Sweden's Rolf-Goran Bengtsson and the brilliant little Ninja la Silla added European gold to their 2008 Olympic silver medal when sweeping to victory in the closing stages of the individual title-decider at the FEI European Jumping Championships in Madrid, Spain today. This was a historic first, as the only European medal previously stashed in the Swedish trophy cabinet throughout the 54-year history of this event is the bronze collected by the same rider at Arnhem in Holland in 2001.
In a cliff-hanger of a class that had spectators on the edges of their seats right to the very end, the pendulum of good fortune appeared to have swung in the direction of The Netherlands' Gerco Schroder who was in the lead as the final round got underway. But Lady Luck was not smiling on the Dutchman today, and it was Germany's Carsten-Otto Nagel and Corradina who claimed their second successive European silver medal, while Great Britain's Nick Skelton and Carlo took bronze.
It truly was a battle of the giants of the sport. And in the end it was the sport that everyone was talking about tonight. The extraordinary atmosphere of cooperation that prevailed throughout the entire week between the riders, officials and organisers created a powerful sense of a great sport in good shape. As Ground Jury President, Stephan Ellenbruch pointed out, "It's been a fantastic event, and at the end of it we can only see smiling faces which is great!"
Praise From The Riders
Once again, course designer Santiago Varela drew praise from the riders. Bronze medallist Skelton paid tribute to him tonight when he said, "I want to congratulate Santi for a great job, well done. I've been to more than 25 Championships, and this is the first time my horse didn't feel empty at the end of it. I feel he could go to another show next week - usually they need a month off!".
It was the final line of fences that created the majority of problems on the first-round 12-obstacle track. The double at fence 10 - a triple bar to vertical - was followed by the open water and then another double, vertical to oxer, before the gallop through the finish. Initially the water claimed most victims but, as the class progressed, riders rode down to it with increasing pace only to find themselves struggling for control at the final double when on the fore-hand. A total of nine of the 22 starters faulted on this line of fences.
Surprisingly however, some of the most skilled technicians fell foul of the oxer much earlier on the track at fence five. Ridden off a left-hand turn, and running a little uphill, it was defending champion Kevin Staut from France who was first to lower this one with Silvana de Hus, and Germany's Ludger Beerbaum, lying one place ahead of him in 10th spot going into the final afternoon, did exactly the same thing with Gotha. Next in was Frenchman Olivier Guillon with Lord de Theize who faulted at the triple bar at 10a and again at the second element of the final double, but fellow-countryman Michel Robert seriously raised the temperature when clear with Kellmoi de Pepita.
Germany's Janne-Frederike Meyer's chances disappeared when Cellagon Lambrasco knocked a brick off the wall at fence six and the second part of the final double hit the ground, while Penelope Leprevost (FRA) also found herself too deep at the second element of the final double for four faults with Mylord Carthago.
However Bengtsson, lying fifth as the day began, soared home with a fabulous clear from his chestnut gelding and that piled the pressure on the remaining four. Portugal's Luciana Diniz looked set to match that as she came down the final line, and she punched the air in delight as her lovely grey stallion, Winningmood, lifted over the last. But there was a thud as a pole hit the sand, and with four faults to add to her score she dropped right down the leaderboard.
Schröder was lying third as the class got underway and it came as no surprise when, riding Eurocommerce New Orleans, he made little of the course that tested so many of the others. The grey gelding's big, clean jumping style suggested that he would seriously threaten those ahead of him until now. And that it did, as both Skelton and Carlo, and Nagel with Corradina, fell victim to the oxer at fence five much to the amazement of the crowd.
But if they thought they had witnessed excitement then the spectators were seriously mistaken - they hadn't seen anything yet. In a piece of sporting theatre that blended deep disappointment with sheer delight, Bengtsson, now lying fourth, threw down the gauntlet when producing a second round of brilliance from Ninja who, at 16 years of age has been the oldest equine competitor at these Championships.
Once again, the final line of fences proved the biggest test in the second round, this time beginning with a single-stride triple combination - vertical, oxer, vertical - followed by a narrow vertical on five strides and a 1.55/1.70 metre oxer to finish. But Ninja came down that line like a bouncing ball to collect just a single time fault. The next two had no room for error if they wanted to stay ahead of him. And they didn't succeed as, in another strange coincidence, both Skelton and Nagel faulted at the middle element of the treble three from home to drop behind the Swede.
Having looked so comfortable and confident in the preceding round it seemed Schröder was well assured of the gold, and he still had it within his grasp even after hitting the bogey fence five. But in a cruel further twist, he made it all the way to the very last only to hear that fall - those eight faults denying him a medal placing as he lined up fourth
Hold Back The Tears
But for Bengtsson, and his proud 80-year-old mother Elsa who couldn't hold back the tears as her son climbed onto the top step of the medal podium, it was another special moment. Not only had he helped deliver Olympic qualification through his effort with the fifth-placed Swedish team earlier in the week, but he would wear the medal of gold presented by HRH the Infanta Doña Pilar de Borbón. And, as always, the inscrutable Swede passed the compliments on to his horse. "I have to thank Ninja for this, he's 16 years old now and in the best form of his life! He's been jumping very nicely for the whole week and I'm more than happy with him."
