In a perfect round-up to a great year of sport in 2023, Germany’s Christian Ahlmann scooped the honours in the ninth leg of the Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ 2023/2024 Western European League in front of an ecstatic audience at the Nekkerhal in Mechelen, Belgium.
There wasn’t an inch of viewing space left around the perimeter of the arena when, from a starting field of 41, just the six who jumped clear over Bart Vonck’s tough first-round course went into battle against the clock, including three from the host country. In a real nail-biter, it was the man who claimed the FEI Jumping World Cup™ trophy on home ground in Leipzig, Germany back in 2011 who triumphed, his 11-year-old gelding Mandato van de Neerheide giving his all to bring his rider’s tally of Mechelen wins to three.
The eight retirements on the final result sheet indicated the complexity of the first-round course, with several faulting even at the opening oxer. The triple combination at fence seven – two verticals to an oxer – proved pivotal for many, as did the difficult line that followed along the edge of the arena, beginning with a narrow wall standing a full 1.60m followed by a double, oxer to vertical, on a difficult distance and then a very quick turn to the oxer at fence 10. Of the eight four-faulters, Sweden’s Petronella Andersson and Odina van Klapscheut were quickest when through the timers in 66.75 seconds, well inside the time-allowed that was eventually adjusted to 71 seconds.
German veteran, Hans-Dieter Dreher, produced the very first clear when fourteenth to go with Vestmalle des Cotis, who didn’t give him the easiest time as he approached most fences sideways-on before producing plenty of jump to clear them. First out against the clock, the 14-year-old gelding by Baloubet du Rouet was looking much more focused, however, only to clip the first of the two parts of the treble now included halfway around the new seven-obstacle track to finish on four faults in 35.86 seconds.
Then Belgium’s Nicola Philippaerts and the 11-year-old Darco mare Moya vd Bisschop set off, only to drop the previous oxer, but Ahlmann and Mandato would make no mistake when third into the ring. A super-tight and beautifully balanced turn to the oxer after the double set them up for a great run, and the normally stoic German had a smile as wide as an ocean as he left the arena with a bit fat zero on the board in 34.23 seconds. It would be up to the rest to beat that.
It was Sweden’s Henrik von Eckermann who was first to take on the new target with this great mare Iliana, who couldn’t seem to keep her feet on the turns, and as a result and despite fantastic jumping, couldn’t break the beam any faster than 34.67 seconds to slot into second place.
There were still two more Belgians to come, so plenty more for the crowd to shout for, and Gregory Wathelet gave it everything he had with the 12-year-old stallion Bond Jamesbond de Hay, who came out on top at the third leg in Lyon (FRA) in October. But Mr Bond was so busy bucking that he too lost time on the track, jumping like a stag, but coming home in 35.23 seconds to slot into third place. Pieter Devos and Mom’s Toupie de la Roque had the oxer down at what was now fence three in 35.62 seconds, and would finish fourth at the end of the day.
Ahlmann couldn’t hide his joy. “It’s fantastic, no doubt about that! Mandato jumped incredibly; we took the last risk and everything worked out like I could wish for. We had the fastest riders of the world behind us and still we could make it, so this was our day today!”
He’s long had a brilliant record on the World Cup circuit, that title victory in 2011 coming with the great Taloubet Z, who also clinched the first of his three Mechelen wins back in 2015. In 2018, he came out on top at the Belgian fixture with Clintrexo Z, and now it was Mandato who stood proudly at the top of the prize-giving line-up.
“I bought him when he was six; he didn’t do much, jumped a few classes; he’s a huge long horse with a lot of scope and I have the feeling that this year, after three years of jumping, his body is ready, and for him every jump is almost the same. So the scope is no question; he’s willing to do everything, but what he did in the second half of this year was really good and he’s a horse for the future for sure,” Ahlmann said of his winning ride.
When asked if he was happy with his third-place finish, Wathelet replied, “Yes and no! Yes, of course I’m happy because my horse jumped super… but there was just one turn to the vertical when he was bucking a bit and he was a bit behind my leg. I don’t know if I could have caught Christian, but for sure I am happy with how he jumped, although you always want to win, and to win at home! I did my best, but it just wasn’t enough today!”
A bit strange
Von Eckermann described his jump-off round as “a bit strange because she jumped fantastic!
“On the first turn I slipped a little bit, and then we got going and at the second-last, I slipped also…. I couldn’t get the seven to the last and I did eight instead. I need to ride with a bit more balance around the turn and then maybe not be slipping, but I’m happy for Christian. He did a wonderful round so – next time!” said the longtime world number one.
Meanwhile, winner Ahlmann reflected on how it all worked out for him.
“You have to give your best and try to do what you can do and this should be enough. And then you have to wait and cross your fingers! I did what I could do and it was our day!” he pointed out.
He loves riding in front of the enthusiastic Mechelen crowd. “It’s always nice – the people love the horses here; they love the sport and they are behind all the riders so it feels super-good!” he said.
The Belgian show is on the calendar every year for the man who is a driving force in the Zangersheide horse-breeding and production business.
“Mechelen is very important for us because we have the stallion competition here and all the young ones are jumping, so it’s a very interesting show. All the days are sold out here; there’s an amazing crowd and it’s a lot of fun to ride in unbelievable sport every day. I’m enjoying the days here and every year we are really motivated to do something good – we have come many times and three times it has worked out!” he said.
by Louise Parkes