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Wednesday 22 November 2017

Gunning for equine glory in Kentucky

As the Irish team gets ready for the World Equestrian Games, hopes are high that they can take the Stateside event by storm

Caitriona Murphy

Caitriona Murphy

The countdown has begun in earnest: this year's World Equestrian Games (WEG) get under way on Friday. This is the biggest event in the world for equestrian sport.

Considered by many to rank higher than the Olympics, the 16-day games are admininistered by the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) and held every four years -- half way between each pair of consecutive summer Olympic Games.

Up to 1990, all 10 of the FEI's individual disciplines held separate championships, usually in separate countries. The hosting of World Championships for each discipline was awarded to the winner of each discipline, in the same way as the Eurovision moves around annually according to the previous year's winner.

For example, the Kentucky Horse Park was selected by the United States Federation to host the Eventing World Championship in 1978 after Bruce Davidson won the 1974 title at Burghley and, thus, earned for the USA the right to host the event.

The concept of a World Equestrian Games, at which all the FEI disciplines would decide their World Championships at one time and place, was first proposed to the FEI in 1983, but the first World Equestrian Games were held in Stockholm in 1990. Six disciplines were involved -- jumping, dressage, eventing, driving, endurance and vaulting.

The games next moved to The Hague in the Netherlands in 1994 and were due to be hosted in Dublin in 1998. However, in a move that is still remembered bitterly, Ireland backed out of hosting the event at the last minute.

This year's games, taking place in Lexington, Kentucky, will mark a series of firsts in WEG history: the first time the games will be held outside of Europe, the first time that championships for eight FEI disciplines will be held at one location -- the 1,200ac Kentucky Horse Park -- and the first time WEG will have a title sponsor, Alltech, the animal health and nutrition group that employs 1,900 people in 85 countries.

A familiar name at home in Ireland, Alltech was founded by Irishman Dr Pearse Lyons and is headquartered in Nicholasville, Kentucky.

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Riders competing at this year's games have gone through a rigorous selection process over the past four years and each participating country has assembled a team composed of the best equestrians in their discipline. A total of 57 countries will be represented by 800 athletes over the next two-and-a-half weeks.

This year, for the first time, the games will incorporate eight of the FEI's 10 disciplines: combined driving, dressage, endurance riding, eventing, para dressage, reining, showjumping and vaulting.

The FEI's two remaining regional disciplines, horseball -- similar to a combination of rugby, polo and basketball -- and tent pegging -- mounted cavalry games -- still conduct their own independent championships.

A strong Irish team has already landed in Kentucky and the horses have been put through quarantine in preparation for their competitions.

The Irish showjumping team consists of Dermott Lennon, riding Hallmark Elite, Denis Lynch, on Lantinus or Nabab's Son, Cian O' Connor, on K Club Lady, and Billy Twomey, on Tinka's Serenade or Je T'aime Flamenco.

Speaking at the tea mannouncement, showjumping manager Robert Splaine pointed out that the team was the same four combinations that had won the Nations' Cup of Germany in Aachen earlier in the year.

"Dermott and Hallmark Elite had a very good result in the Madrid Grand Prix on Saturday, which indicates a return to form for the combination. It means we will be fielding the same team as we had in Aachen -- and if we can replicate that performance we will be extremely competitive at the World Championships," he said.

Mr Splaine added that the main objective for the team was to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Games in London by finishing in the top five, excluding Olympic hosts Great Britain.

"Olympic qualification is the main goal, but if we can perform on the day we can beat anyone, as we showed in Aachen," he added.

The eventing squad, led by chef d'equipe Ginny Elliot, consists of Captain Geoff Curran, on The Jump Jet, Mark Kyle, riding Step in Time, Elizabeth Power, on Kilpatrick River, Patricia Ryan, with Fernhill Clover Mist, Camilla Spiers, on her own Portersize Just a Jiff, and Sam Watson, riding Horseware Bushman. Judy Reynolds and her mount Remember will compete in dressage, accompanied by chef d'equipe Bettina Hinneman, while James O'Dwyer and Orlando will contest the para-dressage, under the watchful eye of chef d'equipe Avril O'Byrne.

Meanwhile, US-based Ollie Galligan will make history this week as the first Irish citizen to compete in the FEI for Ireland in the western sport of reining.

The Cavan native is a former cabinet maker, who moved to the US in 1997, following his friend and trainer Ben Balow, who had been working as a reining trainer at Drumcoura, Ballinamore, Co Leitrim.

Now married to fellow reining enthusiast and Appaloosa breeder Gillian Baxter, Ollie has his own ranch in Petaluma, California.

Colonel Ned Campion travels with the Irish team as Chef de Mission, appointed by Horse Sport Ireland. The former commanding officer of the Army Equitation School and Olympic competitor, Colonel Campion has acted as chef de mission and chef d'equipe at four Olympic Games (Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney and Athens) and at two World Equestrian Games (Stockholm and The Hague).

Horse Sport Ireland chairman Joe Walsh said the Irish team were receiving huge support from the Irish community in Kentucky.

He singled out in particular Castleton Lyons Stud farm, owned by Shane Ryan, and Ashford Stud, owned by Coolmore, which are providing accommodation for the Irish riders in the lead up to the games.

"There is a huge Irish presence in Kentucky, chiefly involved in the thoroughbred sector, and they have really rowed in behind the team," he said.

Commenting from Kentucky, Alltech's communications manager, Christina Lombard, said: "The teams and individual riders selected to represent Ireland at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games will showcase Ireland's rich equestrian talent before a global audience.

"Everyone at Alltech Ireland wishes them the very best in their endeavours and looks forward to supporting them in Kentucky."

For more information on this year's FEI World Equestrian Games, go to www.alltechfeigames.com. You can also follow Team Ireland's results on Facebook and Twitter or on www.horsesportireland.ie

Irish Independent