Henrik von Eckermann and the brilliant gelding King Edward wrote another page of equestrian history when becoming the first-ever Swedish winners of the Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ when taking the 2023 title in Omaha (USA) tonight.
In a gripping two-round decider that was completely unpredictable to the very end, the pair who have dominated the sport in recent times pinned The Netherlands’ Harrie Smolders and Monaco NOP into runner-up spot while the USA’s Hunter Holloway and Pepita Con Spita pipped Brazil’s Yuri Mansur and Vitiki for third place by the narrowest of margins.
“I can’t put it in words because it was a bit up and down!” von Eckermann said of his journey to the title this week. “On Friday having the one down I was really disappointed but at the same time I thought well he didn’t have to jump the jump-off and with being just one point behind (the leaders) maybe it’s not so bad. And he (King Edward) felt really fresh when he came out today, we had the rail in the first round but otherwise he felt fantastic, and so for the last round I had to just trust him, he’s in super shape, we jumped three jumps in the warm-up, in we go and he was unbelievable!”
Tonight’s first round saw a big shake-up on the leaderboard after two exciting days on Wednesday and Thursday, with Portuguese course designer Bernardo Costa Cabral really testing the rider’s judgement with his 12-fence test that came to a conclusion with a difficult triple combination followed by a big open oxer.
The first fence was special, designed by Juna Djokovic from Slovenia who won the Longines FEI MyDreamJumpChallenge by topping the public vote in an online competition, and tonight the 13-year-old who is a keen young rider watched from the sidelines as the best horses and riders in the world soared over her fence.
Only three of the 30 starters managed to stay clear first time out and Ireland’s Denis Lynch rocketed up from 19th to 12th going into round two when producing the first fault-free effort with the brave little Brooklyn Heights. Defending champion, Switzerland’s Martin Fuchs, posted the next clean run with Leone Jei to improve from 15th to eighth while The Netherlands’ Harrie Smolders and Monaco NOP, lying overnight seventh, were also clear which piled the pressure on the remaining six.
When America’s Hunter Holloway (Pepita Con Spita) had two down and Richard Vogel (United Touch S) collected 12 faults then just the top three were left to go. Sweden’s Henrik von Eckermann made it all the way to the bogey penultimate combination where his world championship gold-medal-winning partner King Edward, like many before him, kicked out the middle element.
But for joint-leader, Denmark’s Andreas Schou, it was a much tougher round when Darc de Lux hit the first element of the double at seven, the vertical at 10 which rode on a short four strides from the previous triple bar, and also left one down at the final combination for a total of 12 costly faults.
So when Switzerland’s Pius Schwizer and Vancouver de Lanlore lowered only the first element of that tricky final combination they moved their score on to just four faults to take the lead, but with little breathing space as both von Eckermann and Smolders were now carrying five faults apiece into round two. Britain’s Harry Charles (Balou du Reventon) was lying fourth on nine faults while America’s Holloway and Brazil’s Mansur were in joint-fifth with 11 faults apiece.
The top 20 went into the second round in reverse order of merit over a brand new course, and Irishman Lynch left all the poles in place once again to post the only double-clear of the night.
Schou produced the next faultless round and both Mansur and Holloway also returned without penalty, but the Brazilian would pay a big price when just over a second slower than the American. When Britain’s Harry Charles dropped out of contention with two mistakes from Balou du Reventon it was right down to the wire with just three to go, and when Smolders hit the oxer at fence nine this time out he opened the door even wider for the final two.
Von Eckermann returned a superb clear to pile all the pressure on Schwizer who now had no room for error. So when the Swiss star left both the second element of the double at fence eight and the following oxer at nine on the floor it was a done deal. Von Eckermann was clear winner on a final scoreline of 5, Smolders was second with nine and Holloway would finish on the same 11-fault score as Mansur but her quicker time would earn that third step on the podium.
The 25-year-old athlete from Texas was thrilled to find herself on the same stage as two of the greats of the sport.
“I’ve always had pretty big goals and to be sitting with riders such as this is such a great honour. I’m very excited to be here and I think my horse performed great all week. My relationship with her is getting stronger and building, and I feel we are just getting started so I’m very excited for the future with her!”, she said.
It was bittersweet for Smolders as this was his third runner-up finish at a World Cup Final. Riding the stallion Emerald he was second in 2016, and he was runner-up with Monaco last year in Leipzig (GER). But the 42-year-old Dutchman is a sportsman in the truest sense.
“Monaco was again in such a super shape, it’s unbelievable that he is second again but getting beaten by King Edward is not too bad!”, he pointed out. “He is probably on his way to being the best horse in my career, last year second in the World Cup Final, a silver medal in the World Championship, and there is still a lot to come, but I really want to win this trophy one time and this horse is so good he deserves some time to win it!”, he added.
Von Eckermann, who finished third at the Finals in both 2017 and 2018 with Toveks Mary Lou, was asked how he maintained his focus even though it wasn’t all plain sailing this week.
“It’s just my mentality, I don’t look backwards, and when the chance is still there we try to go and get it. Everyone knows the horse and how amazing it is, and this week I came here and I really wanted to win it but even with a horse like this it’s very easy for it to go the other way around. But I’m so happy for the horse that he wins this because he really deserves to have a win in the World Cup Final”, said the 41-year-old rider who, together with the extraordinary King Edward, collected Olympic team gold in Tokyo, double-gold at last summer’s FEI World Championship and now the indoor title they all want to win.
He’s been almost untouchable for quite a while now, and he really appreciates the magical time he is living through…..
“It feels like I’m at the top of my career and it can only go one way and that is down!”, he said with a laugh tonight. “So I really try to hold on to the moment, and every day I’m thankful for what I have…in our sport we have different horses and it’s work every day and you keep on going, but sometimes it’s good to just sit down and to be thankful for what we have because it’s not going to be forever!”
However he has put his name on the Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ trophy, and that is something that will stay with him for the rest of his lifetime.
Before the final presentation this evening the official flag handover to the next hosts of the FEI World Cup™ Finals in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia took place, with Lisa Roskens, Omaha Equestrian Foundation Founder first passing the flag to FEI President and IOC Member Ingmar de Vos who then presented it to Fuad Ibrahim, CEO of the Saudi National Federation. For those who didn’t make it onto the 2023 podium, Riyadh 2024 will be in their sights.