The Swiss, relegated from the Top League in 2010 but clearly on form when making a guest appearance in the FEI Nations Cup™ on their home ground at St Gallen last week, are heading the 2011 European Promotional League table after the first three legs of the series and look set for an early return to the elite level of the sport.
This year the Promotional League looks a little different, with teams from three qualifying groups entitled to battle it out for a place in the 2012 Top League. The 12 nations which have competed in the European series so far are Switzerland, Spain, Sweden, Italy, Brazil, Australia, Austria, Saudi Arabia, Norway, Portugal, Hong Kong and Hungary, but the Swiss advantage is a slender one going into the fourth of the six rounds at Drammen, Norway next week.
The Swiss finished sixth at the opening leg in Linz-Ebelsberg, Austria early last month, and ninth at round two in Copenhagen, Denmark a week later. However runner-up spot behind Sweden at Lisbon, Portugal two weeks ago has given them a 0.5 point advantage over the Spanish who have registered an eighth and two fifth-place finishes so far. The Spanish put up some tremendously spirited performances when joining the Top League last season and are making a determined effort to qualify once again.
Sweden lies only 0.5 points further adrift and one point ahead of the Italians on the league table right now. Double-clears from Erika Lickhammer (Hip Hop) and Lisen Bratt-Fredricson (Matrix), a foot-perfect opening effort from Alexander Zettermann (High Yummy) and a second-round clear from Helena Persson (Bonzai) provided the Swedes with a zero score and a clear victory at Lisbon where the Swiss side of Steve Guerdat (Ferrari), Jessy Putallaz (Kolebo des Cabanes), Martin Fuchs (Principal) and Marc Oertly (Tambur) lined up second carrying just four faults.
Last Friday, following his side's equal-second finish in St Gallen, Guerdat explained that there is a clear plan for the Swiss campaign as they march back to the top level of the sport. It's a realistic one, based on ensuring plenty of back-up for the more experienced team members. So a broader pool of riders are being given the chance to show what they can do.
"We would like to be back at the top level again soon, but on the other hand we have to be able to call on many more riders and horses than we did previously. You can't send Pius (Schwizer) and myself to every event, we have to build up a new, bigger team slowly and carefully so that we are not always relying on the same few all the time. We want to be really competitive when we get back to the top - and that may be next year or it could be the year after, but one way or another we will be back!" he insisted.
A total of three teams from the European series will qualify for the Promotional League final at Barcelona in September where the winning side will earn the last available place for the 2012 Top League. Three more will qualify for the final from the new Challengers League which is currently led by The Ukraine. To date eight nations have competed in this series, and following their victory on home ground at Bojourishte recently, the Bulgarians lie second.
The result of the North and South American League is already decided, with the Canadians emerging as clear winners ahead of Mexico in second and Argentina in third place. There were just three legs - at Spruce Meadows in Calgary, Canada last September, at Buenos Aires, Argentina in November and at Wellington, USA in March of this year. The USA won all three competitions, but since they, and the Irish who finished second in Calgary, are already competing in the top level FEI Nations Cup™, it was the Canadians who picked up maximum points with a third-place finish and two runner-up spots.
The challenge, both financial and logistical, of sending teams to Europe to compete in the Top League however is an enormous one for the countries on the other side of the Atlantic. So whether there will be any representatives from this series at the 2011 Promotional League final remains to be seen.
Yet To Take Place
Meanwhile, five rounds of the Challengers League have yet to take place - at Athens, Greece and Sopot, Poland later this month, at Minsk, Belarus in July, Bratislava, Slovakia in August and Praha, Czech Republic in September while, after Drammen next week, the European series moves on to Hamina in Finland in July and Gijon, Spain in early September.
The European Promotional League series champions will replace one of the two teams relegated at the end of the 2011 FEI Nations Cup™, and the winners of what promises to be the thrilling qualifying series final in Barcelona on Sunday 25 September will replace the other. There is plenty more action before the 2012 FEI Nations Cup™ line-up is finalised, and plenty of big battles to be fought between the nations who want to be where it counts - at the top end of this popular and highly-competitive sport in which national pride and great horsemanship go hand-in-hand.
THE FEI PROMOTIONAL LEAGUE consists of three separate series - the European Promotional League, the Challengers League and the North and South America League - from which countries can qualify for the Top League FEI Nations Cup™. A total of three teams from the European and Challengers Leagues, and one from the North and South America series, are eligible to compete at the FEI Promotional League Final in Barcelona, Spain in September. The winning team from this competition will qualify for the 2012 FEI Nations Cup™ along with the 2011 European Promotional League champions.