‘One horse will make dreams come true’: from a hot-headed foal to this epic grand prix moment, the story of Leone Jei

  • Swiss showjumper Martin Fuchs refers to the brilliant grey gelding Leone Jei as “such a special horse [who] makes all dreams come true”.

    Having achieved a glittering array of accolades in their four-year partnership, including Nations Cup wins in Dublin and St Gallen, individual silver and team gold at the 2021 European championships, and victories in the Rolex grands prix of Dinard and Geneva, culminating most recently in THAT epic final fence celebration when winning the Spruce Meadows $3million CPKC International grand prix presented by Rolex, it’s no wonder the world number four rider rates the 11-year-old son of Baltic VDL so highly.

    In a fortnight Martin will return to his home show, CHI Geneva, where he will be bidding to resume his Rolex Grand Slam-winning ways in a class he’s finished top-two in for the past three runnings, winning in 2019 and 2021 and finishing second to McLain Ward (HH Azur) last year.

    “I’m just so happy to have a horse like Leone Jei,” says Martin.

    So how did this incredible partnership begin?

    Leone Jei: continuing the line of a “special mare”

    To tell the story of Leone Jei’s early days, we pass over to Adriana van Tilburg, who spoke to the granddaughter of the KWPN gelding’s breeder Gijs van Mersbergen, who sadly passed away before he could witness the Baltic VDL x Corland’s success.

    “My grandfather purchased the Peter Pan daughter, Pardous, as a young mare, and she became the foundation mare of the line,” says Maartje van der Velden, who was heavily involved in her grandfather’s breeding business. “She was always a special mare – she was a gentle, quiet mare, but you could see her blood coming through when something was about to happen. She was also very gentle with us when we were little. We could connect with her foals.”

    Maartje’s first memory of Pardous was when she was six and the mare passed away when she was 16.

    “So I basically grew up with her,” says Maartje. “I think she passed her character on to her offspring – most of them were easy going and showed a lot of willingness to perform.

    “The mother of Leone Jei, Dara, was a bit of a different story,” she explains. “She had a lot of character, not in a bad way, but my grandfather didn’t let us as small children go in with her alone. I personally never saw Pardous jumping, as she was only used as a broodmare with us, so it is hard for me to say what she has passed on to her offspring. My grandfather was a real fan of the Holsteiner-bred stallion Cardento [who competed at the 2004 Olympics] and he used him seven times for Pardous.”

    Four of those offspring jumped at 1.40m and higher, but it was not just talent that Gijs was looking to breed, for he wanted his horses to have “good character” and to be able to trust his horses completely. One exception, however, was Leone Jei’s dam Dara, one such result of Pardous and Corland.

    “She is quite a hot character,” continues Maartje. “We were not allowed to just be with Dara, my grandfather had to be with us. She has also passed that ‘hotness’ on to her offspring.

    “We can proudly say that what she produced with Leone Jei is a truly exceptional horse – she is indeed the most special mare in this line. Dara and her mother Pardous were together for a few years with their offspring.”

    Martin Fuchs and Leone Jei

    Martin Fuchs riding Leone Jei during the Rolex grand prix presented by Audi at Knokke Hippique 2022, Belgium.

    All in the genes

    The original plan was for Dara to compete in the sport, but it was too expensive and she was instead sold to family friend Ad van Hal after she had produced Idara, a full sister of Leone Jei. She continued as a broodmare, producing a full-brother to Leone Jei. She is now with the Mares Of Macha breeding enterprise.

    Ad remembers the free jumping at the mare approvals in Esbeek when Dara’s dam Pardous was young.

    “I said to van Mersbergen, ‘Watch this, she is going to jump out’ and he thought I was crazy,” he recalls. “Guess what? She jumped the line and then jumped over the 2m high fence that was supposed to keep the horses in. She didn’t even touch it.”

    While Gijs bred some dressage horses, his heart was in showjumping.

    “He thought it was very special that the horses were able to jump the high fences,” continues Maartje. “We also watched every big competition. He really liked the sport. Unfortunately, I never went to CHIO Aachen with my grandfather, but the plan is that I will go to next year’s Paris Olympic Games with my grandmother.

    “We would also like to watch Leone Jei at another Rolex Grand Slam of Showjumping Major, that would be very special – this year we went to The Dutch Masters,” she says. “I keep the whole family informed about where Leone Jei is going to jump or his results. I try to keep track of all the horses from this line that my grandfather bred.

    “We really liked how Leone Jei was as a foal and we used Baltic VDL again and that became the mare, Idara. She is now in the USA, owned by Dark Horse, funny enough Martin Fuchs competed with her in the USA at 1.45m. She was purchased first by Team Fuchs who sold her on to Dark Horse. Idara was not as hot as her mother and Leone Jei.”

    Leone Jei: “His first rides under saddle were an adventure”

    Leone Jei was originally named Hay El Desta Ali – meaning “It is what it is” – and he was described as a “hot-headed” foal.

    “He had a super character, but he also showed a lot of blood especially when he got started under saddle,” explains Maartje. “The first rides under saddle were an adventure. Koen Leemans had difficulties with Leone Jei in the beginning, but they built up a partnership and he really knew how to use the blood Leone Jei has.

    “The way he carries his tail is exactly the same as he did as a young horse – it is typical for him,” she reveals.

    “Leone Jei’s success is always something that our grandfather dreamed of. He always said that it only takes one horse to make dreams come true. Our grandfather used to sit behind his computer and find all the information about his horses and look at all of the information on stallions. He went to many different stallion presentations and stallion competitions.

    “We never dared to dream that Leone Jei would become the horse that he currently is. We owe all the success to the Peter Pan daughter Pardous. My grandfather passed away shortly after Leone Jei was sold to Martin.”

    Martin Fuchs is the new Rolex Grand Slam contender after winning the Spruce Meadows Masters grand prix on Leone Jei

    Martin Fuchs of Switzerland is the Rolex Grand Slam contender after winning the Spruce Meadows Masters grand prix on Leone Jei.

    Maartje watched Martin and Leone Jei’s Spruce Meadows victory via the livestream with her grandmother.

    “It was so exciting, especially when they had a touch on the first fence!” she recalls. “It was unreal to watch how Martin put his arm up when jumping the last fence. I was overwhelmed with a proud feeling. It is very special that a horse like Leone Jei was born in my grandfather’s stables.

    “We are all part of this story.”

    Martin describes the brilliant Leone Jei as having an “amazing mentality and is very ambitious – he always wants to try his best. Sometimes that does make it slightly harder because he has so much blood and is so keen, so I have to try to keep him as calm and relaxed as possible.”

    When asked about the similarities between Leone Jei and his former great grey partner Clooney 51, Martin says he cannot compare the two.

    “Clooney was the most successful horse in the history of Swiss showjumping, so I really cannot expect to have the next Clooney straight away,” he says. “However, I do think that Leone Jei has shown that he has all the qualities and I think that he is one of the best horses on the circuit.”

    With thanks to Adriana van Tilburg and Rolex.

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