On a day of very differing fortunes for the eight competing countries, The Netherlands won through on home ground at the third leg of the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ 2023 Europe Division 1 series in Rotterdam (NED).
Victory was extra-sweet as this was the third Dutch victory in a row in front of their home crowd, which included their former Queen, now Princess Beatrix of The Netherlands, who is such a longtime supporter of the sport. But it was hard-won, going right down to the wire with Team Ireland challenging every inch of the way to finish a very close second.
Not for the first time, the heroes of the day were Harrie Smolders and Monaco NOP. If ever there was a man who can keep his head under pressure it is the 43-year-old double-Olympian, and if ever there was a horse that can rise to the occasion, it is the 14-year-old gelding who has twice carried his rider to second place at the Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ Final and who helped The Netherlands to team silver at last summer’s FEI World Championship in Denmark.
When asked how he manages to handle extreme pressure to clinch the win, Smolders replied, “I knew I had to go clear, one down and we lost. I just focus on the things I need to do to make it as easy as possible for my horse. That’s probably easier said than done, but it has to do with experience, with the right focus, a cool mind, and then you have to execute it.
“But Monaco and I love this kind of pressure! I love it because when your round really counts for something that brings out the best in me!”
Kept them thinking
The 12-fence course designed by Quintin Maertens certainly kept them thinking: the vertical at fence five after the 4-metre-wide open water, the line from the triple combination at fence eight to the delicate 1.60m vertical that followed, and the final run from the penultimate double to the big oxer at the end of the track all took their toll.
The teams were already well separated after the opening round after Norway racked up 44 faults, Denmark posted 28, the defending series champions from Belgium who won last Sunday’s leg in Sopot (POL) already struggling with 20 on the board, and the big guns from Germany and France carrying 16 apiece.
The leading teams going into round two were Italy on eight, the Dutch with just five, and Ireland out in front with just four faults after clears from pathfinder Michael Duffy (Cinca) and anchorman Daniel Coyle (Gisborne VDL), so counting only the four collected by Cian O’Connor (Eve d’Ouilly) with Trevor Breen’s eight (Highland President) the drop score.
The Italians slipped off the radar when collecting 28 second time out, but the Dutch and Irish slugged it out to the very end.
A clear from Vrieling got the Dutch off to a good start in round two, and when van Asten made a dramatic recovery from the unexpected 16 he posted first time out to pick up just a single time fault at his second attempt, they began to consolidate their position. Maikel van der Vleuten’s fabulous nine-year-old O’bailey was a real eye-catcher when putting just a single time fault on the board in round one, and a baby mistake at the very first fence was his only error next time out. But that meant that Smolders had to go clear to keep his country in the frame, because by then Duffy had posted his second clear of the day, Breen had added just four, and O’Connor produced a brilliant clear. If Ireland’s last man in, Coyle, could match that, then they would be untouchable for victory. Smolders had to pile every bit of pressure on him by leaving all the fences in place.
He delivered, so when Coyle’s stallion made his first mistake of the day at the vertical after the water, it was a done deal for the Dutch whose final scoreline of six faults left them two clear of Ireland in second place and a whopping 22 faults ahead of Germany and France, who finished third and fourth, respectively. Italy (36 faults), Belgium (37), Denmark (44), and Norway (79) filled the remaining placings.
The Dutch delight was perfectly understandable and quite contagious. Smolders spoke about his great day. “It’s an amazing feeling; we had a full house, the Royal Family is always here for the Nations Cup, and we had such a great atmosphere!
“After the first round, we were only one fault away from the lead, so we knew there were still chances and we had to step up, do better, and all our riders did an amazing job in the second round. It was a tough course but very well built, not super-big but an intelligent course with a tough last line, so you really had to know what you were doing,” Smolders said.
“Monaco was again outstanding! He loves Rotterdam, he always feels amazing here, he enjoys this show so much, and he’s such a smart horse. He knows when it’s important,” he added.
And what about that tricky line from the triple combination to the following vertical? “It was a half-distance and you were riding into the corner there; it was a tall vertical with only three rails and a very delicate fence, so you really had to know your horse very well, what suits him best, and you had to use the gear-box! You needed a horse that is obedient and can lengthen or shorten the stride very well to ride that,” Smolders explained.
Dutch Chef d’Equipe Jos Lansink reflected on how the competition played out. “It was a fantastic day for us; in the second round they all rode very strong and the horses were great. It was not an easy course today; you really had to make the time at the beginning and then the difficulties came after the water jump. But now we can all be very happy!”
For Smolders one of the great satisfactions was winning with Princess Beatrix once again watching on and clearly enjoying every moment. Having her there is the icing on the cake for all the Dutch riders.
“She is a lover of our sport and always a big promoter, so it’s always very nice if we can do like we did today – these are unforgettable moments for us!” he said.
This result sees Germany move to the top of the Europe Division 1 leaderboard ahead of Switzerland in second, Belgium in third, and Ireland in fourth place. The fourth leg of the six-competition qualifying series takes place in Falsterbo, Sweden in three weeks’ time.
by Louise Parkes