In the dramatic penultimate leg of the Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ 2023/2024 Western European League in Bordeaux (FRA), Swiss superstar Steve Guerdat steered his own exciting mare Is-Minka into pole position with a brilliant jump-off performance.
The three-time FEI Jumping World Cup™ champion and the 11-year-old grey have been knocking on the door in recent months, and it seemed only a matter of time before they put it all together and came up with a big result.
The 2012 individual Olympic gold medalist, whose consistency in the World Cup series is second to none, said, “It’s so exciting. I’m really, really happy! We had a bit of bad luck with a lot of four faults in our first 5-Star Grand Prix, but today she showed what she’s capable of, and I think it’s only the beginning of a very successful story with her!”
The French crowd had plenty to cheer about when their own young star, 22-year-old Jeanne Sadran, slotted into second with Dexter de Kerglenn ahead of Great Britain’s Harry Charles and Sherlock in third. Fourth spot went to Belgium’s Pieter Devos with Casual DV Z, while home hero Roger Yves Bost slotted into fifth with Ballerine du Vilpion, and Israel’s Isabella Russekoff and C Vier 2 finished last of the six who qualified for the jump-off.
No easy day
This was no easy day at the office, French course designer Jean-Francois Morand setting them a 14-fence first-round track that championship veteran Guerdat described as “pretty tough – it started with two big jumps and that really backed up the horses, and then the triple combination (fence 6) was very difficult, but she (Is-Minka) is a very good combination jumper and she showed that today.”
Competition pathfinder, Denmark’s Zascha Nygaard Lill, had a refusal there with Conterno-PS, who also took a dislike to the following wall of very colourful planks for elimination. Jumped off a left-hand turn so horses only had sight of it from a couple of strides away, this fence, to the amazement of the crowd, also put paid to the chances of Frenchman Edward Levy (Eify du Pic) and world number one Henrik von Eckermann from Sweden (Calizi), when both horses jammed on the brakes and dislodged their riders to bring the elimination quota to three.
The back bar of the oxer at fence 10 also claimed multiple victims, and with five retirements there were just 27 finishers from the 36 starters, but the second-round jump-off against the clock kept the 6,000 spectators on the edges of their seats.
Guerdat and Is-Minka threw down the gauntlet with a fast, smooth pathfinding round that stopped the clock at 40.34 seconds, and it was up to the rest to better that.
In her first-ever World Cup jump-off, Russekoff was clear to the very last with the wonderful C Vier 2, who carried Germany’s David Will to European team silver in 2021 and who joined the Florida-based Israeli rider’s string 12 months ago.
Then Bost set the home crowd alight with a great clear that just wasn’t quite quick enough when the clock showed 44.39 seconds, and although Charles shaved almost two seconds off that, Guerdat was still well out in front with two left to go.
The French had another reason to get excited when Sadran rode into the electrified Bordeaux ring, producing a fabulous run from the 11-year-old stallion Dexter, whose partnership with his 22-year-old rider is a joy to behold. The crowd gave the pair a standing ovation, even though they crossed the line 1.41 seconds slower than the Swiss rider’s target time to squeeze ahead of Charles into second place, because they knew they’d witnessed something special. Last to go, Devos was clear but a little cautious with his nine-year-old home-bred mare Casual DV Z to push Bost down to fourth.
For Guerdat there was the satisfaction of victory, and for runner-up Sadran, who has enjoyed a tremendous winter season with Dexter, there was affirmation of their place amongst the stars. For third-placed Charles, there was a sense of cementing his partnership with Sherlock, who won the seventh leg of the Western European League at La Coruna (ESP) in December, but who looked even more solid here in both rounds.
Charles, who described the first round track as “relentless,” said he was very happy with Sherlock.
“He should have been clear in the World Cup last week in Amsterdam, just had a small mistake at the last jump, but I’m happy to have put it right this week and I’m very proud of him. He’s still very new at this level and he felt pretty at ease around there, so I have good hopes for the future,” he pointed out.
He said his third-place finish was “one better than last year; we were fourth here last year, so if I keep coming for the next two years, I could be at the top sometime soon!”
He stuck to his plan in the jump-off. “I saw Steve and he made it look a lot easier than it was. I thought maybe I could get him, but then I realised quickly after the first three jumps, I don’t think I’m actually close so just try to leave the jumps up. He (Sherlock) needs another few rounds at this height going at that speed to really get it. But I couldn’t have asked for more; he did everything I asked him, so I’m very happy and very proud of him,” the British rider said.
Talking about her jump-off ride, Sadran said, “I knew I was quick but not to touch Steve. My horse needs to learn to turn a little bit more smooth – but next time!”
Jumping in front of her home crowd was a real treat. “It’s something special, especially because I need to pick up points for the Final, and normally after today, I will qualify for the Final in Riyadh and it’s super-nice for me tonight!” she pointed out.
When asked if she was proud of what she achieved, she replied, “I’m more proud of my horse because he’s 11 years old and still young, but he is a genius for sure! He can do everything; he is so confident, and today he proved that he is one of the best horses in the world for sure!”
Meanwhile, Guerdat, who also won in Bordeaux four years ago riding Victorio des Frotard, said, “The first time I won the World Cup here felt unbelievable and this is the second time. I’m so proud of my mare and my whole team, and it’s a very nice day to remember!”
When asked if he is excited about going to the Final in April, he replied “Yes! But right now, I just want to enjoy this victory, especially for my mare. She should have left me last year after she won a Grand Prix, but thanks to my father-in-law, he secured her for me, so she could stay and go the whole way with me.”
He has an incredible record at the World Cup Final, with 12 top-10 places along with his three wins. This result has moved him up to fifth place on the league leaderboard behind fourth-place Kevin Staut from France, Britain’s Ben Maher and Harry Charles in third and second, and Sweden’s Henrik von Eckermann, who remains in pole position ahead of the defence of the title he won with King Edward in 2023.
by Louise Parkes