Amid the jubilation over Avebury’s fourth successive CIC3* title success at Barbury International Horse Trials, it was easy to overlook what was arguably an even more staggering feat.
Not even the wind and rain that swept across the picturesque Wiltshire venue as Avebury powered home under Andrew Nicholson‘s genial guidance could dampen celebrations for a brilliant rider, an exceptional horse and his delightful owners Rosemary and Mark Barlow.
But barely a year out from the 2016 Olympics, the really startling coup was achieved by a group of New Zealand riders that look set to mount a major gold medal challenge in Brazil.
The CIC3* results were impressive enough, with Nicholson finishing first and second on Avebury and Nereo, double Olympic individual champion Mark Todd taking third aboard Leonidas II and Tim Price — last year’s Luhmühlen 4* winner — finishing fifth with Ringwood Sky Boy.
But the three fiercely-competitive CIC2* sections at Barbury really confirmed why New Zealand eventing is perhaps set to enjoy a spell of championship success that their impressive rider ability and enviable horse-power would seemingly warrant.
Nicholson won Section B on Loughnatousa Joey, a horse he had never competed before, while Price and The Court Jester triumphed in Section C ahead of third-placed Todd (Amacuzzi) and Lucy Jackson, in fifth, on Mercury Bay.
And young prospect Jesse Campbell completed a spectacular hat-trick by taking Section D honours on Cleveland, with Todd and Oloa finishing fourth, Caroline Powell (Stellor Seaurchin) occupying ninth spot and Lizzie Brown (Princeton II) 10th. As a collective show of strength, it was hard to imagine how the Kiwis could have made a bigger statement.
One look at the FEI’s current world eventing rankings also confirms New Zealand’s rich resources, with five riders — Nicholson, Todd, Jonelle Price, Tim Price and Jock Paget — all currently among the top 22. Only Britain can match that number — William Fox-Pitt, Oliver Townend, Nicola Wilson, Pippa Funnell and Gemma Tattersall — which is one more than reigning Olympic, World and European champions Germany and the United States, and two more than Australia, can muster.
Olympic qualification for the Kiwis should be a formality later this year, with the only cloud, it would appear, being Wiltshire-based Nicholson’s ongoing absence from the New Zealand High Performance Squad.
A disagreement with a team vet at last September’s World Equestrian Games in Normandy kick-started an unfortunate situation between Nicholson and Equestrian Sports New Zealand, and there remains no obvious sign of matters being resolved. In the event that they are, though, the 53-year-old’s presence in Rio would unquestionably enhance team and individual gold medal credentials.
This September’s FEI European Championships at Blair Castle will give a strong indicator of where some leading nations lie as the Rio countdown continues gathering pace.
Germany, seeking a hat-trick of European titles, must start as clear favourites, given the probable presence of riders like the much-decorated pair Michael Jung and Ingrid Klimke, while Britain’s bid for a first European crown since Fontainebleau 2009 will undoubtedly be spearheaded by Fox-Pitt, although not aboard his Rio near-certainty and recent Badminton winner Chilli Morning.
In terms of major team events, once Blair Castle is done and dusted that will be effectively be it before Rio, but Barbury 2015 might just have been more significant than anyone might have imagined.
New Zealand — 2016 Olympic champions? You read it here first!
Image: The Olympic Equestrian Centre at Deodoro, in Rio, taken at the beginning of July prior to completion of the venue in time for the Test Event, the Aquece Rio (“Warm Up Rio”) International Horse Trials, which get underway on 6 August, by Renato Sette Camara / City Hall of Rio de Janeiro / FEI