As the 2010 Meydan FEI Nations Cup™ series gets underway in La Baule, France next week there could hardly be a more cutting-edge to this century-old sporting series. For the second consecutive season a total of 10 countries will do battle, but the competition will be more ferocious than ever because four will be relegated following the final leg in Dublin, Ireland in early August in order to re-create an eight-nation tournament in 2011.
The French come out this season as defending champions, but they know only too well just how difficult the forthcoming battle will be. They dominated the early years of the highly-popular Samsung Super League which preceded Meydan's arrival, but were then relegated at the end of 2006 and were forced to face the long climb back to the top of the game. They made a spirited return to take the inaugural 2009 Meydan FEI title under the quiet guidance of Chef d'Equipe Laurent Elias, but their story underscores the thin line between success and failure in this super-tough team sport.
The ability to pull together, especially when things are not going according to plan, plays a major role in the story of Nations Cup jumping. It is a test of grit and determination as well as a demonstration of horsemanship, sportsmanship and national pride. The heady mix of all those elements creates a supremely challenging environment for both horse and rider.
The Greatest Challenge
The greatest challenge of all this season may be faced by the teams from Poland and Spain, who have emerged from the 2009 Promotional League to take their place amongst the best of the best. The Spanish were highly impressive at the Promotional League final in Barcelona last September, but the Meydan FEI Nations Cup™ series offers sport at a considerably higher level, and both of the new nations must raise their game if they are to have any chance of staying in the top rank.
Consistent results from the outset are key to remaining in the elite series. In previous years one bad result could often be offset by better performances elsewhere, but with four teams under threat, this time around the pressure will be intense from the very start. The promotional/relegation system, first introduced in 2003, is relentlessly unforgiving.
The Full Line-up
The full line-up of teams for 2010 is France, the USA, Germany, Switzerland, Ireland, The Netherlands, Sweden, Great Britain, Poland and Spain, and the host country is clearly taking the opening round in La Baule very seriously indeed. The star-studded longlist of French riders includes reigning European Champion Kevin Staut, horseman par excellence Michel Robert and his talented pupil Penelope Leprevost, who propelled herself onto centre stage when clinching victory in the Rotterdam leg of the Meydan FEI Nations Cup™ last summer before jumping double-clear with Jubilee d'Ouilly to help seal yet another great French win in Aachen two weeks later.
The USA finished a close second at the end of last season, having recorded back-to-back wins in Rome (ITA) and St Gallen (SUI) and team manager, George Morris, has huge strength in depth in his side again this year. The Americans were in sensational form at the recent Rolex FEI World Cup™ Jumping final in Geneva, and 1984 World Cup champion Mario Deslauriers (left) brings his stunning stallion Urico with which he finished in sixth place. Hillary Dobbs, aged just 22 and riding the diminutive Quincy B, finished 19th at the Geneva final, while Richard Spooner and Cristallo slotted into 16th. With double Olympic team gold medalists Beezie Madden and McLain Ward also on call, the US challenge is a powerful one.
A Force to be Reckoned With
Germany sends out Philipp Weishaupt, Lars Nieberg and Alois Pollmannn-Schweckhorst along with Alexander Hufenstuhl and Rebecca Golasch while the Swiss look a force to be reckoned with as World No. 1 Pius Schwizer is joined by Steve Guerdat, Hansueli Sprunger and Theo and Werner Muff. Shane Breen and Cameron Hanley lead the Irish attack along with US-based Shane Sweetnam, who produced consistently good results in this series last year. And they are joined by Swiss-based Niall Talbot and 22–year-old Darragh Kenny, who has been kicking up a storm on the US circuit since basing himself with Missy Clarke and John Brennan in Vermont last season.
The Dutch squad includes Nathalie van der Mei, Piet Raijmakers Jnr., Gerco Schroder, Harrie Smolders and Vincent Voorn, while Sweden sends out Malin Baryard-Johnsson, Helena Lundback, Svante Johansson, Jens Fredricson and Alexander Zetterman. The Swedes have endured fluctuating fortunes at top Nations Cup level in recent years, but their instinct for survival and dogged determination has served them well. They finished second to the Swiss at La Baule last May when Johansson produced a particularly spirited performance from Saint Amour.
