A demanding cross-country test shook up the order at the fourth leg of the FEI Eventing Nations Cup™ which took place at Strzegom (POL) this weekend. Strong performances in this phase meant that The Netherlands walked away as the worthy winners. Despite having one rider eliminated on the cross-country, the Dutch finished on a final score of 133.8 with their other three riders finishing inside the top ten riders. Team USA were runners-up on 142.8, whilst Belgium finished in third on 166.1 penalties. Nine teams came forward to compete including host nation Poland who did not have such a happy time with none of their three riders completing the competition.
Dutch Chef d’Equipe Andrew Heffernen was delighted with the result. “These guys performed so well. It was a really tough competition and it was really refreshing to see such a strong and forward thinking and demanding cross-country course. It also gave us good pictures. There were no nasty falls or moments and that was really good for the sport. These guys performed fantastic and that is why we won. I am very proud.
The Germans led the first phase with the Dutch team in third after the dressage but this would certainly not prove to be a dressage competition. Germany slipped to eight after the cross-country course designed by Marcin Konarski took its toll on so many combinations. Konarski has been designing international courses at Strzegom for 20 years and his accolades include World Cup Finals and Senior European Championships. The venue is famed for its technicality and big bold jumping efforts and this year was no exception. “This year’s course has a lot of technical questions. There are also a couple of very bold jumps where the horses have to show a lot of bravery” he said.
Experienced Dutch rider Merel Blom-Hulsman who has been a mainstay of the Dutch team for over a decade, summed up the challenge.
“It was hard to get this win. It was a difficult course with a lot of technical questions and big jumps in between so I think we all really had to push to the end so it was quite a difficult challenge.” Merel Blom-Hulsman (NED)
The Dutch team lost their fourth member Stephen Hazeleger, who was one of 13 athletes to come to grief on the cross-country. Fortunately their other three team members achieved fast and clear cross-country rounds to put them well ahead of the rest of the field going into the final phase. Although they had a 25 penalty margin ahead of USA in second, the pressure was still on with all three athletes’ scores to count in the jumping phase, who held onto their nerves as well as first place.
There was further pressure on the result this year, as the Series takes on extra significance as the last chance to earn a single Team slot to Paris 2024 Olympic Games. Five of the nations competing today are not yet qualified including The Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Austria. The FEI Eventing European Championship at Pin du Haras (FRA) this August and the 2023 Pan American Games at Santiago (CHI) in October will provide further chances for nations to qualify.
Like many other nations who are not yet qualified, the Dutch selected a more experienced team on good horses. Their sole objective this season is Olympic Qualification explains Blom-Hulsman. “There is not a bigger motivator than Paris. We stand up every morning just pushing for Paris and we will keep pushing until we are there, for sure. ”
Heffernen reinforced this notion; “We have two Nations Cup competitions coming up in the next few weeks, one in France and one in Switzerland and of course there is the European Championships so we are concentrating on those three competitions now, so hopefully we can repeat this performance.”
The FEI Eventing Nations Cup will now move to Haras de Jardy (FRA) which runs from 13-16 July. The Belgians lead the Series at this halfway stage, with a total of 350 points, whilst the Dutch now move up to second with 285 points. The Series concludes in Boekelo (NED) from 4-8 October, where the final team place for the Paris Olympics, will be allocated to the highest placed nations not already qualified.