Flying Dutchman Harrie Smolders and Don VHP seized victory in a dramatic jump off as Rolf-Goran Bengtsson took over the lead of the championship race in the Longines Global Champions Tour Grand Prix of Rome.
The rescheduled €391,900 class Grand Prix saw Smolders snatch the win from his compatriot Maikel van der Vleuten and then narrowly hold onto his lead after a challenge from the final rider to enter the ring – the speedy Frenchman Simon Delestre, who took the silver medal today. Power combinations, featuring the Top 30 ranked riders in the world, delivered a stunning display of show jumping under the blazing Italian sunshine.
The passionate and knowledgeable Italian crowd were on the edge of their seats as home rider Alberto Zorzi (ITA) narrowly lost out on a podium place after joining the ranks of the combinations who delivered triple clear rounds in the 1.60m class. There was disappointment for Edwina Tops-Alexander (AUS), who started the event as ranking leader, but lost out on points to close rival Rolf-Goran Bengtsson who is now five points ahead of her on the leaderboard.
The Stadio dei Marmi is another unique stage on the Tour’s dynamic global calendar with the amphitheatre wrapped around the sand arena. Riders were able to watch the Grand Prix action from the chic environment of the Hermes Riders’ Lounge, and the smart shopping village was bustling with locals and tourists enjoying free access to the international sports event next to the Olympic Stadium. They were treated to some of the great heavyweight combinations in show jumping today with a thrilling double bill of the Longines Global Champions Tour individual competition followed by the Global Champions League team competition later in the day.
Over the weekend crowds have been entertained by the Italian military bands as dignitaries from the City of Rome and the Italian National Olympic Committee looked on. There was also a special display from the charity Villa Buon Respiro. Disabled and able-bodied children helped by the charity are able to interact and bond with ponies and benefit from the therapeutic effects of riding and learning to care for the horses.
Uliano Vezzani set a straightforward but delicate course, which made it easy to pick up four faults at any point, adding on the extra pressure of finishing the rest of the round clear and fast. The first round story was a case of the young stars of show jumping setting the pace initially, as Jessica Mendoza (GBR) took pole position following round one with her enthusiastic and talented horse Spirit T. With yesterday’s clears carried through, Jos Verlooy (BEL) and his grey stallion Caracas also joined those through, as did home rider Gianni Govoni (ITA) with Antonio. The resumed first round course proved a tough test for the world’s best with many rolling a pole in all areas of the course.
Young talent shone through, as Philip Houston (GER) with Loewenherz were the second fastest of the pack, and Alberto Zorzi (ITA) with Fair Light van’t Heike also joined those on clear to the delight of the crowd. Luciana Diniz (POR) and Lennox accelerated too quickly to fence 9 and consequently dropped at rail at the wooden oxer and dropped and at the final fence and Marco Kutscher (GER) also had a pole down at the troublesome final fence. John Whitaker (GBR) entered the ring on Ornellaia to cheers from the crowd but it was not to be his day as the pair clocked up 12 faults and exited the Grand Prix.
The Championship battle looked set to take an interesting turn after Edwina Tops-Alexander (AUS) had an unlucky back rail in the middle of the Longines triple combination with Caretina de Joter, but just scraped through on four faults and was first to go into round two. Rolf-Göran Bengtsson (SWE) and the mighty Casall ASK jumped a beautiful clear to set themselves up well for round two, and were joined by Simon Delestre (FRA) with Chesall, Harrie Smolders (NED) and Don VHP Z, Sheikh Ali Bin Khalid Al Thani (QAT) with Carolina 31, Ludger Beerbaum (GER) with Chiara, Maikel van der Vleuten (NED) with VDL Groep Arera C clear, and Bertram Allen (IRL) with Hector van d’Abdijhoeve, Pilar Lucrecia Cordon (ESP) with Nuage Bleu, Denis Lynch (IRL) with All Star 5, Abdullah Al Sharbatly (KSA) with Talan all through on four faults. Italian fans were treated to four home riders in round two, with Emanuele Gaudiano (ITA) and Caspar 232 and Piergiorgio Bucci (ITA) with Casallo Z joining those through on clear.
