Photo: LGCT / Stefano Grasso
It was the perfect prelude to the 2016 Rio Olympics as a phenomenal battle took place for the Longines Global Champions Tour Grand Prix of Valkenswaard, with Brazil-bound Rolf-Göran Bengtsson (SWE) and the formidable Casall ASK taking the win in spectacular style in front of thousands of spectators. The overall LGCT Rankings has taken a dramatic turn, with Rolf now sitting in second place and vowing to ‘never give up’ as the final rounds play out.
With all three top ranked LGCT riders in action for the Grand Prix and in a pivotal position to take the lead in the overall Champion of Champions battle, the scene was set for what was to become one of the most sensational Grand Prix events of the season so far. No less than 23 Olympic-bound riders were in action over the course of the weekend at the Longines Global Champions Tour of Valkenswaard, raising the stakes in the final top level competition ahead of the Games. Crowds flocked to the Tops International Arena to cheer on their show jumping idols in the final top-level high drama Grand Prix before they fly directly to Brazil.
Edwina Tops-Alexander (AUS) keeps hold of her overall LGCT Ranking lead with a tally of 265 points overall, however Rolf-Göran Bengtsson (SWE) is nail-bitingly close and has shot up to second following today’s win, where he now sits on 240 points overall. Just 8 points away and breathing heavily down the leaders’ necks is World Number 1 Christian Ahlmann (GER) who keeps his score of 232 points but will be looking to rocket back up the rankings as the final stages of the LGCT season unfold.
Uliano Vezzani’s first round course was a true test for the world’s best, with 49 athletes taking part in the 1.60m Grand Prix in front of a hugely passionate local crowd. Faults came from all over the course, knocking out top riders such as Bertram Allen (IRL), Gregory Wathelet (BEL), Daniel Deusser (GER), McLain Ward (USA) and last year’s winner Marco Kutscher (GER). The brightly coloured Tulip-decorated double combination cased a few problems, however it was the final bicycle fence that caused the most issues, eliminating home hero Harrie Smolders (NED) plus Olympic hopefuls Nicola Philippaerts (BEL) and Jerome Guery (BEL). A dramatic upset came when World Number 1 and former long-term LGCT Ranking leader Christian Ahlmann (GER) retired Epleaser van’t Heike after picking up an unusual 12 faults.
Lauren Hough (USA) and Ohlala were the early pace setters; the first combination to jump clear and fastest initially in a time of 77.87s. She was joined by home riders Maikel van der Vleuten (NED) and Leopold van Asten (NED). LGCT Ranking leader Edwina Tops-Alexander (AUS) also put in a strong performance with Caretina de Joter to keep her hopes of a third Champion of Champions title alive. Laura Renwick (GBR) and Bintang II also looked to be on positive form with a careful clear, as did Jessica Springsteen (USA) and Cynar V. A total of 11 riders jumped cleanly, with 7 through on the quickest of the four faults.
The second round was met with clear skies and sharp shadows as the late afternoon sun started to give way to twilight. The dramatic dark to light changes posed a few problems for some of the riders and horses, with poles toppling all over the course, particularly by the four faulters looking to be the fastest in their group. First to go clear were the talented combination of Jessica Springsteen (USA) and Cynar V. with the pair setting the pace at 77.26s. She was soon joined by Alberto Zorzi (ITA) and Fair Light van’t Heike, Edwina Tops-Alexander (AUS), and Laura Kraut (USA).
Ludger Beerbaum (GER) and Chiara looked set to join them until they agonisingly clipped the final fence, causing the crowd to groan in despair and knocking them out of the running. Home hero Maikel van der Vleuten (NED) also rolled a pole on the narrow full 1.60m height vertical, dashing the hopes of a local win. Rolf-Göran Bengtsson (SWE) and Casall ASK showcased their experience and a partnership that has been tuned to perfection over their 11 year history, jumping double clear quickest of all to take pole position in the jump-off before being pushed down to second fastest after Lauren Hough (USA) and Ohlala pipped their time to earn pride of place as last to go.
