“I didn’t expect any of this,” said Thomas Gilles, the 24-year-old Belgian team rookie.

The young rider found out that he would be hauling his horse Calleryama to Barcelona only two weeks ago. By Sunday, he was hoisting up the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup Final trophy together with Koen Vereecke, Gregory Wathelet, Thomas Gilles and Jerome Guery. Their win also secured Belgium’s ticket to the 2024 Paris Olympics.

“I only knew I was coming here two weeks ago and I couldn’t believe it. But I’ve had an amazing year with three really good horses. Even if next year isn’t quite so good I will look back and know 2022 was a really good year. Now everything that comes I take,” said Gilles.

You could call it a whirlwind weekend if Santiago Varela (ESP) hadn’t designed a course with so many tricky twists and turns. The 14-fence track offered no easy route to the finish, and out of the eight nations only the Belgians were able to slip away with a clean score card. Though, according to Guery, there was no other option.

“We were a little disappointed after Herning [World Championship] because we were good all season. When we came here we were determined to try to pick up the Olympic qualifying spot and the pressure was on us to the end, because to get that we had to win,” Guery emphasized.

The French, who were Thursday’s round one winners, finished second on four faults.

Switzerland has yet to qualify for Paris so, like the Belgians, they were in for a hard fought final. But with Martin Fuchs and Pius Schwizer both collecting a rail, they too finished on four-faults after the drop score. Time was ultimately the deciding factor. The Swiss were slated into third because they were three seconds slower than the French.

The remaining nations (The Netherlands, Great Britain, Spain, Germany and Ireland) couldn’t find harmony on course, and racked up plenty of faults as consequence. Still, Varela, who designed for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, felt the challenge matched the contest.

“It was not over-built, you could build bigger, but the last line was difficult. I designed three combinations today, it was not for free, and there were faults in them all and also around the track,” Varela explained.

“There is a reason that Belgium won and qualified for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, and that is because they did a great job today.”

Belgian chef d’Equipe Peter Weinberg put together a well balanced team

FEI / Richard Juilliart

With Paris fast approaching, teams still vying for qualification are starting to sweat. In addition to their usual picks, such as the ever-reliable Guery and Wathelet, Weinberg’s team tapped in new talent to get the job done.

“For us, there was pressure because we still had to qualify for Paris. But my riders can live with pressure, and they delivered very well and the horses were jumping absolutely fantastic,” said Weinberg.

“The course was as usual in that Final, difficult and tricky enough and it asked a lot of questions of the riders and the horses. Some of these riders are more experienced but for Gilles it was the first time to compete at this level and he did a brilliant job.” 

It’s not likely to be his last championship appearance. Gilles is well on his way up. His “amazing year” took off in July, when he won the CSIO5* Hickstead Grand Prix with his 14-year-old gelding Arentino. He also enjoyed silver success in an CSIO5* 1.60m class at the renowned Spruce Meadows in September.

Gregory Wathelet and Iron Man Van De Padenborre / FEI / Richard Julliart

Wathelet and 14-year-old stallion Iron Man Van De Padenborre served as Sunday’s drop score after they toed the B-element at the double combination of fence four. The pair recovered well, and the remainder of their round was performed with ease.

Vereecke has a real Casanova Kasanova

Koen Vereeck and Kasanova de la Pomme / FEI / Richard Julliart

“This year has been unbelievable for me. It started in St Gallen, then Falsterbo double-clear, Hickstead double-clear and now double-clear here. I have an amazing horse who has done an amazing job this year,” Vereecke said.

The 12-year-old stallion is perhaps in the season of his career. According to JUMPR App, he has a 68% clear round rate out of 19 rounds (a 51% uptick this season). His top ten finish rate is equally impressive at 60%.

Sure, the charming stallion needs more experience at this level, but it looks like he’s planning on collecting some wins along the way.

Belgium can always count on Quel Homme de Hus

Jerome Guery and Quell Homme de Hus / FEI / Richard Julliart

“I’m three years together with Quel Homme now and he’s a super horse and when I ride good, he’s always good,” said Guery.

Guery and his 16-year-old stallion have the resume to back up that claim, winning European team gold in Rotterdam, Netherlands in 2019, team bronze at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and securing individual silver at the ECCO FEI World Championships in Herning, Denmark in August.

In three-years they’ve accomplished a career’s worth of titles, and Guery still has goals lined up for their partnership.

“It’s great for us to be qualified for the Olympics, it is always my dream, but I like the feeling of a Championship too and I love to come here in Barcelona for the final of the season,” said Guery.

It’s even better to leave Barcelona as winners.

Feature Image: FEI / Richard Julliart