Boston Red Sox vs New York Yankees. Real Madrid vs Barcelona. Joe Frazier vs Muhammad Ali.
Sports rivalries have long exhilarated fans. The thrill of watching two greats battle for supremacy and their place in sports history keeps us glued to the screen and screaming from the sidelines.
In the desert, there’s a new rivalry heating up: Ireland’s Conor Swail vs Belgium’s Gregory Wathelet.
The world no. 5 and world no. 33 have been trading pole position at Desert International Horse Park over the past two weeks of international competition.
Is this burgeoning rivalry on par with the legendary ones above? No. It is not. But it’s making for riveting show jumping, all the same.
Week II of Desert Circuit saw Wathelet claim three international victories, including Friday’s CSI3* 1.50m Speed where he edged Swail out of the top spot by just two tenths of second. Swail came back that Sunday to best Wathelet in the Grand Prix.
This week, they’re one for one in FEI classes so far with Sunday’s feature event still to come.
Swail took first and third in Friday’s Pomponio Ranch CSI3* 1.50m Speed with Theo 160 and Vital Chance de la Roque, while Wathelet finished fourth, less than second separating the top four. On Saturday, the Belgian Olympian reclaimed the top spot with a decisive victory in Morning Star Sport Horses CSI3* 1.45m jump off, relegating Swail to second by almost a second.
Nine horse and rider combinations advanced to the jump off in Manuel Esparza’s (MEX) designed course. Swail and Theo 160 set the time to beat at 31.63, only to have Wathelet clip almost a full second off it with Argentina de la Marchette, stopping the clock at 30.65.
“I went number one with a really good canter because I knew the [first] seven strides were a bit flat for me. I did that easily. I ran a little. She can do quite easy inside turns,” said Wathelet.
“I decided to do eight [to the final fence] because I felt like I was fast enough at the beginning that I didn’t have to take the risk and do the seven.”
Come Sunday, Swail and Wathelet will go head to head once more, this time in the $145,100 Gillibrand Sand CSI3* Grand Prix.
Swail is fielding Vital Chance de la Roque and Theo 160, both are proven winners. “Vinnie” has earned 30 podium finishes and 13 victories with Swail in just two seasons together. He has 54% clear round and top 10 finish rates in 28 rounds at 1.50m with the Irish rider (Jumpr App). But, the 14-year-old gelding’s last show was in mid-December. He has only shown in one class this year.
Theo 160 is an 11-year-old gelding and boasts a spectacularly consistent 71% top 10 finish rate and a 62% clear round rate at 1.50m over 39 rounds with Swail in irons (Jumpr App). The pair are riding in off 2-1-1 finishes in their past three FEI appearances at DIHP. They’ve drawn first in the start order on Sunday.
Wathelet is betting on homebred Argentina de la Marchette and Clarity. Argentina de la Marchette is an 11-year-old mare that has comparatively less experience and fewer podium finishes with 33% clear round and top 10 finish rates in nine rounds at 1.50m. But what she lacks in miles she makes up for in history with her rider. The pair are riding in off two FEI wins in the desert so far, though Saturday’s speed may work against them Sunday.
“She’s going to walk a bit tomorrow morning to get more relaxed,” said Wathelet. “For sure, it’s not always the best [preparation for the Grand Prix] to run like that in a jump-off today, but I know she can go fast and we’ll see tomorrow.”
Last but not least is Clarity, a 14-year-old Holsteiner Warmblood with a 29% clear round and top ten finish rates in 14 rounds at the 1.50m with Wathelet. Of his four mounts in California, the gelding is the only one that hasn’t yet won a class. The pair was third in last week’s Whittier Trust Grand Prix.
Which rider will reign supreme in Thermal? Tune in to DIHP TV at 1pm PT Sunday to find out.