The oldest horse in the competition, the 16-year-old Irish-bred Flexible, won the first leg of the Rolex FEI World Cup™ Final 2011/2012 for America’s Rich Fellers at the Brabanthalle in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands tonight.
Living up to his name, the stallion’s super-tight turn to the double of verticals at fence five on the 13-fence track set by Dutch course designer Louis Konickx proved pivotal in every sense, and none of the rest could match his pace as he broke the beam in 60.26 seconds.
Switzerland’s Steve Guerdat and Nino des Buissonnets were over a second slower when slotting into second, while the remarkable Rik Hemeryck finished third for Belgium with Quarco de Kerambars, despite having the dubious distinction of being first into the ring.
Pius Schwizer (SUI) and Ulysse lined up fourth ahead of Kevin Staut and Silvana HDC for France in fifth, while reigning FEI European Champion, Rolf-Goran Bengtsson from Sweden, was sixth with Casall La Silla.
With tonight’s results turned into points, Fellers goes into tomorrow’s second leg with a two-point advantage at the top of the leaderboard. But true to the tradition of the FEI World Cup™ final, there are many more big fences to be jumped before the 2011/2012 Rolex champion will be crowned on Sunday afternoon.
There were 10 clear rounds from 37 starters as Konickx tested them with a course described by Guerdat as “very good for the start of the Final, and not stupid – there was nothing to confuse horses”. Some unusual obstacles however included a “V” oxer at fence seven, and the wall with a gaping hole on the left-hand side that followed the highly-influential liverpool oxer at fence nine. The white poles here were lowered on many occasions as it became the bogey on the track.
Hemeryck was holding the lead after a superb path-finding effort from his 12-year-iold gelding when Fellers took his turn, 16th to go. And from the off, the 52-year-old rider from Oregon scorched around the track to snatch a lead that would never be improved upon.
Guerdat took his turn two horses later, but he said afterwards that he never intended trying to match Fellers’ time. “I just tried to ride my own round, my horse is very fast anyway so I didn’t need to take too much risk and I didn’t want to burn him up and make him crazy. I didn’t try to beat Rich – he was unbeatable today – so I didn’t have to ask too much from my horse today, which is good”, he said somewhat ominously.
Hemeryck was delighted with his result. “My horse is naturally fast and I really wanted to go clear when I went into the ring, but I was lucky at the wall, he was hooky there, but we both had a good time!” he pointed out, having placed himself well in contention at this early stage.
With three of the toughest in the sport – Schwizer, Staut and Bengtsson – stalking them however, the leading bunch will need to stay on their toes when tomorrow’s second leg gets underway. And three-time Rolex FEI World Cup™ Jumping winner, Germany’s Marcus Ehning, is lying ninth as the action resumes.
Fellers is not intimidated however. Talking about Flexible, whose career has been threatened by severe injury on more than one occasion but who has returned to the top end of the sport every time to give more and more of his best, the American said “he’s a tough horse and so lucky for me. He continues to learn and improve every year – he’s a better horse now than he was five years ago,” he said of his veteran partner who has been part of his life for the last 10 years.
And what a career they have already had together, always competitive and finishing a memorable second, behind Germany’s Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum and the great Shutterfly, at the Rolex FEI World Cup™ Jumping final in Gothenburg (SWE) four years ago.
Flexible didn’t have an easy trip to this year’s Final either. Originally scheduled to fly out of Seattle (USA), Fellers had to re-route with a 19-hour road-trip to Los Angeles instead when the Seattle flight was cancelled – “but he still felt good when he got here,” the rider said. It’s his fighting spirit that sets this horse apart from the rest. In 2003 he was all but written-off when he suffered a blockage in a main artery in his right front leg, but he survived that only to fall into a ravine and badly damage his shoulder two years later. And yet he came back again, still filled with determination and drive, and producing the spectacular jump that has put him at the top of his game.
Those characteristics are the very ones that tend to set the winners of the Rolex FEI World Cup™ Jumping title in a class of their own – it takes courage, concentration and that extra ingredient of jumping genius to take the crown of crowns. But there is still a long way to go yet…..