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Saturday 27 May 2017

Jumping for joy in the junior ranks

Future looks exciting as Ireland's young riders display professionalism and maturity in top competitions

Sarah O'Brien rides Ice Cool Bailey at the recent European Championships in Bishop Burton, England
Sarah O'Brien rides Ice Cool Bailey at the recent European Championships in Bishop Burton, England

Ireland's Junior eventing team added a European Championships fourth place to a slew of excellent results achieved by the under-age riders during recent weeks. Finishing just outside the medals, the team improved two places on the 2009 benchmark of championship sixth.

However, securing fourth place was by no means plain sailing, with two horse-and-rider combinations sidelined by injuries immediately prior to competition and one new combination called into the travelling team at the 11th hour.

Team Ireland Equestrian's Junior Eventing high-performance manager Cmdt Brian MacSweeney explains the last-minute chaos.

"We lost James Clegg's DHI Vertex literally just before we travelled, after the final exercise at Waterside Stud," he says. "The horse had passed the final pre-travel vet inspection but went lame when he came off the lorry for a final group photo."

Reserve combination Robert O'Callaghan and Cashlyn Cavalier was called up to replace the unfortunate Clegg/DHI Vertex pair.

But that was not the end of Ireland's bad luck, because Lucca Stubbington's horse Kilminchy Condor went lame between the stable yard and the first trot-up at Bad Segeberg, Germany.

"We eventually found a small incision on the sole of the foot," explains Cmdt MacSweeney. "So Lucca and Condor had to be withdrawn."

Solid

When the Irish quartet of Melanie Young, David Hannigan, Lauren Persse and Hannah Dunbar got into competition, their dressage scores put them into contention.

Three solid dressage scores in the 50s, plus an outstanding 40.8 from Melanie Young, secured Ireland fifth place out of 11 nations. It is believed that Melanie's score is one of best ever posted by an Irish rider at a championship event.

Four clear rounds in the cross-country phase from the team riders, albeit with some time faults, moved the team up to fourth place and hopeful of a medal.

Unfortunately, a disappointing eight jumping faults and a time fault with Riverstown Express dashed 17-year-old Melanie's medal ambitions, dropping her from overnight fifth place to individual 11th, while David Hannigan and the Irish-bred Red Baron finished 22nd after having a single fence down.

Lauren Persse and the Irish-bred Darragh Promise also fell foul of the championship jumping course, with 12 faults added, to finish in 30th overall.

Hannah Dunbar and River Song produced the best of the Irish showjumping scores with just a single time fault, but their accumulated dressage and cross- country penalties left them as the team's discard score.

The team gold medal went to Germany on 134.60, with France taking the silver on 149.50 and the bronze medal going to Italy on 158.20. Germany accounted for both the gold and silver individual medals, with Britain taking bronze.

Ireland maintained their fourth place.

Ireland's individual rider Robert O'Callaghan finished in 34th place with Cashlyn Cavalier on a score of 76.30.

Cmdt MacSweeney said: "This was a very, very good performance from our riders on what was a very strong championship course. All five went clear on cross-country, aside from some time faults, and it was a difficult show-jumping course that saw very few clears.

"We ended up not a million miles from a medal, and fourth place at European Championship level is a real achievement. I am very optimistic for next year, as we will have three of this squad available and some promising juniors coming through to add even more strength, with training starting just after Christmas."

Meanwhile, Ireland's pony riders were keen to repeat major successes at the European Pony Show Jumping Championships in Bishop Burton, England, earlier this month.

Yet again, the Irish pony riders stamped their mark on European territory by taking the Individual European Showjumping Gold, the Team Showjumping Silver and the Eventing Individual Bronze medals for this year.

Bertram Allen, from Wexford, celebrated his 15th birthday by netting the individual gold medal at the European Championships with a double clear on Acapella Z.

Allen was also a member of the showjumping team that won the European silver medal on Friday and sealed Ireland's weekend triumphs with his own victory.

The Irish team of Bertram Allen, Tom Foley, Shane Kenny and Emma O'Dwyer tied with Belgium in second place after two rounds on a total of 12 faults. But in the jump-off, Ireland recorded the three fastest clears to claim the silver medal and relegate Belgium to bronze position. Ireland's Tom Foley took sixth place individually with Dibidoe.

Horse Sport Ireland's pony high-performance coach Ian Fearon said he was absolutely delighted with his team winning the silver medal.

Sweeter

"Once again, we have brought new combinations to the top of international jumping through our very good training system at home," he says. "To make it sweeter, we had to do it the hard way by having to jump off, but where we excelled."

Referring to Bertram's win, Mr Fearon described it as a fantastic performance.

"He incurred no penalties at all throughout the entire weekend, and his pony showed all the attributes needed to win a major championship. He has been outstanding all year, from trials at home to the Nations' Cup win in Holland earlier this year, and today's medal is proof of his incredible ability."

Meanwhile, 15-year-old Sarah O'Brien won the bronze individual medal in eventing at Bishop Burton, a repeat of her brother Joseph's place in 2009.

Daughter of racehorse trainer Aidan O'Brien and his wife Anne-Marie, Sarah also rode her mother's grey gelding Ice Cool Bailey.

Tipperary-born Sarah finished just a single penalty point outside of silver-medal position, which was claimed by Britain's Grace Walker. The individual gold went to Germany's Marissa Braig.

Horse Sport Ireland pony eventing high-performance coach Sue Shortt said Sarah rode with real professionalism and maturity, and her all-round performance through all three phases had been admired by everyone.

"This was the strongest cross-country track I have ever seen at a pony championship, and she managed to push all the right buttons with Ice Cool Bailey and produce exactly what was needed," said Ms Shortt. "It was certainly no cake-walk, and the bronze medal is a great credit to her coolness under pressure and to her natural talent."

Speaking after the award ceremony, Sarah said she was delighted to win a bronze medal at Bishop Burton.

"Bailey was brilliant throughout the whole week," she said, before thanking her trainers and all those who helped her. With such enviable talent as the young eventers and show jumpers moving up through the ranks, the future looks bright for Ireland on the international stage.

"We have the rider ammunition at pony and junior level, and the HSI system seems to be working," said Cmdt MacSweeney.

"Sam Watson and Camilla Speirs on Portersize Just A Jiff are examples of riders and horses that have come right the way through from ponies to the senior level," he explained.

"Now we need to make sure that those riders are mounted on horses of a good enough quality to go all the way."

Irish Independent