Switzerland’s Pius Schwizer looks well set for a place at the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Final in April after recording an emphatic victory in the eighth leg of the Western European League qualifying series on home ground in Zurich today. With just two further opportunities to make the cut still remaining, the pressure is building to boiling point. But Schwizer’s result has moved him well within reach of the coveted qualification zone as the closing stages approach.
Runner-up today was Belgian-based British rider Joe Clee with the talented Diablesse de Muze, while 2011 FEI World Cup™ Jumping champion and winner of the third leg of the current series at Verona, Italy, last November, Christian Ahlmann from Germany, slotted into third with Aragon Z. A total of nine went through to the jump-off against the clock, and Schwizer clinched it with a brilliant effort from his nine-year-old horse when third-last to go.
The first-round track proved quite a test despite its apparent simplicity. It required forward riding from beginning to end, and even more so once the time-allowed was lowered from 66 seconds to 63. Course designer Gerard Lachat was assisted by fellow-Swiss, Rolf Ludi, in creating a track that increased in difficulty as it progressed, and which demanded significant commitment from both horse and rider.
The oxers, including at the opening obstacle, were wide and square, asking horses to open out and riders to ensure they arrived on a good stride. The vertical at fence two was followed by another big oxer at three before the track swept left-handed to the London 2012 Bus wall at four which was followed by the triple combination - vertical, oxer, oxer. This fell frequently throughout the competition, and the following vertical at six came up very quickly after another left-handed sweeping turn. From here the degree of difficulty increased with every jump, riders having to land and run from the vertical at six to the triple bar at seven before tackling the water-tray vertical of planks at fence eight.
From there it was another left-handed swing to a big oxer at nine and a forward ride to the double at ten where the big opening oxer took its toll. There wasn’t a moment for hesitation ahead of the white vertical at 11 which was followed by seven strong strides to the big penultimate red oxer and another long five strides to the final oxer at 13.
As the class began it seemed perhaps it was all too easy because Switzerland’s Paul Estermann was only second into the ring when recording the first clear with Castlefield Eclipse, and his foot-perfect performance was followed by another from South Africa’s Oliver Lazarus and Pour le Poussage. Just seven more would join them in the race against the clock however before the first round concluded.
It would be a quality jump-off, but few could have expected that two men placed well down the Longines rankings would give some of the sport’s biggest stars a real run for their money.
Estermann led the way with a four-fault effort from his lovely Irish-bred mare. And despite the fact that he lies 345 on the latest Longines rankings table, South Africa’s Oliver Lazarus showed he is quite comfortable in elite company when doing likewise with the 11-year-old Pour le Passage. From Capetown, and in the saddle since he was a very small child, this 26-year-old who has trained with German ace Ludger Beerbaum has learned his trade well, and his fast time of 34.47 seconds would eventually secure fourth place.
Great Britain’s Joe Clee is ranked 112, but once again this is indicative more of opportunity than talent as the Yorkshire-born 36-year-old really ratcheted up the pressure with a fabulous clear from the handsome Diablesse de Muze, setting the first true target in 34.79 seconds. And that wouldn’t be easy to beat.
Switzerland’s Jane Richard Philips and the slightly unruly Pablo de Virton set off at a cracking pace but arrived too deep to the penultimate vertical at 11, and despite a great gallop to the last would have to settle for fifth in the final analysis. Christian Ahlmann opted for a slightly cautious tour of the new course, and Clee could be seen taking a deep breath of relief as the German raced his grey through the finish-line, clear but a little slower than the British rider in 35.56 seconds. And when last week’s winners in Leipzig, Germany - Patrice Delaveau and Lacrimoso HDC from France - left two on the floor the British rider’s grin just kept getting bigger.
Third-last to go however, Schwizer and the nine-year-old Toulago made no mistake, and their turn of speed was spectacular. Schwizer seemed surprised by just how much pace he could pick up between the opening oxer and the next, which was originally the first fence on the track. Not even the tricky double at fence ten could stop them in their tracks as they stormed home to break the beam in 34.65 seconds and soar into the lead. And when Germany’s Marcus Ehning and Plot Blue hit the very first fence and the final partnership of Kevin Staut and Estoy Aqui de Muze HDC from France lowered the vertical which was now third on the track it was all over. Schwizer had it in the bag and it was time for a big Swiss celebration.
Schwizer has a fantastic record in the FEI World Cup™ Jumping series, so it’s no surprise that today’s result gave him particular satisfaction.
“I’m really pleased and I will definitely be going to be Final!” he said this afternoon. Talking about his winning ride, Toulago, he said - “we bought the horse at the PSI Auction as a six-year-old. Karin Haber, who owns the horse, rode it for a while before I noticed it had a lot of potential. I tried the horse for the first time on the Saturday morning of CSIO St Gallen last year and it has been a success ever since. We finished second in the Grand Prix at Humlikon, and 10th in the Global Champions Tour legs at Valkenswaard and Lausanne, so 2013 was a great year for us!” the 51-year-old Swiss rider explained.
Second-placed Clee was also more than happy with his result. The 36-year-old Yorkshireman moved to Belgium ten years ago where he met his Dutch wife. “I worked in the South of England for a while and rode at national Grand Prix level there, but I came to Belgium ten years ago to try to make my way in the sport because it wasn’t easy to get the chances at home” Clee explained today. “It’s not easy in Europe either but I’m very fortunate to have the support of Ludwig and Jasmin Criel now for the last six years” he added.
Talking about his horse he said, “we saw Diablesse when she was just coming five and bought her - she’s now 11. We have quite a nice string of horses that we have produced ourselves, and I’m really ambitious for Diablesse so we will keep going and see where we can get with her. I’m really lucky with my owners because they are in it for the sport - it’s their hobby and their passion!” he explained.
Today’s result moves winning rider, Schwizer, up to eighth place on the Western European League from which the top-18 will qualify for the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Final at Lyon, France in April. Clee now lies 14th, but with 28 points still has a lot more to do if he is to hold his position because, over the last two legs at Bordeaux, France in two weeks’ time and in Gothenburg, Sweden two weeks later there will be many more top riders also chasing down those elusive qualifying points.