The Underwriting Exchange Irish Show Jumping Team are within a single time fault of European Championship glory in Milano after a dramatic first round of the team final this afternoon.
In a rollercoaster final few minutes of action at the San Siro Racecourse, the complexion of the competition changed a number of times but, ultimately, Michael Blake’s team remain in fourth position ahead of tomorrow’s second round of the final.
Following exceptional clear rounds of jumping from Galway's Michael Duffy on board Cinca 3 and Cork's Shane Sweetnam with Irish Sport Horse James Kann Cruz, an unlucky pole down from Tipperary's Eoin McMahon and Mila at the third last fence – which proved tricky throughout – meant Ireland trailed leaders Sweden by more than two fences. McMahon now sits in 16th place overall individually.
With Germany, Switzerland and the Swedes left to jump, Ireland looked to have an uphill battle on their hands – before the drama began.
First into the ring was Gerrit Mieberg for Germany on board Ben 431. 12 faults discarded meant the Germans would finish the class on four faults and a score of 9.31.
The ever-reliable Martin Fuchs was next in for Aga Khan Trophy-winners Switzerland on board Leone Jei. The pair were foot-perfect throughout, with Fuchs also eyeing individual glory, before the final fence rolled and dropped, leaving the Swiss on a score of 9.92 and Sweden in pole position on 1.51 with just veteran Rolf-Goran Bengtsson to jump.
Uncharacteristically, Bengtsson and Zuccero dropped an early plank to give the rest hope, before another error led to an eight-fault round and Sweden finishing the day on 9.51 and in the silver medal position.
It all means that Ireland are very much within touching distance of all three medals, with just 0.69 points separating leaders Germany, Sweden in second, third-placed Switzerland and Ireland.
Horse Sport Ireland Show Jumping High Performance Director Blake said: “It was another solid day, a couple of clears and an unlucky four faults for Eoin. I think Mila just didn’t come out of the water as well as Eoin would have hoped and clipped the bar afterwards.
“But look, in championships things can change in a heartbeat and, while we a little disappointed immediately following Eoin’s round, the complexion of the competition change back to where we are now closer than we were at the start of the day to the gold medal so I’m content.
“We have four excellent horses and neither the horses or their riders will be fazed by things getting tougher tomorrow – they’ll thrive on it so it’s very much all to play for and let’s hope we can bring home a medal.”
Reflecting on his round with Cinca 3, owned by Hibernia Sport Horses Ltd., individual tenth-place rider Duffy said: “I’m absolutely thrilled with her – she’s an excellent championship mare and has proven herself time and time again.
“The team is very strong and hopefully we can deliver a few more clears tomorrow and get ourselves into the medals.”
Sweetnam, who sits in 12th individually with James Kann Cruz (ISH), was also very happy with his clear round, saying: “He was great, jumped very comfortably – it was obviously a very difficult course but it’s great to get the clear round and we’re right there in the hunt for medals.
“It’s very much round-by-round now and everyone is pulling together as we look for a podium finish – championship jumping is different to everything else and we’re just looking for another good day tomorrow.
On the drama at the end of the class, Sweetnam added: “As I said, that’s championship jumping – so much can change so quickly and it means we’re in the hunt and we’ll be putting our best foot forward.”