Rotterdam, The Netherlands – June 23, 2006 - The fifth leg of the 2006 Samsung Super League with FEI series in Rotterdam, Holland threw up even more surprises today as the home team started first but finished last while the ever-improving Swiss came out on top.
With just three legs of the series remaining the league table is taking shape, and the gap between those struggling for survival at the bottom of the order and those fighting for supremacy at the top of the leaderboard is widening all the time.
Despite an equal-fifth finishing spot along with the British who endured some extremely quirky moments today the Germans continue to control things, but their six-point league table advantage over the USA seems increasingly vulnerable and they will want to sharpen up at the next leg of the series at Hickstead in five weeks time if they intend to stay ahead.
They failed to follow through on their first-round clears from Pia-Luise Aufrecht, Franke Sloothaak and Marcus Ehning and the Swiss won the day by doing the reverse - producing their best results in the second round.
Clear rounds are what matters but today they were not easily achieved, and many riders had to work very hard indeed. It was difficult to understand exactly what was creating the level of discomfort the horses seemed to be experiencing, but even veteran campaigners seemed taken aback by Rob Jansen's 12-fence track.
In bright sunlight there was a lot of glare off the new white-sand arena but the sparsely decorated fences looked not over-big and fairly straight-forward. Many spectators remarked however that horses seemed to be finding it difficult to get off the ground and were reaching madly for the back bars of the oxers as a result, but riders insisted the going was not a problem.
They also insisted that the change from warming up on grass to jumping on sand - exactly the opposite to what they experienced in Lucerne three weeks ago where they warmed-up on sand and then jumped on grass - was not an issue either, but clearly something was amiss. Only a few horses made it look easy and, from the outset, all manner of odd things kept happening.
Syrian rider Wassim Anzarouti took on the nations cup track before the competition proper began in an effort to earn championship qualification and his near-comical tour of the track might have been dismissed lightly had the more experienced professionals made light of the same challenge.
But Super League pathfinder and reigning Olympic champion Jeroen Dubbeldam followed with a really awkward round from BMC Nassau who got more and more agitated on his way around to return a score of 20 and despite a rock-solid performance from Harrie Smolders the Dutch were to have a disastrous day.
The French and Swedes enjoyed some sparkling moments - Sweden's Rolf-Goran Bengtsson and the attractive chestnut Ninja la Silla providing the only double-clear performance of the competition in the best of style and a total of four fault-free Swedish rounds guaranteeing a strong finishing position. Lovely second-round clears from Stephane Lafouge riding Gabelou des Ores and that consummate horseman Michel Robert with Galet d'Auzay helped the French to share runner-up spot with the Swedes while the USA was only two faults further adrift in fourth.
Margie Engle confirmed that she really has recovered from that horrible fall in Aachen when clipping just the bogey oxer at fence seven first time out and then returning a classic second-round clear with Quervo Gold.
Candice King and Tarco and Molly Ash with Neuville each collected nine faults in their opening effort while Laura Kraut and Miss Independent kept a clean sheet, and while Candice added another eight to her tally and Laura was extremely unlucky to drop the very last pole at the second element of the final double, Molly and Neuville strengthened the American position when picking up just a single time penalty in a very nice second round.
Germany seemed to have it in the bag when finishing round one on a zero score but nations cup competition really is a game of two halves and how things changed in the second half.
Lars Nieberg's Lucie tried her heart out but finished the day with a colossal 32 faults so when the remaining three riders picked up 20 faults between them it was all slipping away.
And the British, who went into round two with just four faults on the board, endured yet another bizarre twist to their 2006 Super League saga. It would have been difficult enough to foresee the 22 second-round faults picked up by Nick Skelton and Russel which contributed to their last placing in Lucerne, but for 2005 Horse of the Year Arko to become similarly uncooperative was unthinkable....but it happened.
Right from the beginning of the first-round track this super-star horse that has been so very impressive in recent months really didn't seem to want to go to work today and, having stopped at the narrow vertical at fence six, he was all wrong at the combination three fences later when Nick pulled him out at the final element.
Skelton could be seen having a quiet snooze underneath the trees between rounds and when the partnership returned to the ring Arko seemed much happier and popped around until it came to the final double. Skelton slightly over-shot the left-hand curve here after a strong run to the penultimate water jump and Arko suddenly went back into "no thanks" mode and used it as an excuse to throw down the landing gear again for another surprise stop.
The resulting eight faults forced the British to add 16 to their first-round score and this left them on level-pegging with the Germans on a total of 20.
There was a nasty surprise for the Irish too when Billy Twomey's stallion, Luidam, failed to live up to expectations. The partnership were key to Irish success in previous years but the horse has been dogged with injury problems for some time now and was deeply disappointing today when accumulating a total of 34 faults over the two rounds on his return to the side.
The Irish needed a good result to help raise them off the bottom of the league table and despite 17 faults from Luidam first time out they were still well in the game when the remaining three riders faulted just once first time out but when Shane Breen lowered three with World Cruise in the second round Twomey really needed to hold it together but it didn't happen and there was a sense of impending doom in the Irish camp afterwards.
But they are not the only ones in deep trouble after today. The Dutch, wanting to impress in front of Queen Beatrix, could not claw it back despite a strong rally by Dubbeldam and another great round from Smolders. And their last-place finish has drawn them even closer to the endangered Irish, with only a half point now separating the two going into the third-last leg of the series at Hickstead at the end of next month.
For Switzerland it was a great day and Chef d'Equipe Rolf Grass has every right to feel full of confidence ahead of the World Equestrian Games in August.
Willi Melliger, Niklaus Schurtenberger and Werner Muff were highly impressive when each faulting just once in the first round and then coming back to record excellent clears - Werner Muff's lovely stallion Plot Blue proving a real show-stealer with his knees tucked up under his chin over every fence and looking like he was enjoying every minute of his outing.
At nine years old this is definitely a rising star of the show jumping world and Muff could hardly hide his excitement about what he knows is a truly exceptional jumper - "he's famous!" he said with delight after the competition - fabulous was probably the word he was looking for but famous is probably what this son of Mr Blue will turn out to be.
Mr. Grass has all kinds of options open to him now that his team is sitting comfortably just a single point behind the Americans in third spot on the Super League leaderboard. He can afford to release some of the team riders and horses ahead of WEG and yet be assured there is no danger of falling out of the premier league of international show jumping.
But it is a very different story for the Dutch and Irish - new Irish team manager Robert Splaine suffering a real baptism of fire since taking on the job in March. "I never thought it would be easy but I can only hope now that we can pick up again at Hickstead where we often do quite well" Splaine pointed out this evening.
However Rob Ehrens is in a similar frame of mind. "We are looking forward, not backwards" said the Chef d'Equipe whose team had finished a miserable last in front of the home crowd. Undeterred Mr Ehrens added "today was not the end of the world - we'll keep on fighting."
Samsung Super League Standings After Round 5 At Rotterdam:
1. Germany - 34.125
2. USA - 27.5
3. Switzerland - 26.125
4. France - 24
5. Sweden - 16.125
6. Great Britain - 16
7. Netherlands - 9.625
8. Ireland - 9
For complete results from Rotterdam, please visit: http://www.scg-nl.nl/
This special report from Louise Parkes in Rotterdam is a preview provided by PhelpsSports.com. Look for the debut of this new equestrian news website during the World Equestrian Games in August. Visit http://www.PhelpsSports.com
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<a href="http://www.equestrianmag.com/article/swiss-rotterdam-samsung-super-league-fei-6-06.html">Swiss are the Cheese in Rotterdam!</a> ~ EquestrianMag.com