As the shadows lengthened, six riders entered the arena for the final time in the LGCT Grand Prix of Valkenswaard. First to go Jessica Springsteen (USA) had the toughest job of all, but put in a stunning performance and jumped a brilliant clear to stop the clock in 43.79s. She was then beaten by Alberto Zorzi, who pushed to the finish in 42.53s, almost a second faster. Third to go Edwina Tops-Alexander (AUS) put in some plucky moves, and despite being quicker initially had an unlucky pole down after a daring turn. Laura Kraut (USA) and Cavalia knew the time to beat and galloped to the fences, with the relatively young nine year old grey mare jumping beautifully and rising to the challenge. They stopped the clock in an impressive 41.53s, a full second faster than Alberto. It looked to be an unbeatable time, until the formidable pairing of Casall ASK and Rolf-Göran Bengtsson (SWE) entered the ring.
The penultimate pair took centre stage for the final time in the competition, with the crowd cheering the legendary duo. With the speedy Lauren Hough (USA) behind, Rolf knew he had to take risks; the partnership and bond between the top Swedish rider and his 17 year old stallion was clear to see, with both trusting the other as they galloped the course, and Casall showing all his strength and agility with beautifully balanced turns. Stopping the clock in 41.36s, the final rider was the only one who could change the order. Lauren Hough (USA) gave it everything, but had to check Ohlala on the turn to the VDL fence, clipping a pole and leaving Rolf and Casall victorious and keeping the overall Champion of Champions dream alive in a phenomenal prelude to the Rio Olympics.
The Tour now looks to Rome, Italy, from the 8th – 11th September for round 13 of the 2016 Longines Global Champions Tour season.
Jan Tops, LGCT President & Founder: “I feel that if I were to write a script, it would be how it went today. The weather was good, the whole weekend was great, and if you see a horse like Casall winning – he is really top of the world. He is so consistent, the partnership with Rolf is amazing. Laura has her new horse, a young horse, so getting on the podium is great. I saw a great crowd and was very proud of the whole sport today. It is always difficult to predict how things will work out however I know [in the beginning] we had a vision. We started with 6 events, we now have 15; we are doing the [Global Champions] League now. In the next two or three years it will be very exciting and we will push the sport more and more. Not only the riders but also the owners and everybody around [the sport] will profit and that is the goal.”
Rolf-Göran Bengtsson, LGCT Grand Prix of Valkenswaard winner: “Laura had a super ride – she was super fast with that horse, I tried to go as quick as I could, and today I was the lucky one. Casall comes back in Rome and in Vienna. I’m not going to give up [on the overall Championship}! I have been [in Valkenswaard] many years ago and have seen how the everything has grown every year, getting better and better and bigger and bigger – it’s very nice to come back here, the sport is at the top level now and it’s fantastic to win here today at my old workplace!”
Laura Kraut, LGCT Grand Prix of Valkenswaard Silver Medallist: “[My mare] is outstanding, I think I’m happy to be second in a horse and rider combination like that. I got her at the beginning of her 8 year old year. She’s from around this area; and Tim Hendrix rode her as a seven year old. She won quite a bit as an eight year old and this year she gets going at the top level. I’m very very excited about her.”
Alberto Zorzi, LGCT Grand Prix of Valkenswaard Bronze Medallist: “I’m very happy. My horse jumped very good and I want to say thank you to Jan and Edwina for helping me every day and Massimo as well. I think that was [today] was super!”
Edwina Tops-Alexander, LGCT Ranking Leader: “I think there is still a long way to go [in the overall Rankings]. There’s only three more shows left and it’s getting more exciting. Rolf won € 99,000 more than me today! But I’m really happy. We had three riders from our stable in the top – Alberto was amazing, Jessica also and it was her first time with that horse in a jump-off in the Global Tour. Unfortunately I let them down, but there were four woman in the top six so that’s a very strong effort from us and it was exciting. Everyone has done a great job again.”