Harrie Smolders (NED) has dramatically won the 2017 Longines Global Champions Tour title making history with victory before the final leg has even played out.
The Flying Dutchman declared “it feels great” and said he was “really, really honoured” as he celebrated following a spectacular Longines Global Champions Tour Grand Prix of Rome, which was won by rising star Evelina Tovek (SWE) aboard her phenomenal dapple grey gelding, the 9 year old Castello 194. Marcus Ehning and Funky Fred were third on the podium in the Italian capital.
Clearly emotional after his landmark win, Smolders spoke of the extraordinary calibre of previous champions, both human and equine, and his pride that his name will join the illustrious athletes on the coveted Longines Global Champions Tour trophy. His phenomenally consistent scorecard on the circuit included an LGCT Grand Prix win in Chantilly, podium finishes in Paris, Hamburg and Rome and fourth and fifth places in London, Shanghai and Miami Beach.
He credited his achievement as LGCT Champion of Champions to his high performing stallions Don VHP Z and Emerald allowing him to switch between the superstar horses during the formidable tests of the world class series.
Smolders’ lead in the overall ranking going into the 14th leg of the LGCT season in Rome meant there was a chance he would emerge as champion before the final leg in Qatar. The 1.60m LGCT Grand Prix is always a supreme challenge and Uliano Vezzani’s course was a formidable test including colourful fences depicting iconic Rome landmarks. First to go clear was the masterful Marcus Ehning (GER) with Funky Fred, the top German rider with a proven track record of success in Rome. Guiding the gleaming chestnut around the course, the crowd gasped in appreciation as one of the smoothest riders on the circuit put in a foot-perfect round, making the tough course look effortless.
But it was anything but plain sailing. With tension running high and the potential to decide the Championship, a shock result from the earlier qualifying competition saw both Christian Ahlmann (GER) and Alberto Zorzi (ITA) fail to qualify for the Grand Prix. That left Smolders able to take the title if he held his nerve and finished on the podium and if close contender Lorenzo de Luca finished lower than 6th place.
An anxious wait ensued as thousands of spectators lining the stone amphitheatre watched to see how the title race would play out. As others took their turn, it became clear that Vezzani’s challenge was a real test, as big names such as Eric Lamaze (CAN) with Coco Bongo, Sergio Alvarez Moya (ESP) with Carlo 273, and John Whitaker (GBR) with Argento all failed to jump clear.
It all fell apart for the Frenchman Roger-Yves Bost (FRA) and Sunshine du Phare, after their round began to unwind when the liver chestnut dropped a back foot through an oxer. A scary moment as Sunshine napped back towards in the gate, and a further loss of concentration meant the popular rider picked up an unusual 27 faults. Others tried, and failed, to ensure a jump-off. Poles rolled across the field as Kevin Staut (FRA) with For Joy van't Zorgvliet HDC, Peder Fredricson (SWE) with H&M Christian K, Cian O’Connor (IRL) with Skyhorse and Marco Kutscher (GER) with Clenur all fell short of the clear.
Anticipation mounted as Harrie Smolders (NED) entered the arena with his top stallion Don VHP Z. The pair had previously won the LGCT Grand Prix of Rome in 2016, and all eyes were on the former winner to see if he could repeat victory in Rome. A magnificent clear had fans gasping. They were into the jump-off.
Only Lorenzo de Luca (ITA) could stop Smolders’ charge for the Championship and he entered the arena to a roaring crowd with top stallion Halifax van het Kluizebos. Spectators held their breath as de Luca cruised around the arena, hoping they would have an Italian in the jump-off. But the first part of the Longines treble came down after Halifax clipped the pole with his hind legs, dropping the pair down the order and meaning the Dutchman would potentially claim the Championship.
Rising Swedish star Evelina Tovek, 24, (SWE) was the youngest of the field to start the Grand Prix, but her phenomenal partnership with Castello 194 delivered a spectacular round on the dapple grey 9 year old gelding. One of the final riders to go Scott Brash (GBR) and Hello Forever looked strong as they flew around the course, but an agonising four faults came as Hello Forever trailed a hind leg at the Longines oxer putting them out of contention, despite being the quickest of the four faults.
