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.
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.
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 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.