The journey to next week’s FEI European Championships at Aachen in Germany has been far from plain sailing for Great Britain’s team showjumping boss, Di Lampard.
So there must have been an undoubted sense of relief on Monday when the team entrusted with trying to secure 2016 Rio Olympics qualification was finally made public.
One phase of the season can already be put away in Lampard’s ‘mission accomplished’ file — three Nations Cup victories and qualification for the Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup final in Barcelona next month — but now the hard work really starts.
It is three years since Britain unforgettably won team gold at the London Olympics, yet their hopes of defending that title in Brazil now hinge totally on what happens across three days of jumping in Aachen.
The equation is a simple one. Three qualification places remain, with five teams — Britain, Ireland, Belgium, Switzerland and Spain — aiming to fill them and book a trip to Deodoro next summer.
To say that the heat is on would be an understatement of major proportions, but London 2012 team gold medallist Ben Maher, major championship veteran Michael Whitaker, Belgium-based Joe Clee and 19-year-old Jessica Mendoza, who is believed to be the youngest British showjumper selected for a major championship since an 18-year-old Marion Mould contested the Women’s World Championship at Hickstead in 1965, are now tasked with that job.
Given that Britain are without world-number-one Scott Brash — his two top horses Hello Sanctos and Hello M’Lady are unavailable for selection — while Ben Maher’s 2013 European team gold- and individual silver-winning ride Cella is injured and John Whitaker’s in-form Argento was not put forward, it would represent a significant feat if Lampard’s quartet pulled it off.
“We are all entirely focused on the job we have ahead of us,” Lampard said. “Qualifying for Rio is at the forefront of our minds, and we are absolutely committed to giving Great Britain the chance to defend the team gold won at London 2012. We move forward to Aachen as a strong united team.”
Lampard’s sense of determination is shared by the selected riders — who are backed up by travelling reserve Guy Williams, plus the non-travelling duo Robert Whitaker and William Whitaker — not least of all by 55-year-old multi-medallist Michael Whitaker, who rides Cassionato.
“Cassionato is a horse that just wants to learn, and learn quickly. His scope is unbelievable, and I honestly don’t think anyone will ever build a course he couldn’t take on. He is a fantastic horse,” Whitaker said.
“I think we’ve got a very good team — it has been a good selection. We have got five fighters going forward, and there isn’t one that you wouldn’t want on your side. I am looking forward to it and feeling confident.”
And Mendoza, whose selection was undoubtedly clinched by a fourth-place finish in the Longines King George V Gold Cup at Hickstead two weeks ago, is equally enthused by the challenge that awaits on Spirit T, a horse owned by her mother, Sarah.
“It (Aachen) was never in my plan at the beginning of the year, but she kind of made it the plan as she just kept getting better and better each time we stepped up a level,” Mendoza said. “We have come up from national to international competition together, and then from CSI 2* to CSIO 5*, and as a result I feel I know her inside out. We trust each other totally.”
Image: Having secured the top spot at the Rotterdam leg of the Furusiyya Nations’ Cup, Joe Clee, Ben Maher, Jessica Mendoza and Michael Whitaker, pictured here with Di Lampard, will also represent Britain at Aachen’s FEI European Championships. Courtesy of FEI/Arnd Bronkhorst.