Course designer Frank Rothenberger is renowned for setting tough tests for the world’s best show jumpers.

For the past 20 years, he’s set the stage for what’s widely regarded as the preeminent show in the world, CHIO Aachen in Germany, and for the week’s biggest track, jumping up to 1.70m.

But even the veteran designer wrestled over the test for Sunday’s Rolex Grand Prix, one of four majors that make up the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping.

“We started Thursday [at CHIO Aachen] with 27 clears, and I said to myself the week is good,” said Rothenberger. “But we have two more holes [on the standards], we can go a little bit higher.”

Come Sunday, he landed on a jump off that included a risky inside turn and a long gallop to the last.

“I’ve been here for 20 years and I’ve never seen such a fast jump off,” said the designer. “I must say, it was a little bit dangerous. I would not do it again, such a long run to the last jump. We were [holding our breath] and hoping that it works, the last jump. But it was okay with these top riders.”

But, it was the inside turn to the double combination that had the course designing team divided—and ultimately decided the winner.

“We moved this pole seven or eight times [the night before the Grand Prix]—one meter forward, backward. My assistant and everybody wanted to cause the [inside] turn [in the jump off] and then they said, ‘No, no, no. Go a little bit back…No, one will do it.’

“In the end, I said, ‘If one [rider] will do it, then he will win the class and we did the right thing.’ Thank god it worked.”

That one rider: Gerrit Nieberg of Germany.

Forty starters contested the class, including 20 of the world’s top 30-ranked riders. But only five managed to produce double clear paths around the demanding first and second rounds to force a jump off.

That elite list? Four-time Olympic medalist McLain Ward (USA) and his Rio Games mount HH Azur. Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping Live Contender, Daniel Deusser (GER), with super mare Killer Queen Vdm. Scott Brash, the only rider ever to win the Grand Slam of Show Jumping, and Hello Jefferson. Belgian Olympian Nicola Philippaerts aboard Katanga V/H Dingeshof.

And then Neiberg.

A rider who’s career high prior to Sunday was a top 15 finish in his first ever championship, the 2022 FEI World Cup Final.

The 29-year-old, son to two-time Olympic gold medalist Lars Neiberg, had the benefit of pole position and perspective heading into the short track. With Brash and Philippaerts clear and within half a second of one another’s time at 39.24 and 39.92 seconds respectively, he had only one option: risk it all on the inside turn to the double—a feat no other combination attempted—or try to out run the veterans.

The World No. 106 opted for the latter aboard his 11-year-old bay gelding, Ben 431. The pair expertly executed the tricky turn to cross the timers over half a second quicker than Brash (38.63) and become the new Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping Live Contender.

“Gerrit did a fantastic round,” said Brash. “I knew that there was an inside turn to the double and looked to it when I went in, but I didn’t fancy it and no one else had done it. He [Gerrit] had to do it to win and he did it very well, so all credit to him, and fair play. He rode very, very well and his horse jumped great today.”

In a field of the world’s best, no one was more surprised by the win than Neiberg. 

“Everything is still unreal—I really didn’t expect this. Dreams definitely came true today.”

On his FEI profile, Nieberg lists winning a CSI3* Grand Prix in Frankfurt, Germany as a memorable sporting achievement. Presumably, he’ll be updating that shortly.

Feature image: ©Ashley Neuhof/Rolex