep doing it every time. I’m absolutely delighted for these guys and to have had the opportunity to work with them. They were a pleasure to work with. Obviously it’s not all roses, but today it’s all roses.
“I’m of the belief that you should select a team in time, and this team was selected quite some time ago,” continued Blake. “I believe if somebody has to do their best, they have to be organized. You can’t do your best if you don’t know when your best is supposed to be. I’m a big fan of picking the team in time and hopefully getting it right. Today, we did.”
Course designer Marina Azevedo set a challenging 12-fence track at 1.60m in height, where the final triple combination (vertical-vertical-oxer) proved to be one of the most difficult elements on course, collecting a number of faults for many teams. At the end of the first round, Team Ireland led the way on 4 faults, while Team USA and Mexico followed closely on 8 faults, Team Canada on 12 faults, Team Colombia on 28 faults and Team El Salvador on 49 faults. Team Venezuela was eliminated after the first round due to a last-minute scratch and only the top five teams returned for round two.
Made up of O’Connor, Shane Sweetnam, Kevin Babington, Richie Moloney and led by Chef d’Équipe Blake, the Irish team maintained their lead until the end, only collecting 8 more faults in the second round, to reclaim top honors since last winning the HITS Nations Cup in 2015.
“It’s always great to win here,” said Moloney. “There was great team spirit here. I think my teammates did a very good job and I have to thank Mike and the course designer for a great day of competition.”
“Mike has done a great job getting the boys in line,” said Sweetnam. “We came with the intention to try to win. The course designer did a fantastic job. It walked nice but it was tough in places. It had to be jumped, which at this level it needs to be like that. The combination took a little jumping and we were quite confident coming down but we still had to do it, but I think we delivered our best today.”
In the second round, it came down to the wire as Team USA’s anchor combination, Beezie Madden and Breitling LS, jumped double-clear to finish on a total of 16 faults to put the pressure on the Irish, after McLain Ward, Lillie Keenan and Lauren Hough all incurred 4 faults in the second round.
“Coming back in, I saw how tough the combination was in the first round so I wanted to get a better shot at the triple bar and slow [Shorapur] down,” said Babington. “I thought it came up as planned, but I ended up having A down at the combination. My mare made a great effort to jump C in the second round, which we had down in the first round. Everything else worked to plan. The only other difference was that horses were landing in the water in the second round so I rode the water a little harder than I did in the first round.”
Going into O’Connor’s final round, Team Ireland sat on two 4-fault scores from Sweetnam and Babington, and a 12-fault score from Moloney. One rail from O’Connor would have tied Team Ireland with the USA, resulting in a jump-off. However, O’Connor’s clear allowed the Irish team to drop Moloney’s score to finish on 8 faults, in addition to their 4-fault score from round one, for a total of 12 faults altogether.
“It’s a huge win for us and Team Ireland,” said O’Connor. “Every time we go out we try to do well as a team. We all work really well together and we have fun together. Going back into the second round, you’re trying to stay calm and focused and jump each jump clear to put a little pressure on, but I had a lot of confidence in my horse to do a good job. It’s great to do well.
“In the second round, there was definitely some extra pressure, but I do better when I’m under pressure,” continued O’Connor. “I think Nations Cups are great because they make championship riders and, as Michael says, it’s not just a regular class. It’s about being organized and being able to do what counts.”
Team Canada rounded out the top three nations represented in Friday’s Nations Cup competition on a total of 24 faults. Mexico followed in fourth place with 28 faults and Colombia in fifth with 52 faults.
“That’s probably my second favorite result — having the Irish win,” joked HITS President and CEO Tom Struzzieri. “It’s a terrific day for show jumping and horse sports at HITS. Our next big day out here is in a few weeks with the Great American $1 Million class at the end of the month. Hopefully we’ll have some of these Irish men back. We love having them here. They’re true gentleman and it’s always a pleasure what they bring to the horse show.”
The FEI Nations Cup™ Jumping Final will take place at the Real Club de Polo in Barcelona, where a total 18 teams, plus the home team if not qualified, will vie for the championship title Sept. 29–Oct. 1. The $100,000 FEI Nations Cup™ CSIO4* at HITS Ocala is the second leg of the series out of 19 qualifiers around the world.
Looking ahead to the finals, Blake said, “They’re fairly set. We have the top riders and that’s not an accident. We need to circle our wagons now and put our individual efforts into bigger, giant efforts and that’s what we intend to do from here on out. We hope to be sitting at this table quite a bit.”
Second Place — Team USA:
Results: $100,000 FEI Nations Cup™ CSIO4*