Global Champions League blasted off in 2016 in Miami Beach with a knife edge victory for the dynamic duo of John Whitaker (GBR) and Bertram Allen (IRL) in team Valkenswaard United.
It was a dazzling launch for the thrilling new competition format as some of the world’s top riders became team mates for the first time, propelling show jumping into a new era. Riders, fans and guests hailed the debut and spoke of its importance for the future of the sport.
Dutch champion Harrie Smolders, who jumped two clear rounds for team Antwerp Diamonds who are now in second place, said: “I think we saw some exciting sport and I think the Global has already done so much for our sport. They deserve our support and we are all going to make this into a successful story.”
With the first ranking points on the leaderboard the scene is set for a high octane season as riders go into battle at 15 events around the world. Against the breathtaking backdrop of the surf and the turquoise waters of the Atlantic beachfront, spectators and international guests watched 12 teams go into combat.
All teams are named after cities on the championship circuit and fans who had never witnessed show jumping before were immediately identifying with their home city. Eight teams made it through to the second round, based on time and penalties. Home team Miami Glory, owned by Georgina Bloomberg (USA), led the field by a narrow margin after Georgina and team mate Kent Farrington (USA) both jumped clear in the first round.
Leading US rider Kent spoke of the new GCL and its implications for the future of show jumping: “It’s a great competition. It’s one thing to conceptualize the idea and it’s another to realize the idea as we did today. That’s really exciting for our sport and for all of us to be part of.”
High energy team signature music for each rider’s round added to the lively atmosphere around the arena on the white sands of Miami Beach as the opening leg of the GCL got underway following a spectacular first 2016 event of the Longines Global Champions Tour in the preceding three days.
City of Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who was joined by City Commissioner Joy Malakoff, said: “This is incredible. This is the second year and we’re looking forward to year three, four, five and six. I think it really matches with what our city is about. It’s really a great cultural sports event. Another thing which is quite unique is the fact that all of these local visitors and residents can attend; they’re on the beach, they’re watching the competition. It’s bringing more people into the sport, we’re very excited about that as well.
The VIP Lounge was a vibrant social scene throughout the weekend with high profile personalities including Elle Macpherson, Michael Bloomberg, Sir Michael Caine, and singer Iggy Azalea. Yesterday guests had ringside seats of the action as the Miami Dolphins cheerleaders joined the opening ceremony and the two-round team competition kicked off under bright blue skies.
12 teams took to the arena as the scene was set for the opening round of GCL competition. The riders would take turns over the course with their combined penalties and time determining whether they would go through to the second round.
The first round was a unrelenting type track in the compact arena with an influential time allowed, meaning there was no room for the slightest error or miscalculation. The teams had earlier decided and declared their rider order, with the pressure on both to jump clear as quickly as possible over the 1.50/1.55m course. The time posed turned out to be the greatest factor in whether the teams went through to round two with Pedro Veniss of Madrid in Motion, Quentin Judge of Cascais Charms, Gregory Wathelet of Paris Jets and Laura Renwick of Rome Gladiators all picking up time faults. Ben Maher’s horse Aristo had an unusual refusal, which was a shame as the Shanghai Swans were going well and looking strong.
Miami Glory and Valkenswaard United were the only teams to jump clear, just hundredths of a second apart from each other, with Madrid in Motion on one combined penalty and Antwerp Diamonds carrying over four faults. Timings would be set to zero again for the second round, with any penalties for a team carried through from round one. The combined time of both team riders in round two, plus any penalties would determine just who took the Global Champions League win.
The course for round two was a completely different ball game by design, with an open course allowing for a galloping pace, and a real run to the last. Most were able to turn inside the vertical before the gallop to the final fence, shaving off time at the point where every second counts.
Daniel Bluman (COL) of Monaco Aces jumped double clear with his stunning bay mare Believe, but an agonising fence for teammate Leopold van Asten (NED) and VDL Groep Miss Untouchable meant they would finish just short of the podium. As the final rounds played out, it was down to the wire to determine the podium with the final riders feeling the pressure.