So it would be a three rider jump-off, with the crowd hungry for the final act of a spell-binding LGCT Grand Prix.
First to go Marcus Ehning (GER) had the hardest task, throwing down the gauntlet to Smolders and Tovek. The pair galloped the course, eating up the long distances and powering around the corners. But it came undone at the oxer heading back to the in-gate, as Funky Fred agonisingly came in a little too deep and clipped the pole. Ehning would have to hope the pressure would get too much for the two remaining riders, with his time of 47.90s setting the pace.
Harrie Smolders (NED) returned to the ring with Don VHP Z, the pair knowing a safe clear would put them in first or second. Smolders guided the huge stallion around the course, deceptively quick around the sand arena, to stop the clock clear in 52.43s.
The pressure was well and truly on the young shoulders of Swedish talent Evelina Tovek. This would be the toughest jump-off of her career, and the question was whether to play it safe and guarantee second, or go for it and potentially steal the win. It would be a case of fortune favours the brave, as Tovek flew around the arena with Castello 194, up on Smolders’ time coming out of the Longines treble. It was clear the relationship between horse and rider was strong, and the pair galloped to the final fences with the win in sight.
The crowd were on their feet as the duo stopped the clock in 50.71s, over a second faster and Tovek’s biggest career win to date.
Jan Tops, President and Founder Longines Global Champions Tour: "It is amazing to see new faces, building young riders. If you watched Evelina since the opening of the year doing quite well but still inexperienced at this level and then every event getting better and better and more confident. It is a great achievement in these difficult classes competing against the best riders in the world, this is a great success for Evelina. That is what the Tour is about. If you want to compete at the highest level you can only do that competing in these difficult classes. Many young riders start like this getting their confidence, riding with great riders and then performing well in championships.
"With Uliano (Vezzani, course designer) he is always consistent. You don’t see any bad things for the horses. It was a difficult class but to win these prestigious classes you have to be very strong. It is our horses which are important to have them at this level and to keep them at this level.
"I think Harrie had an incredible year. He was six or seven times on the podium. Second in the European Championships. That is what it is about jumping these clear round. He is one of the great winners like Scott. It is really well deserved. It is the first time it is not decided in the last leg. Doha is a fantastic event, amazing place and the best riders and horses will be there and for the GCL there is big pressure on to win the championship."
Eleonora Di Giuseppe, Event Co-ordinator LGCT Rome: “Not only as a member of the organising committee but also as a member of the Italian Equestrian Federation Rome we would like to thank [the riders] and their horses for three days of spectacular sport in Italy. I would especially like to thank Jan Tops because it’s very important for our country, and Italian Equestrian sport to have a Global Champions Tour here. It is a good time for Italy and Italian riders, and we would like to thank Jan for everything he has done for us.”
Evelina Tovek, LGCT Rome 1st place: “It’s the biggest win of my career - it’s amazing. I know my horse is not so fast but has big strides, so I asked a lot from the canter and in the end it worked! [Henrik von Eckermann, my trainer] said “just have fun” before I went in. For me Casello is the perfect horse, no fence is a problem, and I’m really happy to have him."
Harrie Smolders, 2017 LGCT Champion of Champions, LGCT Rome 2nd place: “My horse loves this venue, which is why I brought him out here again. It worked out fantastic today - I was not expecting to win [the Championship] today. It’s been an incredible season for me with my top horses Don and Emerald - it’s also thanks to my partners Copernicus and Eurohorse behind me. Our goal was not to be the fastest today, but I wanted to keep clear.
“It feels great to be Champion. You see the previous winners, the horses and riders are exceptional - so to see my name on the trophy is [special]. It’s a big achievement for all my owners, our staff and everyone who works in our stable, from flat riders to the grooms - it’s also for them. In the end I have to finish but they all achieve this with me. The flexibility [of horses] is my strength - we have so many shows, but that’s why I can sometimes use Don VHP Z and sometimes use Emerald. They did an unbelievable job."
Marcus Ehning, LGCT Rome 3rd place: “I was first in the jump-off, with a very fast horse. I could put some pressure on the other two. In the end I was too deep and had one down - I think the time would have been enough though! It’s not my first time in the jump-off, I like this pressure, it’s great motivation, but it didn’t work out t