By Louise Parkes
The FEI World Cup™ Jumping Leagues across Australia, New Zealand and Japan produced some great sport and once again provided the perfect platform for testing, confidence-boosting and developing new talent throughout the 2015/2016 season.
The series champions were all seasoned campaigners however, with Chris Chugg topping the Australian leaderboard, Katie Laurie reigning supreme in New Zealand and Tsuyoshi Ueno taking the league honours in Japan.
The Australian League was the most extensive, with 14 legs attracting 75 athletes across the programme of events that began in Sydney last March and concluded in Boneo three weeks ago.
It was Alison Rowland and Yalambis Carpino Z who came out on top at the opening leg, but once Chugg got into gear with victory at the fourth round at Caboolture he took a firm grip at the top of the leaderboard and didn’t let go. He won again at Gawler in August, in Adelaide in September and then at Hawkesbury in October which really cemented his position. And three more competitive results – at Hawkesbury and Adelaide again, and at the penultimate round in Sydney – left him in an unassailable position.
Stand-out performances during the season included success for West Australian rider Stephanie Tucker and Oaks Redwood at Brigadoon, while another 24-year-old athlete, James Arkins, was tremendously consistent, with 12 strong placings including victory in round eight at Tamworth which was plenty good enough to secure second place on the final leaderboard.
Next in line at the end of the series was one of Australia’s most celebrated equestrian athletes, 62-year-old Vicki Roycroft who showed them all how it should be done when clinching pole position with Congo Z at the Greater Sydney fixture last May. The three-time Olympian pinned 35-year-old Merrick Ubank, winner in Melbourne and Adelaide, into fourth spot in the final rankings.
Chugg’s main horse for the season was the attractive grey stallion Cera Cassiago who has now turned just nine. The 54-year-old rider who is five-time Australian Champion has competed three times previously at the FEI World Cup™ Jumping Finals in Paris (FRA) in 1987, Gothenburg (SWE) in 1991 and in Geneva (SUI) in 2010 where he finished an impressive seventh with Vivant, the horse he also took to the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games™ 2010 in Kentucky (USA) where the pair finished 21st.
Vivant is now competing under the Ukrainian flag with Cassio Rivetti on board, but Cera Cassiago looks a promising successor for Chugg who travels to Europe this month to prepare to represent Australia at the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Final which returns to Gothenburg for the 14th time since the inaugural season, 37 years ago.
The New Zealand League came to a dramatic conclusion with a showdown between four-time champion Katie Laurie and Britain’s Helen McNaught-McFarlane who chased her all the way for the title. There were just six rounds in the series, with the four best results counting for points, and the action moved from Hastings in October to Waikato in November and then on to Feilding and Taupo in December. Dannevirke hosted the penultimate leg in early January and Waitemata brought the League to a close a week later.
A total of 15 athletes participated over the series, and it was 20-year-old Samantha Morrisson who got off to the perfect start with victory in the opening leg at Hastings. Riding the 11-year-old chestnut gelding, Biarritz, she pinned McNaught-McFarlane and Carnutelabryere into runner-up spot while Laurie lined up sixth with Lucca. At Waikato it was 31-year-old Lucy Akers who came out on top with Tinapai, but Laurie picked up her first World Cup points of the season with her nominated horse, Breeze, when finishing second, so the battle between herself and McNaught-McFarlane began to take shape.
Laurie pinned her British rival into runner-up spot at the third leg in Feilding, and the story was exactly the same at the following round in Taupo in December. It was Natasha Brooks and Kapattack who came out on top at the second-last leg in Dannevirke, but Laurie’s strength was still on show as she steered Breeze into runner-up spot and Lucca into third while McNaught-McFarlane had to settle for sixth this time out. However it was still nip-and-tuck for the league title coming into the final leg in Waitemata which turned into a thriller.
Laurie and Breeze produced the first clear round of the deciding competition over a tough course presented by Gerrit Beker, but McNaught-McFarlane and Carnutelabryere followed suit to join them in the eight-horse second round. And things didn’t go quite as planned for the eventual champion when she hit a fence early on the course and then, having upped her speed, was almost unseated when making a mistake at the last, hanging on desperately to get through the finish with eight faults on the scoreboard. In contrast McNaught-McFarlane sailed home with her big grey gelding to clinch victory, but the league leaderboard showed a difference of two points between these two highly-competitive athletes, with Laurie getting the nod for the Longines Final as the series winner.
However the 29-year-old rider who competed at the Olympic Games in Hong Kong in 2008, the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games™ 2010 in Kentucky (USA) and at the FEI World Cup™ Jumping Finals in 2011 and 2015 won’t be travelling to Sweden this year as she was already four months pregnant when competing in Waitemata. And since second-placed Briton, McNaught-McFarlane, competes in the New Zealand series as an “extra athlete” and substitutions are limited to the second place finisher on the league leaderboard, there will be no New Zealand representation at the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping 2016 Final.
The Japan League included results from six qualifiers on home soil as well as a single competition staged at Rancho Murieta in California (USA). Only one Japanese athlete, Yutaka Niizeki, availed of the opportunity to compete at the American fixture, but failed to pick up any points and it was 41-year-old Tsuyoshi Ueno who eventually reigned supreme in the series. It was a close-fought battle for the title however, with Keisuke Koike finishing just one point behind the league champion in second place and Tae Sato just one further point adrift in third.
Sato, who took the 2014/2015 Japan League title, won the first leg of the 2015/2016 league with Vrouwe Toltein in Osaka last April where Seiji Ninomiya lined up second with Vigilant and Ueno finished third with Verdi R. And the multi-talented Sato, who also competes in Eventing and helped take team silver at the Asian Games in Incheon (KOR) in 2014, proved unbeatable again at the second leg of the series in Chiba last May where Ueno moved up a place to fill second spot.
At Nasu in June, Ueno clinched the win ahead of Tatsuya Kusanagi while Sato had to settle for third this time out, and when neither of Ueno nor Sato competed in Fuji for round four, it was Keisuke Koike who clinched maximum points with his nominated ride Nosco de Blondel, also finishing fourth with his other horse, Vesuvius.
At Osaka in October, 19-year-old Kayata Komaki stole the limelight with Lamour when pinning Daisuke Fukushima and Glamour van het Dennehof into second ahead of Koike and Nosco de Blondel in third. At the last qualiifer in Miki, the honours went to Fukushima with Koike filling second spot and Masahiko Iwatate in third.
Koike competed in every leg of the series and produced impressive results but in the end was runner-up on the League table behind Ueno who represented his country at the FEI World Equestrian Games™ in Rome (ITA) in 1998. However it will be 26-year-old Koike who will be the sole Japanese representative at the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping 2015/2016 Final.