In Wellington, riders, grooms, managers and show crew alike look forward to the weekend show jumping scene at the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) iconically dubbed “Saturday Night Lights.”

The energy is even more vibrant during a 5*, and WEF Week 9’s $425,000 Wellington Equestrian Realty CSI5* Grand Prix showcased some especially major (league) talent. That’s right, we’re talking about a clean podium sweep from horses and riders who came hot off the 5* Major League Show Jumping tour (MLSJ), starting with none other than Daniel Bluman (ISR).

The 2022 Trailblazers alum depended on Ladriano Z’s open stride to expertly negotiate the Alan Wade (IRL) designed track, which featured galloping lines and lofty obstacles. Bluman and the 15-year-old gelding finished the jump-off in a blazing 43.24 seconds. It was just tenths of a second faster than Shane Sweetnam’s (IRL) time of 43.85 with 10-year-old gelding James Kann Cruz.

The nail-biting competition is something with which Bluman and Sweetnam are familiar. Sweetnam represented the Spy Coast Spies on last season’s MLSJ tour, so, they’ve been riding rivals for some time, and have gotten to know the strengths and weaknesses of each other’s horses quite well.

“I watched Shane’s round and his horse and mine are both big and scopey, so I tried to do the same as him and edge him in a couple places,” said Bluman.

“He’s a really big horse so he’s naturally not the fastest one moving his feet, but you do cover a lot of ground, especially in a jump off like this where it had big galloping.”

According to Sweetnam, Wade has upped the difficulty each week in an effort to continue testing the competition with more complex questions.

“It was very difficult in a different way; not dimensionally but especially the last line for a bigger-strided horse was very difficult. He made a point to put the last jump in the corner where it’s normally not, and the horses thought they were a done. This was top sport with four great horses and riders in the second round, and no poles,” explained Sweetnam.

Shane Sweetnam & James Kann Cruz. Photo © Sportfot

Perhaps it isn’t a matter of coincidence, but of preparation, considering all four of those riders were heavy hitters along the 2022 MLSJ tour. Winner of the team series championship with Helios and of the MLSJ Finale Grand Prix, Karl Cook (USA) rounded out the podium with his gold medal partner Kalinka Van’t Zorgvliet. He finished on 44.56 seconds with the 13-year-old mare, and also had an uncanny ability to read and adapt to the particular asks of the jump-off.

“This jump-off really rewarded how fast you could cover ground more so than turning. There were three turns, so it was basically about ground coverage and on a horse like her she flies with a bit more turn, whereas these guys’ horses are just faster across the ground,” said Cook.

Last Saturday’s class was Kalinka’s first time showing since the MLSJ Series Finale at Desert International Horse Park (DIHP). After a long season of successful jumping Cook determined she more than deserved a rest, a decision that ultimately puts more emphasis on each remaining Grand Prix at WEF.

“This class was really important for us because I haven’t shown her since December and chose to give her a few months off so she could rest and save her legs for later. It’s always a bit of a risk to hold your cards closer to the end because it puts all the pressure on those couple times you decide to show. So, I knew I put a lot of pressure on myself and the last two ‘Saturday Night Lights’ I fell off and stopped out so, we’re doing alright,” said Cook.

Karl Cook & Kalinka Van’t Zorgvliet. Photo © Sportfot

“This time of the year you have some of the greatest riders in the world here for the season so it’s very intense. You have to really plan, and I think part of the reason you see this podium here is because we know how to make a plan. These are big jumps, very technical, high competition and you have to treat it that way,” said Bluman.

The fourth rider in the jump off was another name we see frequently on the MLSJ podiums, Nayel Nassar (EGY) aboard Igor Van De Wittemore, finishing the course in 46.33 seconds. Though Nassar didn’t participate in the champagne battle, the entire group of double clears suggests MLSJ is hitting the goal they set during the inaugural season of 2021; to raise the level of sport by bringing the distinction of 5* level competition home to North America.

Stay tuned to see which riders are named to the teams for Season 3 of Major League Show Jumping.

Feature Image: Daniel Bluman & Ladriano Z © Sportfot