2010 WEG Show Jumping Gold Medalist Phillipe Le Jeune! Photo Lauren Giannini
Ah, the Rolex Top Four. There were so many great moments tonight. Gold medal winner, Belgian Phillipe Le Jeune displaying not only impeccable riding, but a true love and appreciation of every horse he rode tonight. The unabashed joy of Abdullah Al Sharbatly, who made history by winning the Middle East’s first ever WEG show jumping medal. Rodrigo Pessoa’s consummate sportsmanship. The fans! The course! It was a perfect end to an exciting week of international show jumping.
I can’t think of many other situations that are more high pressure than warming up for a world championship and then jumping a full course on a horse you’ve never ridden before under the eyes of the horse’s current rider and thousands of others. But Phillipe Le Jeune handled that pressure with style this evening as the Top Four played out.
The great horse swap got underway just after sunset in the main stadium. Another near capacity crowd arrived to take in the arena that had been separated into warm up area, saddling area and course of 8 fences. A few items of note: Once the horse swap began, all four horses had to stay inside the ring. Only grooms and a few other VIPs were allowed into the saddling area. Riders were allowed to switch saddles, but no other tack. They were given three minutes and just two warm up jumps to get used to each horse before jumping the 1.50m – 1.60m track. See the 3D course map here.
The Top Four, Eric Lamaze, Phillipe Le Jeune, Rodrigo Pessoa and Abdullah Al Sharbatly, jumped their own horses over the course first. Then the rotation of riders to horses began: Eric’s Hickstead, Phillipe’s Vigo D’Arsouilles, Rodrigo’s HH Rebozo and Abdullah’s Seldana Di Campalto would all jump four more rounds.
On their own horses, Abdullah racked up 8 faults and Rodrigo 4. Eric and Phillipe were clear. If only we could know what the horses were thinking. It was probably along the lines of “more jumping? Haven’t we done enough this week?”
Things were interesting right from the beginning. Abdullah’s mare Seldana cow-kicked out with her back legs as Rodrigo’s saddle was switched. It took them several minutes to get her ready, but rocky tack up notwithstanding, Rodrigo hopped into the saddle, warmed up, entered the ring, and was all business for 8 clean fences.
“She was a little bit tense in the beginning, a little bit nervous,” said Rodrigo. “But as soon as I got on her she relaxed and settled. I think in the beginning the horses are a little bit surprised, they’re not used to that, standing there with all the people there.”
Next up was Phillipe Le Jeune on Rodrigo’s horse. Phillipe hit every jump in stride for another clear round and made Rebozo look like a pleasure to ride.
Eric Lamaze followed with Phillipe’s horse. Last night Eric said that Vigo, a big, heavier chestnut stallion, was going to be the biggest challenge for him to ride, as Vigo is the most unlike Eric’s hotter, lighter Hickstead. However, they notched another clear round.
Eric and Vigo. Selena Frederick/Cheval Photos
Then came the moment that I’d been waiting for – watching Abdullah ride Hickstead! He looked so nervous, and I couldn’t blame him! Imagine sitting on Hickstead in the aforementioned high-pressure situation. Hickstead, known as a strong train of a horse. Hickstead, with his big old hackamore/bit combo bridle. . . I think everyone’s hearts were in their throats. Abdullah spent most of his three warm up minutes looking very nervous, circling Hickstead and stopping him in front of the warm up fences. Finally, he took two very sketchy warm up jumps and entered the ring.
Abdullah and Hickstead approach fence 2. Selena Frederick/Cheval Photos
It sure looked like hard work out there – Abdullah pulled and held, pulled and held, pulled and held on the reins over the entire course, and the stallion was going running away-fast in the corners. But credit to horse and rider, they jumped clean, and exiting the ring, Abdullah looked very, very relieved to have lived through that round!
Selena Frederick/Cheval Photos
While Abdullah remembered how to breathe again, Phillipe warmed up on Abdullah’s horse. The mare was now on her third round, and jumped clear. Phillipe gave her a big pat as they walked out of the ring. I was really beginning to like this guy; he was the only rider I saw who gave his horse a pat!
Next up, was Eric on Rodrigo’s horse Rebozo. This stallion definitely suited Eric more than Phillipe’s big chestnut, but as they rounded the corner from fence 7 to 8, Eric took a little hold and backed off the pace. That may have caused their very costly rail in the B element of the triple, and they also picked up a time fault. With that, Phillipe took over the lead.
Abdullah was next on Phillipe’s horse. This looked like a fun horse to ride. Abdullah jumped around very fast and clean, and his many fans, who came out in force this evening, with Saudi flags and coordinated chants, were beside themselves with joy – they knew a medal was in sight.
Rodrigo is about as flawless a rider as one can be, so when he warmed up on Hickstead, I expected nothing but smooth riding and that’s what I saw; Rodrigo and Hickstead jumped clear.
After three rider rotations, Phillipe led the standings. Eric had dropped down to second after his rail with Rebozo, and only four rounds (four rider/horse pairings) remained.
This was when I expected to see tired horses. After all, up to this point they’d jumped eight rounds throughout the week, with one more still to go.
Eric jumped Abdullah’s mare knowing that with a clean round, he’d at least get a bronze medal. He was very close, but a late rail coming into the triple combination totaled his faults to 9.
Rodrigo displays wonderful sportsmanship as he gives Abdullah some pointers on Rebozo before the round. Selena Frederick/Cheval Photos
Abdullah was next with Rodrigo’s horse, and although he had a shaky round with Rebozo – going very long at fence 6 and a crooked approach to the triple, he completed a clean round. Abdullah celebrated by taking a bit of a victory gallop around the ring thanking Allah. . . I wonder what Rebozo (and Rodrigo!) thought about that.
Coming to the end of the order, the medal standings began to take shape. With his last clean round, Abdullah was guaranteed a bronze. Rodrigo entered the ring for his last round with a rail in hand . . . but with Vigo, he had fences 5 and 6 down! No blame lies with the horse, it was his 10th round at WEG. But those two rails knocked Rodrigo out of the medals.
Phillipe watches Rodrigo jump his horse. Selena Frederick/Cheval Photos
Rodrigo leaves the ring with Vigo after his round. Selena Frederick/Cheval Photos
Phillipe’s round on Hickstead was the last of the night, and the world champion jumped one last clear round to clinch his gold medal.
Phillipe and Hickstead clear the Rolex oxer, one fence away from their fourth clear round of the night. Photo Lauren Giannini
It was a truly great moment; Phillipe leant down to hug and kiss Hickstead’s neck as he walked out of the ring, and then ran to hug and kiss Vigo. Then he hugged and kissed his wife, his coach, his friends, Eric, Rodrigo, and anyone else in sight. Phillipe earned the world championship this week, but he earned everyone’s respect and appreciation with his obvious display of love for horses. No better words could be spoken by a world champion:
“When I was a young boy my father taught me to love animals,” Phillipe said later. “I love animals more than people. I dedicate all my life to the horses. The first thing for me is to get on the horses, feel them and love them.”
Selena Frederick/Cheval Photos
And Hickstead. Hickstead may be a difficult ride, he may be a hot, complicated stallion, but he is undoubtedly the best horse in the world. He earned Best Horse title tonight, to which Eric said, “I think we already knew that before today. Now these three other riders know it for themselves.”
That’s all from me tonight! I’ve got to get to the airport and catch a flight home in seven hours!! These Games have been amazing and you’ll hear more from me soon!