Great Britain’s showjumpers are off and running on the road to next summer’s Rio Olympics after starting well in their qualification quest at the Longines FEI European Championships in Aachen.
The British quartet of Joe Clee, Ben Maher, Michael Whitaker and Jessica Mendoza occupy third place following the opening day’s one-round speed class in Aachen.
Six notable nations — Britain, Spain, Ireland, Italy, Belgium and Switzerland — have yet to qualify for Rio, and three places are available in Aachen’s last-chance saloon.
But Britain made a flying start as Clee (Utamaro d’Ecaussines), Maher (Diva II) and Whitaker (Cassionato) all jumped clear, while 19-year-old Mendoza had two fences down with Spirit T on her senior championship debut.
Host country Germany are the early leaders, following an imposing performance by their quartet of Ludger Beerbaum, Christian Ahlmann, Daniel Deusser and Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, with France second, Britain third, Spain fourth, Holland fifth, Ukraine sixth, Italy seventh, Ireland eighth, Sweden ninth and Belgium 10th.
There are still two days of team jumping left, though, while the individual competition does not finish until next Sunday.
France’s Penelope Leprevost is the current individual leader, followed by Beerbaum, Clee, Gregory Wathelet, Bertram Allen, Sergio Alvarez Moya, Maher, Ahlmann, Piergiorgio Bucci and Maikel van der Vleuten.
Clee was among only five of 94 starters to clock under 70 seconds, and he was understandably delighted with his horse’s performance.
“I was aware I had to go fast, but he is a great horse to go fast on. The faster you go, the more he tries,” he said.
“He handled it really well, I felt really confident on him, and the further the round went on the more risks I felt I could take.
“Ben and Michael were brilliant to start with, which takes the pressure off you a little bit, but it’s still on. Those two rounds put me a little bit more relaxed and motivated me as well, seeing those guys going so fast. There is a great sense of team spirit with everyone, and I think that helps you and motivates you.”
And Maher, who helped Britain win London Olympic gold and the 2013 European team title, added: “We’ve come here with a good team and a definite strategy.
“The plan was to set Michael off first, because he has the slowest horse, and I said I had the second-slowest, but actually we sped up today. The plan was to come out and get ahead today if we could on some of the other teams, and then probably change the strategy around tomorrow.
“Diva jumped incredibly. I took certain risks in some places and played a little safe to one jump there, which probably cost me the individual lead right now, but we are here for one thing only, and that’s what was important today.”
The action continues on Thursday with another round of team jumping, with the top 10 countries then moving forward to Friday’s finale, when medals will be decided.
Image: Joe Clee and Utamaro d’Ecaussines by Hippo Foto – Dirk Caremans, courtesy of the FEI