John Whitaker (GBR) of Valkenswaard United put in a strong round ahead of his teammate Bertram Allen (IRL) to jump double clear with his talented horse, the 12 year old gelding Lord of Arabia. Bertram Allen (IRL) and Quiet Easy 4 had an unlucky fence down in the second round, however with their typically quick pace they were able to cross the line in 52.72s, meaning the combined time would be 113.15s. Antwerp Diamonds had Harrie Smolders (NED) and grey gelding Bokai as a solid anchor, jumping a double clear – however the four faults carried over from round one meant they had to watch from the sideline with a combined time of 118.59s, knowing that Miami Glory could beat them to second place.
Kent Farrington’s four faults in round two put the pressure on teammate Georgina, tying them with the Antwerp Diamonds team, so not only did she have to be clear but fast for second place. An unlucky fence down towards the end of the course, to the audible grown on the home crowd, for Georgina and Caleno 3 saw Miami Glory slip to third in the rankings, with Valkenswaard United the clear winners.
It was a solid performance for impressive duo of John Whitaker (GBR) and Bertram Allen (IRL) of team Valkenswaard United who have approximately 40 years in age difference. Experience and talent combined made them a formidable duo and the team took the lion’s share of the prize money, and propelled the team into the ranking lead.
Mayor Philip Levine: “This is incredible. This is the second year of the Longines Global Champions tour and we’re looking forward to year three, four, five and six. I think it really matches with what our city is about and what this competition is about – its really a great cultural sports event. In front of me is Commissioner Joy Malakoff from our city who is an early horse jumper herself. We’re very excited. Coming to this event is spectacular with the most interesting people in attendance. Another thing which is quite unique is the fact that all of these local visitors and residents can attend; they’re on the beach, they’re watching the competition. It’s bringing more people into the sport, we’re very excited about that as well.”
Frank McCourt, Co-Founder Global Champions League: “I think that it’s been terrific. I know how hard Jan and everybody else has worked to get us to this point and to have the first event under our belt is a great moment. We’ll look back at this moment as the start of something very special. I’d like to congratulate all the riders and we thank you for your participation. It was great sport today.”
Jan Tops, Co-Founder Global Champions League: “Ten years ago, we started to be different in this sport. We started the GCT and as you’ve seen in the last years, we’ve been successful in changing the sport in general. With this new concept I think we’re going to see a new era which is good for the sport, for the fans we attract – it’s fun. It’s very exciting when you see today what a great job the course builder did, with the last rider carrying momentum. It was easy to follow and I think was a great first edition.”
John Whitaker, Valkenswaard United, 1st place: “This was a great win. I think our strategy paid off a little bit. It was nail-biting right down to the second last fence – it was still wide open and so was high tension! It’s been great to be a part of it and like everybody says, it’s easy to follow and it was tension right to the last fence.”
Bertram Allen, Valkenswaard United, 1st place: It’s great, and to be with John is fantastic. It’s an honor to be on the team with him and it was nice for us to get a win today so I’m delighted. [Our strategy] was fairly straightforward. We didn’t get into too much details over there. We knew what we had to do and time flew today. It paid off.”
Audrey Coulter, Antwerp Diamonds 2nd place: “It’s been fun I think – we had a little bit of an advantage from us working as a team so often already and so we were always riding together and discussing the horse together. So then, to be able to apply that in this format, it’s really great.”
Harrie Smolders, Antwerp Diamonds 2nd place: “I had a very good day. I think we saw some exciting sport. The Global did so much for our sport and they deserve our support and we are all going to make this into a successful story. The nice thing about this format is you can move up, and you cannot afford any mistake or it will quickly change the leaderboard.”
Georgina Bloomberg, Miami Glory 3rd place: “The pressure was definitely on. I wasn’t expecting Kent to have the rail down. We were hoping that he would be able to go fast so I could just get a nice clear, but our plan obviously changed a little bit. I knew I had to go as quick as possible. My horse isn’t as naturally quick so I had to try to leave some strides out and unfortunately I paid for it. But that’s part of the game! We knew that we were going to be third no matter what so we were just trying to go fast and go for the win but it was something that we knew was a risk and we’d rather go forward and go for the win.”
Kent Farrington, Miami Glory 3rd place: “I think it’s a great competition. It’s one thing to conceptualize the idea and it’s another to realize the idea as we did today. That’s really exciting for our sport and exciting for all of us to be a part of. I think that it worked well, it was easy to follow, like Jan said. Our strategy there was to try to win and at the end it didn’t pay off today but hopefully it will down the road.”
Photo: LGCT/Stefano Grasso