It’s been 13 years since the home side triumphed at Hickstead, but at last the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ of Great Britain was won by Di Lampard’s British team of Ben Maher (Exit Remo), Tim Gredley (Medoc de Toxandria), John Whitaker (Equine America Unick du Francport), and Harry Charles (Casquo Blue), and it was a victory to be savoured.
It was the living legend himself, Whitaker, who will celebrate his 68th birthday in a week’s time, who clinched it with a foot-perfect performance when third to go for his country in the second round. Arguably the most popular athlete on the world circuit, the six-time Olympian summed it all up when he said, “Today, after all these years competing, was probably the best day!”
There’s nothing quite like success in front of home supporters. And for the rest of the winning side, posting this win alongside Whitaker meant as much as the win itself, because he is held in such high esteem.
“It’s a surreal experience to be here and to jump in the team with John, because I started jumping because of him when I was 13 or 14 and saw him compete here at Hickstead,” said Gredley.
Chef d’Equipe Di Lampard was filled with emotion in the aftermath. “I have to confess I shed a tear; it hit me because I wanted it so badly!” she said.
At the halfway point, it was a three-way tie on four faults between the hosts, Ireland, and France. But the competition took a dramatic turn when the Irish challenge was seriously hampered by elimination for Mark McAuley (GRS Lady Amaro) for a blood rule violation after completing his second clear round of the day.
That left them having to count the eight faults picked up by pathfinder Shane Breen (Cuick Star Kervec), and there was no going back despite a superb double-clear from 24-year-old Jack Ryan and the home-bred BBS McGregor, which was followed by a foot-perfect run by Daniel Coyle (Legacy). Finishing on 12 faults, the Irish still lined up in second place.
The French also posted one of the three double-clears on the day from the anchor partnership of Olivier Robert and Iglesias DV. But Kelvin Bywater’s 12-fence track continued to take its toll in the second round, pathfinder Gregory Cottard (Cocaine du Val) lowering the vertical at fence seven and the iconic Hickstead planks at fence 10. Julien Anquetin (Z Ice Cube Z) faulted at the open water before a mistake at the first element of the triple combination at fence eight left him with a total of 19 with a lot of time added, and Olivier Perreau (GL Events Dorai D’Aiguilly) clipped the oxer after the triple combination.
Their final tally of 16 left France in third and well clear of Sweden in fourth on 24 faults, USA in fifth with 31, the much-fancied German side in sixth with 36 faults, Brazil in seventh with 38, and Italy eighth and last with a big score of 54 faults.
Harry Charles produced the third double-clear run of the day with Casquo Blue, and the fact that his side had already won before he returned to the world-famous Hickstead ring for a second time was testament to the strength of the British effort.
Making it all the more historic was the fact that, riding Murkas Pom d’Ami, his father, Peter Charles, was on the last winning British side at Hickstead back in 2010 along with William Funnell (Billy Congo), Tina Fletcher (Hallo Sailor), and John Whitaker’s younger brother Michael (GIG Amai).
Maher, clear first time out with Exit Remo, was the only one of his side to fault in round two when lowering the tricky 1.58m water-tray vertical at fence three that proved one of the main bogeys on the track. The man who clinched individual Olympic gold in Tokyo two years ago was thrilled to be part of this winning side.
“This is my first win in a home Nations Cup and it’s been a long time coming!” said the 40-year-old, who has been competing at Hickstead since he was a child. He was very happy with the 14-year-old Exit Remo who joined his string last October. “His job was to jump when other horses needed a break, and at the beginning of the year he didn’t get many outings because other younger horses were coming along. We went to Riesenbeck (GER) last week to get some ring time to build towards the Nations Cup today, and on the drive home tonight he won’t be feeling like the weaker link!” he added.
Maher himself has made a remarkable recovery from a nasty injury sustained in February when he was based in Florida (USA), dislocating his shoulder and breaking it in two places.
“I was very lucky with the surgeons and the team of medical staff who put it together again and got me back to the sport so fast. Initially I was told it would take six months, but I took the hard road with rehab – it was one of hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. It was a freak accident and I’m feeling very lucky to be having the year I’ve been having since I came back!” he said.
The British were always feeling upbeat about their chances. “There were good vibes about this team during the whole week – we felt quite confident and it worked out,” Whitaker pointed out.
Harry Charles said, “When a plan comes together like it did today, it’s a real achievement. I’m really proud of my team. This is probably overdue and I’m glad to bring the trophy back home. It’s a real privilege to be trusted to have the anchor role, although in the second round today the boys did all the work, so I just had to go in and smile!”
This result sees Britain move up from sixth to third in the Europe Division 1 rankings ahead of the final leg of the series in Dublin (IRL), where they will line out again in two weeks’ time.
Going into that last leg, Germany heads the league table ahead of Switzerland in second, while Ireland lies fourth, The Netherlands and Belgium share fifth place, Italy lies seventh, and France lies eighth and last. Only the top seven of the eight competing nations will qualify from this series for the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ Final 2023, and while France will join Belgium, Britain, the Irish hosts, The Netherlands, and Switzerland at the Dublin fixture, the Italians have used up all of their four qualifying opportunities and look set to be overtaken for a qualifying spot.
by Louise Parkes