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Untried & True: Ireland Take Nations Cup Win on Four New Horses


With 30 years of experience designing for multiple international team events, including the 2008 Hong Kong Olympic Games, Course Designer Steve Stephens has seen some things.

“This isn’t my first rodeo,” the frank, five-time former U.S. chef d’équipe told commentator Dani Waldman during the lead up to the $150,000 CSIO4* Nations Cup on Saturday Night Under the Lights at Wellington International.

The comment was in response to his earlier prediction that, despite the relatively ‘inviting’ nature of his 12-obstacle, 15-effort course, “There won’t be as many clears as one might think.”

Of course, Stephens was right.

After the first round, only Team Ireland came out unscathed, with all but one of its riders—Darragh Kenny (Eddy Blue), David O’Brien (El Balou Old), and anchor Cian O’Connor (Fancy De Kergane)—clear into the second round. Shane Sweetnam, on RR Combella, was the drop score on 4.

What’s most telling, however, was that all four riders were also mounted on horses brand new to this level of competition.

“This team is a little unusual. In a hundred something [Nations] Cups that I’ve been involved in, I’ve never had a full team where none of the horses ever jumped a Nations Cup before,” said Irish Chef d’Équipe Michael Blake.

“For us, that shows true depth [in that they were] new horses, and obviously, very good horses, but that they’re all very new horses. And, obviously, three of these guys are old pros [at this], and have competed at many places.”

With Ireland on zero, the rest of the field completed the first round with faults on the scorecard. Israel finished on 4 faults, Canada on 8, Colombia and the U.S. tied at 12, Great Britain and Brazil tied at 13, Australia on 20, Mexico on 24, and New Zealand on 42. As only the top-eight teams return to jump the second round, Mexico and New Zealand finished the day on their scores.

The CSIO4* Nations Cup in Wellington does not count toward the newly revamped Longines League of Nations, making it a good opportunity to give greener horses, younger riders and fledgling partnerships a chance to gain miles in this unique team format with big atmosphere.

Team USA fielded both. Eighteen-year-old Zayna Rizvi, the competition’s youngest athlete (New Zealand’s Maurice Beaton was the most senior at 70!), made her senior team debut. Veterans Laura Kraut and McLain Ward debuted relatively up-and-coming partnerships, Bisquetta and Ilex, both with impressive results.

In Round 2, the glittering lights played a role for several competitors, as did some expected fatigue from their horses. The second and third placed teams swapped places several times throughout the evening, but from start to finish, the Nations Cup was Ireland’s to lose.

In the second round, Darragh Kenny and Shane Sweetnam each dropped a single rail, with David O’Brien adding just two time-faults to the team’s score. In short order, Sweetnam clinched the win for the Irish, ending the team’s evening on an un-catchable score of 10, with Cian O’Connor electing not to return to jump.

Chef Blake singled out O’Brien, in particular, for bringing his A-game to his first Nations Cup performance for Ireland aboard El Balou Old, saying simply, “He did good.”

For his part, O’Brien had only a few words to describe his time so far with the quirky, 12-year-old OS stallion, who came onto his string in December of 2020, joking, “It’s a long history.

“On big days, he’s a fighter and it’s really special for me to be sitting up here with these three Olympic riders,” said O’Brien. “The horse has a long history and I got him because he was a difficult child, and he needed a continuing program. To me, he’s my number one, so every day we’re out for a long time and it’s a process to keep him focused. But results wise, I’m very happy with him. He’s probably been the reason I was able to go out on my own and have a business.”

Second-place on a score of 20 went to Canada’s all-female, veteran squad represented by Tiffany Foster (Northern Light), Beth Underhill (Nikka VD Bisschop), Erynn Ballard—with new ride Libido Van’t Hofken—and Amy Millar as anchor with Truman. Both Ballard and Millar put in particularly strong performances for their team, jumping 4/0 and 0/4, respectively. 

The U.S. ultimately capped off their night with a podium finish, with Ward helping to secure third place on a score of 24.

For the Irish, in particular, now five-time victors in this event in Wellington and gaining on the U.S.’s nine total wins, it was yet another evening to remember.

“We were very lucky it all came together,” said a delighted O’Brien, whose extended family was there in the stands, cheering him on in his first Nations Cup appearance—and win. “I’m very happy to be part of it.”

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