Belgium’s Pieter Devos was thrilled with his victory partnering Mom’s Toupie de la Roque at the tenth leg of the Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ 2023/2024 Western European League series in Basel, Switzerland.
Moving his points tally up to 54, and now lying third on the current league leaderboard, he is well on his way to the Longines 2024 Final in Riyadh (KSA) in April.
“It’s the first show of the year and this gives a lot of confidence. It’s an important year, an Olympic year, and I’m going to do everything to be in the team and to have a fantastic year – like it started!
“My horse did a fantastic job; she jumped three World Cups this season and she has been placed in several Grand Prix lately, but it feels so good that she has now won one – this is her first indoor Grand Prix win. She is now already 17 years old, so she has not so much time left in the sport, so I am really happy for her!” he said after pinning Switzerland’s Janika Sprunger and Orelie into runner-up spot, while Austria’s Max Kühner finished third with EIC Cooley Jump the Q.
Found the key
Just eight of the 40 starters found the key to the 14-fence first-round track, presented by Swiss course designers Gerard Lachat and Gregory Bodo. There were some surprises amongst them, not least the less-well-known Sasha Barthe partnering the aptly named Essenar High Hopes.
Only two of the 12-strong Swiss entry would make the cut into the second-round jump-off, and instead of the big names like Steve Guerdat and Martin Fuchs, it would be 29-year-old Barthe who is based in France with Australia’s Amy Graham, who would join Basel-born Sprunger to hold the hearts of the Swiss spectators in the race against the clock.
Sprunger of course has ridden at Olympic level, but as she said, “Orelie is just doing her first World Cups and I’ve been out of it for a while; my last time was with King Edward here actually!” she pointed out, referring to the gelding with which she last competed in Basel in 2020 before her husband and world number one rider, Sweden’s Henrik von Eckermann, took over the reins with legendary consequences.
The narrow white oxer faced with planks at fence eight proved one of the biggest bogeys in the opening round, and it was there that the double world champions lost their ticket to the jump-off.
Against the clock
First out against the clock were Denmark’s Andreas Schou and the former Jerome Guery ride Napoli vh Nederassenthof, who only established their new partnership just over a month ago, and they were clear up to the penultimate double only to leave the first element on the floor in 37.65 seconds.
Barthe was next and she set off like her tail was on fire, producing a spectacular turn to the vertical at fence six, now the third obstacle on the track, but clipped the big red wall three fences from home and then also lowered the second element of the double for eight faults. But her time of 34.30 seconds around the new course would not be bettered.
Devos was third in, and the man who took team bronze at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games with the great Claire Z set off with a rattling run, although not everything went quite to plan. He knew that the distance between the second-last and last would be a very long five strides for his mare, and that’s exactly how it turned out. But Toupie gave him everything she had and, throwing in a massive leap, cleared the line in 36.94 seconds to take the lead. And she wouldn’t be beaten.
Spain’s Mariano Martinez Bastida and Belano vd Wijnhoeve Z hit the first fence, previously the bogey oxer at fence eight, and then Germany’s Mario Stevens parted company with Starissa FRH when the pair got into a muddle at the oxer, now fifth on the track.
Kühner turned super-tight to the vertical third fence and again to the wall three fences later, but the first element of the double hit the floor before he galloped through the finish with EIC Cooley Jump the Q in 35.59 seconds.
With just two left to go, he was lying second to Devos, but Sprunger left all the timber intact in a careful tour of the track that saw her overtake the Austrian for runner-up spot, and when the final pair into the ring – Germany’s Hans Dieter Dreher and Elysium – hit the second fence, they had to settle for fourth place when breaking the beam in 36.41.
“I am a very happy man! I came by car and I have to drive six hours to get home, but it will be very easy drive now!” said Devos.
He was particularly pleased for his 17-year-old mare, whose career began under the saddle of Michel Hecart and who has also been competed by fellow-Frenchman Julien Epaillard and Luxembourg’s Victor Bettendorf during her long career.
“We bought her quite late,” he said of the mare he took over in October 2021. “She was already 14 years old but she is great. She is still very fresh, so I think she has a good season in front of her. We will for sure do everything to go to the World Cup Final – we now have to make a good planning for that, but also for the season and for Paris later this summer,” he added.
Talking about her strategy for the jump-off round, Switzerland’s Sprunger said, “I tried to stay cool. I knew Toupie and Pieter were more experienced and have competed in so many jump-offs, but I’m not just there yet, so I have to play a bit clever and go for a safe round. Orelie has been super attentive and listened to me very well, and she delivered again and I’m over the moon!”
The mare had to give her all to stay clear at the end of the first round. “She tried fantastic and I’d ridden everything very safely until that last line, and somehow I underestimated the distance to the third-last oxer – it was too deep and she made such a huge effort. So I knew I couldn’t chase her down on the three (to the next fence), so I just held her with me and trusted her, and she found the perfect solution for it and I just tried to stay quiet and trust her.
“I think that’s what you can see. I ride the horses since they are young and you build immense trust together and that helps!” she pointed out.
Loved to win
Max Kuhner said he was happy with his third-place finish, “but still of course we would have loved to win!”
He was critical of his own performance in the jump-off. “I know my horse is very fast and I tried to go for it, but the riding was not perfect, honestly. It was not smooth enough over the first fences, so I got him a bit short in the neck before the combination and I think that’s where the fault happened – but I’m still happy!” he said.
Looking ahead, he said that the main focus for his top horse, Elektric Blue P, is the Olympic Games in Paris this year, so he is planning to compete at the Longines Final 2024 in April with one of the newer talents in his large and talented string.
“I will see how they are in the coming weeks and then make the decision on which one will come to Riyadh,” he said. “This has been a great week of sport, and everything works so well here at the show in Basel.”
by Louise Parkes