Collective sport team collapse is a widely known phenomenon in which a team experiences “sudden, collective and extreme underperformance within a competition.”
It is said to be triggered by a “critical situation that interferes with the team’s interplay, a loss of control of the game, and ultimately the inability of the team to regain their previous performance level within the game.”
Example: the Atlanta Falcons dramatic 28-34 loss in the 2017 Super Bowl after leading 28-3 during the second half of the game.
Show jumping is an individual, not a team, sport and what happened in the Rolex Grand Prix at Royal Windsor Horse Show was not an extreme underperformance. But it smacked of a collapse. Or at the very least, a crumple.
The trigger: a technical S-line that started with the Royal Windsor signature oxer at fence 7, banked left on a related distance to a vertical-oxer four stride line, then curved right on another related distance to a tall upright plank with a liverpool.
“There’s a lot of factors that go into that [line],” said Joseph Stockdale (GBR) after failing to jump it cleanly. “And the factor is massive tall verticals those, extremely careful of jumping, especially with the plank. And all of that on a related distance across the middle there. It all depends a little bit on what you get to the fence previously.
“So it’s asking a lot of questions of you and your horse.”
Despite a roster of international riders that rivaled a major championship—more than half the class ranked in the world top 50—only three of the 32 combinations managed to find a clear path around Bernardo Costa Cabral’s 1.60m course on Sunday.
Among that roster: five of the world’s top 10 ranked show jumpers.
Seven horses in, Olympic team bronze medalists Gregory Wathelet (world No. 34) and Nevados S proved the course could be jumped. Austria’s Max Kuhner (world No. 15) and Elektric Blue P assured a jump off three horses later.
But then it was as if the field lost control of the game. One by one, the sport’s best fell out of contention in the first round.
World No. 10 Daniel Deusser (GER) faulted at fence 7, taking both front and back rail with Bingo Ste Hermelle, a horse he logged a 5* win with on Friday.
World No 3. Henrik von Eckermann (SWE) and his Olympic team gold winning mount King Edward, a combination favorited to win, dropped a hind leg and a rail in the oxer at fence four.
World No. 2 Martin Fuchs (SUI) and his 2021 European team gold and individual silver medal winning mount Leone Jei mastered the challenging S-line only to fault on a roll back to the red vertical immediately after.
World No. 7 and two-time Rolex Grand Prix winner at Royal Windsor, Kent Farrington (USA) also jumped clear through the bogey line despite a hairy turn to fence 7 but caught a rail in the final combination, just three fences from home.
Hometown favorite Ben Maher (GBR), reigning Olympic champion and current world No. 4, retired after picking up rails at fences 2 and 4.
It was 20 rounds, featuring the likes of all of the above plus heavy weights Steve Guerdat (SUI), Harry Charles (GBR), Scott Brash (GBR), Christian Alhmann (GER) and more, until Daniel Bluman (ISR) and Ladriano, the final combination in the ring, joined the jump off with an expertly executed round.
Did the riders expect the course to be so challenging?
“Not really,” said Wathelet. “It was big for sure when we walked. It was a fair but tough course. There were many good horses and riders. I think for sure [course designer Costa Cabral] didn’t expect only three riders [in the jump off]. There were many with one down.”
Twelve, to be precise.
Faults, of course, are not uncommon in show jumping, even among the best. The current world No. 1 Peder Fredricson (SWE) has a 53% clear round rate. That’s slightly better than a coin flip and he’s topped the world rankings for the past 10 months.
What made it feel like a collapse was the way they rode, which is to say with difficulty in a class of riders renowned for brilliance, accuracy and composure. Did watching the world’s best struggle for 20 rounds get in the heads of the riders? Did it ultimately interfere with their ability to perform at their previous level?
Because come the jump off, it was more of the same.
Wathelet set the standard with a second clear, arms and elbows akimbo as he raced to a long distance to the final fence to cross the timers in 34.79 seconds.
“He jumped brillant,” he said in the post class interview. “There were only three to go so I had nothing to do lose. I know he’s quick. I know I can play with him with his speed. I saw the last fence a bit far, but I took it. It was my day and then I just had to be happy.”
Kuhner followed with Elektric Blue P and chipped into the penultimate oxer on the final line. They managed to leave the sticks up but were a second and a half slower through the timers (36.09s).
Last to go, Bluman strived to make up what Ladriano lacks in foot speed with exceptionally tight turns and was within striking distance of the win—until the wheels and his right stirrup came off at the penultimate fence. Bluman made a heroic effort to last but took out the top rail behind stopping the clock at 35.23s. His face as he exited the ring: collapsed.
The leaderboard played out the same way the order did. Wathelet in first, followed by Kuhner, then Bluman.
But it was perhaps Stockdale, one of many felled by the infamous S-line, that summed up the day best for the field. “I’m a bit gutted, but I was delighted with how my mare jumped and, you know, when you look at the likes of the horses and riders that had fences down, it’s not a bad group to be in.“