The British representatives include the 1995 individual European champion Peter Charles, Michael Whitaker, Mark Armstrong, Scott Brash and David McPherson. It will be fascinating to see how the Polish squad of Jan Chrzanowski, Aleksandra Lusina, Andrzej Lemanski, Tomasz Klein and Marek Lewicki fare at the French opener, but they finished third at the Promotional League final in Barcelona last September and, when offered the opportunity to up their game to the next level, they welcomed it with open arms.
The Spanish were easy winners that day, their result boosted by a classy double-clear from Pilar Lucrecia Cordon and her lovely horse Herald and backed up by rock-solid rides from Sergio Alvarez Moya and the veteran Rutherford Latham. They looked ready to make the step up, and the Spanish team in La Baule next week will also include Jesus Garmendia Echevarria and Julio Arias Cueva.
The sport of Nations Cup jumping moves into its second century in 2010 with all of its traditional style and enthusiasm still perfectly intact. Over the eight legs of the Meydan FEI Nations Cup™ series, battles will be fought in the prestigious arenas of La Baule, Rome, St Gallen, Rotterdam, Falsterbo, Aachen, Hickstead and finally in Dublin before the 2010 title is decided in early August. With the support of Meydan, the name behind Dubai's iconic racecourse, we can eagerly anticipate another 12 thrilling weeks of competition during which national esteem and equestrian excellence will be celebrated in time-honoured fashion - by riders on horse-back who want to do their country proud.
For further details on the first leg of the 2010 Meydan FEI Nations Cup™ go to website www.labaule-cheval.com
Facts and Figures
101 years of team competition - the 2010 Meydan FEI Nations Cup™ series brings the sport of Nations Cup jumping into its second century
10 top nations - France, the USA, Germany, Switzerland, Ireland, The Netherlands, Sweden, Great Britain, Spain and Poland
8 competitions at 8 world-class venues - La Baule in France, Rome in Italy, St Gallen in Switzerland, Rotterdam in The Netherlands, Falsterbo in Sweden, Aachen in Germany, Hickstead in Great Britain and Dublin in Ireland.
4 riders per team
2 rounds of jumping - and possibly a third-round jump-off against the clock if teams are tied at the end of the second round.
2 new nations for 2010 - Spain and Poland - who emerged from the 2009 Promotional League.
1 title-holder - the French are the defending champions and they are strong at the moment - can they do it again?
Meydan FEI Nations Cup™
A Meydan FEI Nations Cup™ event is organised as a five-star Nations Cup, i.e. a competition in which official teams representing nations compare their merit. At each event the teams gain points according to their placing. At the end of the 2010 season the team with the highest points wins the Meydan FEI Nations Cup™ and the four teams with the lowest points are relegated to the FEI Nations Cup series (Promotional League). Following the Promotional League Final, the two best placed teams from that series join the Meydan FEI Nations Cup™ for 2011.
The World’s Top 10 Teams: France, the USA, Germany, Switzerland, Ireland, The Netherlands, Sweden, Great Britain, Spain and Poland.
The World’s Best Eight Venues:
La Baule (FRA), Friday 14 May; Rome (ITA), Friday 28 May; St. Gallen (SUI), Friday 4 June; Rotterdam (Ned), Friday 18 June; Falsterbo (SWE), Friday 9 July; Aachen (GER), Thursday 15 July; Hickstead (GBR), Friday 30 July; Dublin (IRL), Friday 6 August.
Watch it LIVE on FEI TV:
Extensive coverage of the 2010 Meydan FEI Nations Cup™ is available on FEI TV, the official video website of the Fédération Equestre Internationale. Simply check www.feitv.org for live coverage, event reports, highlights programmes and interviews.
The complete rules, latest news, results, standings and photos are on www.meydanfeinationscup.org
To learn more about the FEI go to www.fei.org
To learn more about Meydan, the title sponsor of the Meydan FEI Nations Cup, go to www.meydan.ae
Photo Credit: Mario Deslauriers aboard Urico by Randi Muster