The unbeatable duo of John Whitaker and Bertram Allen have extended the lead of Valkenswaard United in the team championship after a scintillating victory in Vienna. It was Valkenswaard United’s fourth win of the inaugural Global Champions League season netting €422,576 in prize money so far – not including the €4.5 million euro bonus to be split between the teams after the final in Doha this November.
It was a superlative performance by the two riders: John brought out his Rio Olympic horse Ornellaia and Bertram rode top stallion Romanov, brought specifically for the competition in Vienna. They delivered four clear rounds between them – with the two athletes separated by 40 years in age. Before the prize giving John said: “It is getting serious now so it was really good to win today. We’re a good team.” Bertram added: “It could not have been closer going into today with only 1.5 points between us and the next team. It’s more than that now but not by much.”
It puts the team on 309.5 points in the overall ranking but only 8.5 points ahead of Antwerp Diamonds on 301 points, the closest threat in the fiercely-contested team competition. Antwerp Diamonds lost some ground in Vienna coming fourth with the total of 8 faults – four each from Harrie Smolders and new transfer Michael Whitaker.
Rome Gladiators were the only other team today to achieve four clear rounds with Laura Renwick on Bintang II and Jack Towell on Emilie de Diamant AS. Their strong showing today earned the team second place on the podium. Third place Monaco Aces were looking strong but four faults from Leopold van Asten on VDL Groep Miss Untouchable hit their score and pushed them into third place.
Teams made strategic decisions to play their strongest combinations with only the final round to come in Doha, Qatar, in November. In Vienna today, in the crucial battle for points, it all came down to time for the final riders in the second round.
The first round course was a challenging test for many of the world’s top combinations, with faults coming from all over the course. Big 1.55m oxers and delicate verticals required bravery and pin-point precision, with the time allowed a constant pressure on the riders as they navigated the galloping course. The run to the final vertical caught out a few – too fast and the pole would roll, but too slow and riders were in danger of picking up a costly time penalty.
Monaco Aces pulled off the fastest zero score on a time of 158.05 with clears from Leopold van Asten on Untouchable and Maikel van der Vleuten on VDL Groep Quatro. Valkenswaard United also looked set to be the team to beat, as the formidable top combination of John Whitaker on Ornellaia and Bertram Allen on Romanov kept clean score sheets giving them a fighting chance at keeping their overall series lead. For Rome Gladiators Laura Renwick on Bintang II and Jack Towell on Emilie de Diamant also struck gold with a double clear.
Teams tried to play tactically to their strengths fielding their best combinations and team mates for the Vienna leg. There was disappointment for Miami Glory after Scott Brash’s clear on the impressive Hello M’Lord was followed by four faults for Jessica Mendoza on Constance. There was an uncharacteristic four faults for Harrie Smolders of Antwerp Diamonds, but his new team mate Michael Whitaker, in a fascinating rivalry with brother John, put in a fast and polished clear on Valentin R. Teams strategically fielded their strongest riders in the second half of the first round as the pressure intensified.
New Paris Jets rider Kamal Bahamdan looked set for a strong round but had four faults at the treble combination. There was also an unfortunate moment for Madrid in Motion’s Athina Onassis who jumped a smooth round but her horse ran out at the final fence.
The second round saw a shortened course, with Monaco Aces in pole position as last to go. The carefully designed course utilised every corner of the large sand arena and the riders turned their attention to time, with three teams tied on zero points. The first riders for Valkensvaard United and Rome Gladiators again went clear but the pressure laid heavily on the shoulders of Leopold Van Aston, who dropped the Monaco Aces to 4th with an unlucky pole down.
The Rome Gladiators’ Laura Renwick put in another stunning clear with her speedy horse Bintang II, throwing down the gauntlet to Bertram Allen for Valkenswaard United. The pair would need a clear to win, or a fast four to have any chance of keeping the Championship dream alive. However the young Irish star and his phenomenal stallion Romanov did the team proud, and with John nervously watching on completed a beautiful clear to take over the lead, with Bertram punching the air in delight as their theme tune reverberated around the arena.
Maikel van der Vleuten was last to go, and despite his clear, could only put the Monaco Aces in third place once more. Bertram’s final super fast clear put the icing on the cake to secure their victory. As the race to win the first-ever €7.5 million Global Champions League team competition heads into the final critical stages, it’s all down to Doha, where history will be written in this new era of show jumping.
Jan Tops, Co-Founder Global Champions League: “Valkenswaard United are a great combination, with youth and experience of many years. Bertram has a lot of flexibility, if you need him to be fast, he’ll be fast. They have been concrete this year, and make a great pairing.”
John Whitaker, Valkenswaard United: “We’ll just try keep the pressure on and keep going clear [in Doha], so Bertram can keep going fast in the second round. We think about ourselves [rather than our rivals], we’re just really focused and try to jump clear rounds. I’m terrible watching – it doesn’t worry me one little bit riding, but when I’m watching Bertram I’m a nervous wreck!”
Bertram Allen, Valkenswaard United: “It’s an honour to ride with John. We’ve always had good fun and good results, so it’s been great.”
Jack Hardin Towell, Rome Gladiators: “I’m happy Laura went second this time – the prior two times I’ve ridden with her she’s carried me on her back the whole way round! After I went I said “Laura, however you do I’m happy with the result.” So we had our plan – Laura went nice for a clean in case Bertram had one down, but he didn’t!”
Laura Renwick, Rome Gladiators: “Bertram told me how many times they’d won together, and like both pairs up hear, they’ve got such proven results. With the Rome Gladiators we’ve had different partnerships throughout the season and they’ve all worked pretty well! All of us are happy with where we are at the moment and we’re really happy with how we went today. So here comes Doha!”
Leopold van Asten, Monaco Aces: “So far it has gone well [as a combination with Maikel]. Today I had a rail, which is where we lost it, so I’m glad Maikel was able to keep it up for our third place.”
Maikel van der Vleuten, Monaco Aces: “I thought I needed to be safe in case I had a fence down, so needed to be fast to stay ahead of Antwerp Diamonds. My horse was great, he had rhythm and jumped better in the second round and I think we have to be very happy with third place today.”
Photo: GCL/Stefano Grasso