America's Rich Fellers stormed to victory with the brilliant Irish-bred gelding Flexible in the opening speed leg of the 2010 Rolex FEI World Cup™ Jumping final in Geneva, Switzerland tonight. And US riders have a firm grip on the leaderboard going into tomorrow's second test, with four in the top ten.
Starting eleventh from last in the 43-strong field, Fellers was chasing the target set by multiple World Cup champion Rodrigo Pessoa and Let's Fly. But Flexible lived up to his name to oust the Brazilian partnership from pole position, and Pessoa had to settle for third when New Yorker McLain Ward and Sapphire came within a half-second of Fellers' time.
The winner described tonight's 13-fence track designed by Switzerland's Rolf Ludi as "a very classical speed course with big dimensions but very rideable, although it was difficult enough for the first round of a World Cup Final". Portugal's Luciana Diniz wasn't intimidated however, setting a superb target when second into the ring with her grey stallion Winningmood who was bursting with confidence as he galloped home in 72.47 seconds.
Holland's sole representative Albert Zoer picked up a surprising 24-fault total with Samurai, but America's Todd Minikus and Pavarotti were cool and smooth as they glided through the finish in 73.18 seconds to slot in behind the Portuguese leader. Reigning European Champions Kevin Staut from France was only fractionally further off the pace with Silvana but it was Pessoa and his 11 year old gelding who were the ones to beat as the second-half of the competition unfolded.
As Fellers set off with the wonder-horse Flexible however he looked dangerous from the outset. If ever there was a survivor this horse is it - twice returning from the brink after being written off due to accident and injury but both times fighting back to good health and coming ever so close to taking the Rolex FEI World Cup™ Jumping title in Gothenburg two years ago where he finished in runner-up spot for his devoted rider.
Running down the first line from the opening vertical to the following oxer in an ever-so-easy six strides the partnership were in absolute harmony and they cruised round the bending track, with every fence apparently coming up in exactly the right spot, to break the beam in 70.63 seconds. "He's quick, he turns well and he's fast across the ground even though he's a much smaller horse than a lot of the others - he's able to make the same strides as the bigger horses and once we got that first fence right we were thinking forward the whole way around" Fellers said afterwards.
Two horses later however it looked like his fellow-countryman McLain Ward might threaten his position as, with the wonderful 14 year old Sapphire, the double Olympic gold medallist was also on song. The American contingent, under the leadership of Chef d'Equipe George Morris, have clearly come to Geneva with a sharp sense of purpose and Ward and his elegant 14 year old mare looked well in touch approaching the penultimate two-metre-wide triple bar but stopped the clock a half-second slower as they crossed the finishing line.
"I take my hat off to Rich -I took all the risks but I couldn't beat his time" Ward said, although as far as he is concerned tonight's result was only a step on his road to Sunday's third-leg finale. This mare thrives on consecutive challenges - "she is in great form and very concentrated" he said, adding casually but deliberately "I focus on each competition on each night, so we'll see how it goes until Sunday" - when he obviously expects to be well in the mix. And he will be hoping to avenge the second-place finish on his home turf in Las Vegas last year.
Setting the Stage
Tonight however it was all about setting the stage for the rest of the weekend and amongst the leading pack lie many of the most influential names in the sport in modern years. America's Mario Deslauriers, who was just 19 years old when he won the 1984 World Cup riding under the Canadian flag, was well-pleased with his seventh-place finish with Urico while Britain's sole representative, Michael Whitaker who is competing in his 22nd World Cup final, is lying eighth with GIG Amai ahead of Frenchman Patrice Deleveau in ninth. Surprisingly the Germans and Swiss - well-fancied ahead of the final - finished well down the order. Marcus Ehning slotted into tenth for Germany with Noltes Kuchengirl while the best of the home runners was World No 1 on the Rolex Rankings, Pius Schwizer, who slotted into eleventh with Ulysse.
Tonight belonged to the brave Irish stallion Flexible whose own sire, Cruising, finished a close second in the World Cup final 11 years ago. Like his rider, Flexible likes to lead a quiet life but Fellers has ensured that both he and his horse are in great shape coming into this event. Fellers shuns the high life, preferring instead to spend plenty of time at home with his family in Oregon rather than travelling the international circuit. But when he brings out his horse he means business. "We don't compete as much as most other riders but we have a good programme at home. We keep fit, although we don't jump big fences very often. But I know that when I bring my horse out he's ready and willing and able".
