“Our guys would kill to jump on the Nations Cup team. They don’t care about anything else, which is great for me,” said Irish chef d’equipe Michael Blake.
For the Irish team, this is especially true for the CSIO5* Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ of Canada, a title they won last year through tumultuous rainfall and a dynamic demonstration of teamwork. On Sunday at Thunderbird Show Park (tbird) in Langley, BC they set out to defend their title, but the stakes were just as high for their competition.
As the closing leg of the North/Central American & Caribbean Division, it was the last opportunity for the United States, Canada and Mexico to qualify for the Nations Cup™ Final in Barcelona. The Canadian team was also vying for their first hometown victory under the direction of new chef d’equipe Ian Millar, aka Captain Canada.
“Well, I told [Millar] he managed to somehow beat us in Wellington. I said it’s the first and the last time,” laughed Blake, who made good on his promise at tbird.
The Irish team fielded Daniel Coyle with 12-year-old stallion Gisborne VDL, David Blake with 11-year-old gelding Claude, Shane Sweetnam with 10-year-old gelding James Kann Cruz, and Conor Swail with 10-year-old stallion Nadal Hero & DB. Yet despite focusing their best efforts, they didn’t start out with the show of strength they were hoping for.
“Daniel and David didn’t cover themselves in glory in the first round [posting eight and four faults respectively],” said a candid Michael Blake.
Sweetnam and Swail kept the team alive with clear efforts, and Ireland settled on four points after Coyle’s drop score. Canada was neck in neck with a four on the card of their own, with the United States, Mexico and Australia racking up double digits.
An eight fault round might sound rather uncharacteristic for the ultra competitive Coyle, but he’s only been partnered with Gisborne for approximately six months. Still, their recent successes made them an obvious choice for Sunday’s team selection. After winning last week’s MLSJ CSI5* Qualifier 1.50m, they just needed another course around the Fort Grand Prix Arena to warm-up.
“I was maybe a little casual in the first round. I’m also just getting to know the horse. Obviously, I have big plans for him in the future. I have to learn how to ride him the best way for the horse,” said Coyle.
“I said to Michael, I need to do different strides here. And he says, ‘I don’t care, Daniel, how you do the strides, you just get a clear round.’ A lot of chef d’equipes would probably try and tell you how to ride it. Michael trusted that I knew how to get the best out of my horse.”
With permission to toss the math and rely on his gut Coyle did just that, finishing the second round course with nothing but air and crossing the timers with a crisp zero. Coyle wasn’t the only one who improved on their score. David Blake also worked off the rust and posted a clear effort. And Sweetnam delivered one of only two double clears on the day. This meant Swail could take the rest of the afternoon off.
“I made a little mistake in the first round, probably the only free jump on the course. So I was a little bit disappointed with that, but I knew he’d come back better the second time,” said a humble David Blake.
“David spared Conor having to jump to third around, and we were obviously in two minds as to who we were going to put in against the clock. But luck came our way and we got the win and we really, really appreciate it,” said Michael Blake.
Perhaps luck played a small part in their result, but there is no denying the Irish team’s current depth of talent, both in horses and riders.
“Shane’s like a nuclear weapon with that horse,” said Coyle of James Kann Cruz, who sports a 59% clear round average at 1.60m and 72% top 10 finish rate, according to Jumpr App.
“I know he knows how lucky he is, but Shane’s horse is just on a different level altogether. It’s a different sport when you’re riding that horse,” agreed Swail.
“It was a great performance and we needed to be at the top of our sport, and we were. It was a great win for us and Canada pushed us very hard. Thankfully I didn’t have to go in the second round. My horse actually hasn’t jumped that much this year, so he’s had to step up very quickly.”
Stepping up for the nation is a sentiment that is deeply ingrained in Irish riders, because team classes are made to be a priority for developing athletes.
‘You’re trying the best for the team, I’ve done an awful lot of teams and we have a great team spirit and we wanted to win. We do it for our country and we try to do our best,” said Sweetnam.
“We probably have 20 riders on 20 horses that can hold their own in almost any company. We’re very lucky to have that depth, but we’ve worked at having that depth. We try to develop teams at the 3* level and give younger riders chances,” said Michael Blake.
“It was a sweet victory for us today because Canada had a really strong team. We knew we would have to have a really strong team or else we couldn’t beat them. Thankfully, luck went our way today.”
Canada finished second on a respectable eight point score, while the United States finished third and secured their place at the Final in Barcelona.
With Mexico and Canada tying on points in the division (240), the tie was broken by most clear rounds over the three legs of the North/Central America & Caribbean division. Mexico’s seven clears secured their ticket to the Final.