Looking back on how it all evolved, he said he was disappointed on Friday. "I rode too hard to the triple bar and had a fault at the double (the penultimate fence on Friday's track), so I thought my chance of a medal was gone. Today i knew I had to stay cool and leave all the fences up if I was to have any chance, so I want to thank my colleagues sitting here because they made it happen for me!" he quipped.
Silver medallist Nagel, whose exemplary performances with Corradina this week have won him a whole new group of fans, said, "my feelings are a little bit mixed, but in the end when you are competing against these great riders then the silver medal is a good thing. Today it wasn't easy being the last rider in the first round and I didn't ride well enough to go clear. In the end I'm really happy with second place. I need to learn to ride better in these situations. I'll try to do better next time," said the self-effacing German.
John Madden, Chair of the FEI Jumping Committee, put the 2011 FEI European Jumping Championships in perspective this evening. "It has been a smashing success in many ways, and I want to congratulate all the riders for giving us a great week. A big thanks to the organisers for doing a terrific job and to the sponsors, without whom none of this would happen. Thanks to Santi (Varela) for delivering great competition and a special thanks to the country of Spain, the City of Madrid and the Club de Campo for offering us such a wonderful venue. Finally, thanks to the horses - for their athleticism, grace and majesty which allows us to have such fantastic sport," he said.
FEI European Jumping Championships 2011 - Individual Final: GOLD - Ninja la Silla (Rolf-Goran Bengtsson) SWE 6.77; SILVER - Corradina (Carsten-Otto Nagel) GER 8.69; BRONZE - Carlo (Nick Skelton) GBR 9.04; 4, Eurocommerce New Orleans (Gerco Schröder) NED 9.54; 5, Coupe de Coeur (Henrik von Eckermann) SWE 10.24; 6, BMC Van Grunsven Simon (Jeroen Dubbeldam) NED 10.51; 7, Mylord Carthago (Penelope Leprevost) FRA 10.55; 8, Gotha FRH (Ludger Beerbaum) GER 12.23; 9, Winningmood (Luciana Diniz) POR 12.98; 10, Louis (Beat Mändli) SUI 13.63.
Facts and Figures:
At 16 years of age, Ninja la Silla, who helped Sweden's Rolf-Goran Bengtsson take the individual title today, was the oldest horse competing at the 2011 FEI European Jumping Championships.
Two riders withdrew before the final competition - John Whitaker (GBR) and Angelica Augustsson (SWE).
22 started in the Individual Final.
Nine stallions, 7 mares, 7 geldings lined out in today's competition.
Four lady riders competed on the final afternoon, and three of them - Janne-Frederike Meyer (GER), Penelope Leprevost (FRA) and Luciana Diniz (POR) were lying in the top seven at the start of competition today.
3 French riders were in the top 9 going into the final competition.
9 of the 22 starters faulted on the final line in the first round.
8 clears in the first round.
8 clears in the second round.
Two horses jumped double-clear today - Coupe de Coeur ridden by Sweden's Henrik Van Eckermann and BMC Van Grunsven Simon ridden by The Netherlands' Jeroen Dubbeldam.
1 horse and rider retired - Olivier Guillon and Lord de Theize (FRA).
1 horse and rider eliminated - VDL Groep Utascha SFN ridden by The Netherlands' Eric Van der Vleuten fell at the first fence in the second round. Neither horse nor rider were hurt.
Visiting the Championships over the weekend were royal family members HRH the Infanta Doña Pilar de Borbón and HRH the Infanta Doña Elena de Borbón y Grecia.
Bronze medallist Nick Skelton (GBR) - "The fence Carsten and I had down (fence 5) - my horse shifted right towards the gate as we jumped it and he hit the back pole. The second one (middle of treble round 2), he only breathed on that one!"
Joachim Castillo, General Manager Club de Campo - "this event has been a great success with the help of the FEI and the Spanish Federation and the Spanish weather as well - the hotter the better! The Club was crowded not only by members but by many visitors and there was a fantastic atmosphere. It was a good decision to change the arena from grass to sand and it has been a fantastic Championships from a sporting point of view. I would like to congratulate Technical Delegate Louis Konickx for all the help he gave us - he has been positive, charming and fantastic. I would also like to thank Santi for a job well done and the FEI for putting a touch of excellence to the event. We have had 101 editions of our show at the Club de Campo, but with the help of the FEI we enjoyed great success with these Championships".
Gold medallist Rolf-Goran Bengtsson (SWE) when asked if Ninja la Silla, who will be 17 years old next year, will continue in the sport - "I don't really know, he feels very good at this moment so we will wait and see". Asked if Ninja would be his choice for next year's Olympic Games in London he said "I would say he is an option, but I am lucky enough to have other options so I'm not sure".
Gold medallist Rolf-Goran Bengtsson (SWE) talking about his plans for the near future - "next week we have the final of the FEI Promotional League in Barcelona, this is very important to Sweden because we are not yet qualified for next year's FEI Nations Cup. We need to be very good to take that step back up because it is important for our country to come up and compete at some big shows before the Olympic Games next summer".
Photo Caption: The individual medallists pictured on the podium on the final day of the FEI European Jumping Championships 2011 in Madrid, Spain this evening - L to R - Silver medallist Carsten-Otto Nagel from Germany, Gold medallist Rolf-Goran Bengtsson from Sweden and Bronze medallist Nick Skelton from Great Britain. Photo: Kit Houghton/FEI.