Paras surpass expectations with stunning team silver
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Mari Durward-Akhurst got Equestrian Team GBR’s quest for gold underway bright and early on day five of the FEI European Championships yesterday in Rotterdam. Riding the evergreen 20 year old Sky O’Hara for Glensi Owen, Mari and trainer Rob Waine took the decision with the rest of the team to bring up a companion horse for the test to settle Sky’s nerves in the Team test. Sophie Wells’ ride C Fatal Attraction duly did the honours and it looked to have paid off.
The twists and turns of the Grade I team test were tackled with great determination with average marks of seven to seven point five flashing up on the arena side scoreboard. The only worrying moment came in the halt across the arena at X when there was a crash of bottles being emptied somewhere on site and Sky’s attention was momentarily taken elsewhere but Mari was straight back on the case to establish the consistency and flow they’d shown previously to end well. It looked like a 70%+ performance and the score was confirmed at 70.89% - a new PB by 0.32. It left them in sixth overall but an excellent start to the team tally.
“It was quite noisy in there but he was much better than the other day. We’ve never tried him with a companion horse before but it seems to have worked – we needed to try something to have him more relaxed. Something caught his attention in the halt but I got him back quickly. Sky has an amazing walk but it’s all about getting the in between – not too fast, not too slow. I don’t really like the team test much, it doesn’t suit me as I have to work quite hard on the circles with my disability. But it’s a good start for the team!” Mari told us afterwards.
So how as she found her first Championship? “It’s amazing to be here. There’s such an atmosphere and bumping in to riders like Carl [Hester] and Charlotte [Dujardin] is incredible,” she beamed.
Grade II rider Georgia Wilson from Conwy has been busy winning a new legion of fans with many impressed by her fabulous outlook and positive attitude. She and her parent’s British bred Midnight have come here well prepared by mentor Sophie Wells but it’s the way they’ve handled the pressure of a Championship debut which has caught the eye.
It was a long build up as they were the third last combination of the day. A good start brought the eights and nines rolling in from the judges and their halt at C was about as square and immobile as you could see but just one nine was awarded. A Georgia rode every step to keep the accuracy and rhythm and earn every mark possible for a final score of 74.75% - a new personal best score. More importantly, a great boost to the team total.
Afterward, Georgia told us; “I had to think hard on how to waste a morning so I watched Heartland on Netflix to keep myself busy. She was very good but I had to work to keep the trot I had outside in there. Sophie has had me do so many transitions, we’ve been working really hard on them and been videoing every step to improve. The preparation and hard work has worked as I was happy with the halts and free walk which Sophie has been nagging me on.”
And her take on her first Championship experience; “It’s very different to a normal international. You have to remember your accreditation and there’s lots of waiting but it’s been amazing but scary, it’s not really sunk it!”
On to day two of the Team competition and it looked like the gold was the Netherlands’s to lose but Great Britain, Denmark and Belgium were all guaranteed to give it their all.
Sophie Wells has been working hard to get Charlotte Hogg’s C Fatal Attraction more comfortable with the arena in a bid to boost their score from the Individual test. He’s been on companion horse duty and hand walked to the arena from the stables a few times but would their plan pay off?
‘Jorge’ certainly looked spritely in the final warm up so as she was given the go ahead to enter the arena ahead of starting, she dropper her reins and let him walk calmly on a long rein in a bid to get him to relax. Judge at C rang her bell and Sophie picked Jorge up ready to start. Things were certainly calmer than the Individual test with lovely medium trot work, two super simple changes and she was able to ‘attack’ her extended canter unlike her previous test. As they halted for the final time, it looked to be a superior performance. But sometimes in dressage, it’s hard to predict and the score of 75.65% was on a par with Thursday despite a more relaxed, harmonious performance.
“That was a lot better than before. He was more relaxed and showed better quality…but I guess the judges didn’t quite agree as the score was much the same. He was quite unsettled in the 20 minute box, I’m not really sure why so I went back to my approach when he was a baby of walking around the arena on a long rein before the test which worked. I’d have liked a better score for the team; you get one chance to pull it out of the bag but I’m pleased with it all. I was aiming for a PB but judges in different positions have different opinions,” said Sophie.
It was enough for second once again behind Frank Hosmar for the home team on 75.86% which was a huge leap for the Netherlands towards gold.
The final rider for Team GBR was Grade IV visually impaired rider Nicky Greenhill riding King Edward I whom she owns with husband Gary. As previously reported, it’s been tough debut week for Nicky but ‘Ed’ has settled better and Nicky has been able to make progress on his relaxation. The Dutch team had been building well through the day and a stunning 77.15% from their anchor rider Sanne Voets all but secured gold – Nicky would need 76% plus to challenge and as this is only her and Ed’s fourth international, it was going to be a huge ask.
The warm up went much smoother than the other day but in the adjoining Rotterdam Arena, the Grand Prix Freestyle was building to fever-pitch and the music was as loud as the boisterous crowd. Nicky of course relies on the guidance of callers to navigate the arena and she could barely hear their calls which made things tricky. The judges seemed to have their fingers stuck on the six, six point five and seven button until the final halt which merited an eight from four of the five judges. The final score came up as 69.57%, a valiant effort in testing conditions and a new personal best by over two percent. It was to be the discard score such were the performances by the other trio but Nicky will be buoyed by a confidence bolstering ride ahead of tomorrow’s freestyle.
“It’s very hot and it was hard as that music of Carl’s was very, very loud, so I was struggling to hear my callers, but we got to the end! We turned the background music down, then his was turned up really loud. But he was a really good boy and much more confident than he was the other day, so I couldn’t ask him for any more than that. He has found it really difficult [here this week], he’s struggled in this environment as it is so much more electric than he is used to but it’s great to get him here and grow in confidence and he will learn from it.
“I’ve had quite a lot thrown at me this week but it has been great and just highlights the team work. The team around me have just been amazing and I’m so grateful to them as it is just so much work behind the scenes going on and it is fantastic to be part of that. The silver medal has put the icing on the cake. We didn’t come here with any expectations and three of us are newbies so that is amazing.”
So it was gold to the Netherlands with a total of 227.03 which is an extended margin of victory over the Brits in silver on 221.30, a comfortable near five percent ahead of Denmark in bronze on 216.49.
Team ‘veteran’ Sophie Wells summed up by saying; “Historically we’ve been so strong but the other nations have put money and time into developing the sport but have no fear, we’ll be hunting them down in Tokyo!”
It’s on to Freestyle tomorrow to bring this year’s FEI European Championships to a thrilling climax and all four riders will be in action.