Irish Clinch Victory in Thrilling Season Opener at La Baule

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Ireland won the opening leg of the 2011 FEI Nations Cup™ series in a nail-biting thriller at La Baule in France today. On an afternoon when the form-book was turned on its head, Robert Splaine's side of Shane Sweetnam (Amaretto Darco), Billy Twomey (Romanov), Cian O'Connor (Larkhill Cruiser) and Cameron Hanley (VDL Southwind) produced superb jumping to finish with a two-fault advantage over the runners-up from Belgium, while the mighty German side had to settle for third spot in the eight-nation clash.

Nations Cup jumping is never predictable, which is one of the reasons for its continuing popularity more than a century after it all began.  But few could have expected that the host country - defending series champion and winners on their home turf in 2010 - would finish second-last, followed only by the newcomers from Denmark.  On a difficult day for the Danes, already disadvantaged by the withdrawal of second-line rider Emilie Martinsen after her horse, Caballero, suffered a colic attack, they retired early in the second round.  So they go into the next leg in Rome (ITA) in two weeks' time already trailing on the leaderboard, and with a mountain to climb if they are to survive their debut-season at the elite level of this super-tough sport.

A Few Surprises
Course designer, Frederic Cottier, appeared to have been quite lenient as the competition began, but by the end of the first round there had already been a few surprises including elimination for World No. 1 Kevin Staut whose mare, Silvana de Hus, stopped twice at the penultimate combination to the dismay of the home crowd.

The Irish were lying joint-second with the British at the half-way stage, carrying five faults after Sweetnam opened with just a single time penalty, Twomey and O'Connor had a fence down apiece, and one of the four-fault results was negated by last-to-go Hanley who put in a great performance with his big chestnut - the best three scores counting in each round.   Belgium held the lead with just four faults on the board going into round two despite the retirement of anchorman Jos Lansink when his mare, Cavalor Valentina, got into a muddle at the double at fence four.  And it seemed the country which fought its way back to the top level of team show jumping after winning last season's Promotional League might just be about to make the perfect return to the limelight.

But as round two unfolded the drama continued, and there were gasps of amazement when Belgian pathfinders, the 2010 Individual World Championshp partnership of Philippe Le Jeune and Vigo D'Arsouilles, blundered at the oxer two fences from home.  The fabulous stallion had been spectacular first time out, but seemed confused about his take-off point here this time around, and their seven-fault total would prove expensive at the end of the day.

Lose Their Grip
The British began to lose their grip when David McPherson's 10 year old grey, Chamberlain Z, was eliminated in the triple combination after frightening himself by taking off too far away from the second element.  So when the Irish stood firm, with just single errors from both Sweetnam and Twomey and a classy clear from O'Connor whose gelding is a complete novice at this level of competition, then they were in with an ever-growing chance.

A second foot-perfect run from Judy-Ann Melchior and the lovely grey mare As Cold as Ice Z - the only double-clear of the entire competition - firmed up the Belgian position with just the last-line riders left to go, but they were still under pressure when the Irish completed on a score of 13 despite a disappointing second effort from Hanley's tiring chestnut.  The fate of the competition now rested in the hands of the 2006 world champion Jos Lansink.  If he could come home with no more than one fence on the floor then the Belgians would have it in the bag, and things were looking good when he made it past his bogey double.  But when Valentina clipped the middle of the penultimate combination and then kicked out the final element as well to bring his team's tally to 15, it was Irish eyes that were smiling as they celebrated another great moment in their own inimitable style.  Germany, whose side included Carsten Otto Nagel (Corradina), Phillip Weishaupt (Catoki) and Marcus Ehning (Nolted Kuchengirl) finished just one fault behind Belgium to slot into third ahead of the British in fourth with 18 faults, the USA and The Netherlands in joint-fifth with 20 faults, and France on a final tally of 22 when the first three riders all added a further 13 faults in round two and then Staut retired.

Tough But Fair
"The course was tough but fair" said Ireland's Billy Twomey afterwards.  The man who has risen to seventh place in the Rolex World Rankings in recent months was well-pleased with the performance of his 13 year old horse who finished runner-up in the Grand Prix at Leipzig two weeks ago.  "Cameron's clear in the first round kept us in the shake-up and Cian's second-round clear helped us clinch it, but my horse had just four faults in both rounds and that's not bad for his very first Nations Cup!" he pointed out.

O'Connor was equally delighted with his gelding who won 14 national Grand Prix competitions in Ireland before being sold to the County Meath rider.  "Larkhill Cruiser has a heart of gold!" he said.  "He's an old-fashioned type of Irish horse and most of his experience has been at no bigger than 1.50m level, but he tries his heart out for you and he showed just what he can do today".  He agreed with Twomey that Hanley's first round clear was key to today's big win - "that put us in with a chance and then it was up to the rest of us to try to follow through on it" he pointed out.

Irish Chef d'Equipe Robert Splaine was ecstatic.  "It's a very proud day for Ireland" he said.  "We won today - but we are horse people and we know we can lose tomorrow, so you have to enjoy it when it happens!" he added.  His target for the year is to guide his team to Olympic qualification through a good result at the forthcoming FEI European Championships in Madrid in September - "that's our ultimate priority - but today, well today has put us just where we need to be and I'm delighted with the whole team effort.  These are great guys, and its a pleasure to work with them.  They went out today to do a job, and they could hardly have done it better!" he concluded.