The second round course featured fences up to the full 1.60m height, but a flowing pace allowed riders to pick up speed throughout the turns. An imposing Roman Coin oxer set against the long-side of the watching crowd with seven strides to the final vertical gave the crowd a thrilling view as they watched to see which heroes would make it through to the jump-off. Faults came from all over the course, until Maikel van der Vleuten (NED) put in a stunning round with VDL Groep Arera C. Ludger Beerbaum (GER) and Sheikh Ali Bin Khalid Al Thani (QAT) rolled unlucky poles, eliminating them from a jump-off, but home heroes Alberto Zorzi (ITA) and Piergiorgio Bucci (ITA) both earned their place in the final round, much to the delight of the passionate crowd.
The jump-off was set with the crowd on the edge of the seats for the seven rider jump off. First to go Maikel van der Vleuten (NED) set a cracking pace with VDL Groep Arera C, setting the time to beat at 34.07s. Jos Verlooy (BEL) and Alberto Zorzi (ITA) both also jumped triple clear, but were unable to knock the Dutch rider off the top position. Rolf-Göran Bengtsson (SWE) and Casall entered the ring to the cheer of the crowd, with the Swedish rider knowing a good result would shoot him up to the overall ranking lead. The pair were flawless, however a touch off the best time, dropping them down to fifth overall. Home hero Piergiorgio Bucci (ITA) was once again riding a son of Casall ASK, Casello Z, and looked set to be on for a podium until they agonisingly clipped the final fence.
Compatriot of Maikel, Harrie Smolders (NED) entered the ring, and with the huge striding liver chestnut Don VHP Z, the pair galloped the course taking out valuable seconds and saving time between the galloping distances. The pair stopped the clock at 33.11s to the cheer of the crowd, with one rider left to go. Silence fell as World Number 3 Simon Delestre (FRA) and his fiery chestnut gelding Chesall Zimequest entered the ring, with all eyes on the formidable combination. With lightning fast speed, Simon guided the smaller chestnut through the course, but the pair couldn’t match the Dutch riders pace and had to settle with silver, finishing second in 34.00s.
The Tour now turns to Vienna next week, where Rolf will look to keep hold of his overall Ranking lead as the 2016 plays out its final exhilarating stages.
Jan Tops, LGCT President and Founder: “It has been really top sport again. Harrie rode an absolutely perfect round. The stride he made today was very slick. It was also fantastic for the local crowd with Alberto Zorzi coming 4th in the Grand Prix. In the overall ranking Rolf is in the lead five points ahead so it is all up to the last two events and very exciting to the last show. The Italian crowd are great not only supporting the Italian riders but other riders. We have great support from the City of Rome and the Italian Olympic Committte and without their support we would not be here in this special place with a lot of history.”
Harrie Smolders, LGCT Rome Gold Medal: “I’m very happy, I was very pleased with my horse, and I’m very pleased for my owners Team Copernicus and the Family Coulter, who let me ride this horse. He’s been a great horse for me already so far although we were missing a victory at this 5* level, but now we’ve got that too!”
Simon Delestre, LGCT Rome Silver Medal: “It was a fantastic jump-off. I tried but I was a little bit too far away. I was really happy with Chesall – this is one of the first times he jumped the Grand Prix on the Global Champions Tour so it is a super result.”
Maikel van der Vleuten, LGCT Rome Bronze Medal: “There were a few big riders in the jump off with a couple of lines – as first to go you’re never sure how many strides you’re going to take, so I tried to take as few as possible! It was a very good jump off and it was good to put the pressure on the other riders. I think I can be very happy with third place and the others were better today!”
Rolf-Göran Bengtsson, LGCT Ranking Leader: “Casall jumped very good again – with a horse like that you get spoiled; we were 5th today and you think it wasn’t the best but we were still very very good. I rode too deep to number one and couldn’t make the stride down to the second fence. But I’m happy, we jumped three times clear again. We have two legs remaining [in the Championship race] and anything can happen!”
Photos: Stefano Grasso/LGCT