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Irish riders triumph as five-star showjumping makes long-awaited return

It’s been a long wait, but five-star showjumping made a welcome return at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Florida last week (10-14 February).

Fans were treated to a storming finish to the feature $401,000 Douglas Ellman Real Estate grand prix on Saturday night, won by Shane Sweetnam with Alejandro.

“I have a very quick horse, and he’s quick in the air,” said the Irishman. “It was very close at the end, so you had to have a bit of luck to get there and it happened today.”

A field of 40 was reduced to nine for the jump-off over tracks designed by Great Britain’s Kelvin Bywater. First out the starting blocks was the World Equestrian Games 2018 team gold medalist Devin Ryan (USA) riding the long-striding Eddie Blue, who crossed the finish with a fault-free round in 38.74sec.

“I felt he was really jumping tonight so I decided to give it a little bit of a shot,” said Devin of the 12-year-old KWPN gelding by VDL Zirocco Blue, owned by LL Show Jumpers LLC.

“I could’ve maybe left out a few strides in a couple places just by turning back a little tighter. I haven’t really been in a jump-off in a while or on a consistent basis, and I think you get a little rusty at that level. I just wanted to put down a nice effort where they had to chase me a bit early on, and it seemed to work out decently.”

Six riders later, the reigning European champion Martin Fuchs and the 15-year-old Clooney 51 took the lead with a brave challenge in 37.16sec.

“When you have a year off big showing and big classes, everything feels like new again,” explained Martin Fuchs, who last competed in a five-star event with Clooney in December 2019.

“I was very nervous today with Clooney even though he has done it all. I wasn’t sure how he would perform the first night out again, the first time in a big class, against the best horses in the world. It’s really satisfying to see that everything is still in place and that for me as a rider, I still make the right choices and my horse still competes as he did 14 months ago.

“I also want to say thank you very much for [Douglas Elliman Real Estate’s] support in sponsoring this amazing grand prix. For us riders, it’s great that we get to come here to Florida and show at WEF. At home in Europe, there are only [lower level] classes and not really the level that we would like to compete at. For me, this is a great opportunity that I get to jump here and that we have so many generous CSI5* classes, so thank you from all the riders.”

US Olympian Beezie Madden produced a smooth clear with Abigail Wexner’s Garant to take eventual fourth but it was Shane Sweetnam in last draw who would soar ahead of his rivals to take top honors on Saturday night. He and Alejandro accelerated round, enjoying the long gallop to the final oxer, stopping the clock in 37.03sec.

“Obviously Clooney is one of the best horses in the world, and I watched Devin who rode at the start and saw his numbers, so I just thought about having a good rhythm from the start and I tried to do the same as Devin,” said Shane.

“[The break because of] COVID was good for him because it gave him time to chill out a bit, without traveling and doing bigger classes.”

Continuing Ireland’s rich vein of form at the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF), Cian O’Connor followed up on Sunday to capture the $50,000 CSI2* Restylane grand prix riding Careca LS Elite, owned by Ronnoco Jump.

First to go in a seven-way jump-off, Cian produced the winning double clear in a time of 45.65sec.

“He’s a very intelligent horse with a wonderful canter,” he said. “He has a super technique in front so you can really put him close to the jumps, and he has a great way of jumping. When he’s fresh he’s a little bit keen so he needs plenty of jumping, plenty of classes, and you can really feel there today in the jump-off he was really easy to ride. He can turn back short and he’s catty at the jumps, so it really makes my job easy to go fast on him.

“There’s obviously a lot of uncertainty with the Olympic Games but that’s still the main focus to work towards,” added Cian, who also trains Nicole Walker and Max and Tom Wachman on the circuit.

“We’re working backwards from there in terms of classes and how we produce the horses. My main horse PSG Final is the one I’ll be aiming at that. He’s picked up a little injury at the moment, so he’ll be out of action for about a month. I’m building up Cadiz and Kilkenny so I have ‘Plan B’ and ‘Plan C’ in place.”

His nearest challenger was 32-year-old Rachel Cornacchia of Canada riding Valkyrie De Talma, owned by Eventyre Farms, who crossed the finish line just two hundredths of a second behind. Rounding out the podium in third was Jennifer Waxman (USA) with Mecho Van’t Kiezelhof, owned by Triple S Group.

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