For further information on the first leg of the 2011 FEI Nations Cup™ series at La Baule, consult www.labaule-cheval.com. The next leg takes place at the Piazza di Siene in Rome (ITA) on Friday 27 May.  For details on the Italian fixture go to website www.piazzadisiena.com or contact Press Officer Caterina Vagnozzi, Email cvagnozzi@gmail.com, Tel +39 335 610 7070.    

RESULT: 1, Ireland 13 faults - Amaretto Darco (Shane Sweetnam) 1/4, Romanov ll (Billy Twomey) 4/4, Larkhill Cruiser (Cian O'Connor) 4/0, Southwind VDL (Cameron Hanley) 0/17; 2, Belgium 15 faults - Vigo D'Arsouilles (Philippe Le Jeune) 0/7, Bufero Vh Panishof (Dirk Demeersman) 4/4, As Cold as Ice Z (Judy-Ann Melchior) 0/0, Cavalor Valentina (Jos Lansink) Ret/8; 3, Germany 16 faults - Corradina (Carsten Otto Nagel) 4/4, Catoki (Philipp Weishaupt) 0/4, Asti Spumante (Thomas Muhlbauer) 9/8, Noltes Kuchengirl (Marcus Ehning) 4/0; 4, Great Britain 18 faults - Carlo (Nick Skelton) 0/4, Chamberlain Z (David McPherson) 4/Elim, Talan (Robert Smith) 1/4, Murka's Nevada VI (Peter Charles) 5/5; Equal 5, USA 20 faults - Athena (Charlie Jayne) 8/4, Cadett 7 (Ashlee Bond) 12/4, Indigo (Margie Engle) 4/0, Flexible (Rich Fellers) 0/4; Equal 5, The Netherlands 20 faults - Audi's Alpapillon-Armanie (Vincent Voorn) 0/16, VDL Groep Utascha SFN (Eric van der Vleuten) 8/0, VDL Bubalu (Jur Vrieling) 0/4, Sterrehof's Opium (Marc Houtzager) 9/8; 7, France 22 faults - Topinambour (Penelope Leprevost) 1/4, Napoli du Ry (Simon Delestre) 0/4, Kellemoi de Pepita (Michel Robert) 8/5, Silvana de Hus (Kevin Staut) Elim/Ret; 8, Denmark Retired - Alcamo Vogt (Torben Frandsen) 12/Ret, Calallero (Emilie Martinsen) Withdrawn, Rubber Ball (Thomas Sandgaard) 9/NS, Bogegaardens Apollo (HenrikGundersen) 12/NS.

FEI Nations Cup 2011 - Standings after Round 1 at La Baule (FRA)
1.    Ireland - 10
2.    Belgium  -  7
3.    Germany  -  6
4.    Great Britain  -  5
5.    USA - 3.5
6.    The Netherlands - 3.5
7.    France - 2
8.    Denmark - 1

FACTS AND FIGURES:
8 nations competed - Ireland, Belgium, Germany, Great Britain, USA, The Netherlands, France and Denmark.
The Danish team retired in round two.  Their second-line rider, Emilie Martinsen, withdrew before the competition began.
Only one double-clear in today's competition - that came from Belgium's Judy-Ann Melchior and the 9 year old grey mare As Cold as Ice Z.
In round one, there was one Retirement - Belgium's Jos Lansink and Cavalor Valentina - and one Elimination - World No. 1 Kevin Staut from France with Silvana de Hus.
In round two there was one Elimination - Great Britain's David McPherson with Chamberlain Z - and one Retirement - World No. 1 Kevin Staut from France with Silvana de Hus.
France are the defending champions as the 2011 FEI Nations Cup gets underway.
Course designer was Frederic Cottier (FRA).
12-fences on the course.
Two teams will be demoted at the end of the 2011 FEI Nations Cup™ series.  They will be replaced by two new teams from the Promotional League.

QUOTES:
Irish Chef d'Equipe, Robert Splaine - "we were feeling pretty secure coming towards the end of the competition - we knew the pressure was on Jos Lansink, especially since he had retired in the first round.  Sometimes its not helpful when you don't complete the course in the first round because if you've jumped it already then you have already identified the problem points, and he didn't get the chance to do that".
Robert Splaine - "We may field the same team in Rome, joined by Shane Breen, but this was a testing day and we have to see how the horses come out of it first".
Cian O'Connor who helped clinch the wind with his second-round clear "Larkhill Cruiser has been amazing since I got him at the end of last year.  He just wants to do it for you every time he goes in the ring and even I'm amazed at how well he coped with this course today.  He'll do everything he can to help you, and that makes him a special kind of horse".

The FEI Nations Cup™ is a five-star 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 2011 season the team with the highest points wins the FEI Nations Cup™ and the two teams with the lowest points will be relegated to the FEI Nations Cup Promotional League. The highest placed team from the 2011 FEI Nations Cup Promotional League Final and the highest placed Team on the FEI European Nations Cup Promotional League standings immediately prior to the 2011 FEI Nations Cup Promotional League Final will join the FEI Nations Cup™ Top League for 2012.

FEI Nations Cup™ 2011 Calendar:
La Baule (FRA), Friday 13 May; Rome (ITA), Friday 27 May; St Gallen (SUI), Friday 3 June; Falsterbo (SWE), Friday 8 July; Aachen (GER), Thursday 14 July; Hickstead (GBR), Friday 29 July; Dublin (IRL); Friday 5 August.; Rotterdam (NED), Friday 26 August.

Photo Caption:  Irish eyes were smiling at La Baule in France today when (L to R) Billy Twomey, Cian O'Connor, Shane Sweetnam and Cameron Hanley won the opening leg of the 2011 FEI Nations Cup™.  Photo: FEI/Christophe Bricot.




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