Tonight they were able to take the lead in the first leg of the 2010 Rolex FEI World Cup™ Jumping final - and now they are the ones to beat.
Result: 1, Flexible (Rich Fellers) USA 70.63; 2, Sapphire (McLain Ward) USA 71.13; 3, Let's Fly (Rodrigo Pessoa) Bra 72.36; 4, Winningmood (Luciana Diniz) Por 72.47; 5, Pavarotti (Todd Minikus) USA 73.18; 6, Silvana (Kevin Staut) Fra 73.84; 7, Urico (Mario Deslauriers) USA 74.30; 8, GIG Amai (Michael Whitaker) GBR 74.91; 9, Katchina Mail (Patrice Deleveau) Fra 75.21; 10, Noltes Kuchengirl (Marcus Ehning) Ger 75.26. Full result at www.scg-nl.nl.
Rodrigo Pessoa, when asked about the the fact the that the first three riders competed in Wellington together: “I can’t say Wellington is a good preparation for here, because it’s very different to riding an indoor course. The arena is four times bigger there, but the level of jumping is high, with Rich coming from the West Coast and McLain from the East Coast"
Rodrigo Pessoa taling about Let’s Fly: "I got him from Peter Wylde in May 2008. He’s a very nice horse, and has progressed a lot, winning several important competitions in Rome and Charlotte last year. I have not competed so much with him this year after a busy last year. He’s from the same mother as Shutterfly and has the same carefulness and concentration"
Rich Fellers, talking about his rare appearances on the international circuit: “Yes, I prefer to stay home and it will stay that way, at least until the kids are bigger”. How old are they? “18 and 16”.
Facts and Figures:
- 43 horse and rider combinations started in today's opening speed leg of the 2010 Rolex FEI World Cup™ Jumping Final.
- 4 seconds was added to the time of each rider for a fence down
- 4 American riders finished in the top 10 including tonight's winner Rich Fellers (Flexible) and second-place McLain Ward (Sapphire)
- Portugal's Luciana Diniz and Winningmood set the target with a brilliant second-to-go round
- Tonight's top 10 also included reigning European Champion Kevin Staut from France in sixth place and three-time World Champion Rodirigo Pessoa from Brazil in third.
- Britain's Michael Whitaker who finished 8th is competing at his 22nd World Cup final
For further information check out website http://www.worldcupgeneva.com/
CALENDAR OF EVENTS FOR WESTERN EUROPEAN LEAGUE: 1, Oslo (Norway) 9-11 October; 2, Helsinki (Finland) 15-18 October; 3, Lyon (FRA) 28 Oct-1 November; 4, Verona (Italy) 5-8 November; 5, Stuttgart (Germany) 15-22 November; 6, London-Olympia (Great Britain) 15-21 December; 7, Mechelen (Belgium) 26-30 December; 8, Leipzig (Germany) 21-24 January; 9, Zurich (SUI) 28-31 January; 10, Bordeaux (France) 5-7 February; 11, Vigo (Spain) 11-14 February; 12, Gothenburg (Sweden) 25-28 February; 13, s'Hertogenbosch (The Netherlands) 25-28 March; FINAL - Geneva (Switzerland) 14-18 April.
Audio Links from today's first leg of the 2010 Rolex FEI World Cup™ Final in Geneva:
McLain Ward: http://www.lloydbell.co.uk/access/client_zone/RGE%20McLain%20Ward%20Rd1.mp3
Rodrigo Pessoa: http://www.lloydbell.co.uk/access/client_zone/RGE%20Rodrigo%20Pessoa%20RD%201.mp3
Rich Fellers: http://www.lloydbell.co.uk/access/client_zone/RGE%20Rich%20Fellers%20RD1.mp3
Michael Whitaker: http://www.lloydbell.co.uk/access/client_zone/RGE%20Whitaker%20RD1.mp3
Watch the Excitement Unfold on FEI TV
The provisional FEI TV broadcasting schedule from the Palexpo Arena in Geneva is as follows:
Friday 16 April 2010 - 19.10 to 21.45 CEST, Rolex FEI World Cup™ Final, Jumping
Saturday 17 April 2010 - 22.10 to 23.15 CEST, FEI World Cup™ Final, Driving
Sunday 18 April 2010 - 13.25 to 16.45 CEST, Rolex FEI World Cup™, Jumping