French and Italians Battle for Euro Laurels

Team Gold for France in Tight Battle with Italians who claim Individual Glory, by Anna Williams

MONT-LE-SOIE, Belgium (FEI) – France claimed team gold and Italy’s Mara Feola took the Individual title at the FEI European Junior and Young Rider Endurance Championships 2012 at Mont-le-Soie in Belgium at the weekend. This stunning venue is nestled in the region of the High Ardennes with its dramatic landscape of dense forests, rivers and valleys. Mont-le-Soie is a well known venue on the Endurance circuit, regularly hosting CEI events up to 160km, but this was its first-ever FEI Championship fixture.

A total of 61 horses and athletes were entered for the event, but following the pre-ride inspection three horses were judged not fit to start – Norway’s Shere Khan (Kine Eissland Holen), Finland’s only entrant Solomonas (Joona Mickelsson) and Belgium’s Cairo to be ridden by home rider Raphael Van Cauter who had just returned from the World Endurance Championships in Euston Park (GBR) where he partnered Taborah de Sier to a successful 22nd place.

Nine Teams

Saturday morning saw a total 58 combinations start, including nine teams ready to battle it out over the tough, hilly course for European glory. Whilst the terrain was extremely challenging the weather was kind to the competitors, dry but not too hot, which enabled the horses to give some great performances and many producing “personal bests” over this distance.

It was competitors from Eastern Europe who were dominant in the early stages, with Hungary and the Czech Republic taking the top positions at the first Vet Gate. This, however, was not to last, and by the conclusion of the event only two riders from each of these countries would complete.

As the day progressed team France showed, once again, their prowess in this tough sport. With their Senior compatriots having taken team Silver at the World Championships some two weeks previously, the French Junior/Young Rider squad looked set to sweep both Individual and Team gold this time out when all four team members remained consistently at the top of the field throughout the day.

Slow and Steady Progress

However, no one counted on the slow and steady progress of the young Italian side who, on paper, rode the perfect race. Despite coming in to Vet Gate 1 towards the back of the field, their consistency and tactical riding meant that by Vet Gate 3 they were just 4 minutes 21 seconds behind the leaders from France. With just 20 kilometres to go, the race was most certainly on for the 2012 team title.

As expected, the last loop of 20 kilometres was to prove very influential. It was demanding, with a final 7-kilometre climb to the finish, and only the very best were able to put in a competitive fight over the closing stages. With the top six all covering the 20 kilometres at over 24 kilometres per hour, the wait on the finish line was a tense one, and these young athletes certainly didn’t disappoint. An exhilarating race to the line saw the top-eight complete the course within 12 seconds of each other.

Mara Feola (ITA) and her talented 10 year old chestnut gelding were through the finish first, and it seemed her mount was just as pleased as she was with their victory. They put in a storming performance on the last loop, climbing up some six places to snatch the lead from French athlete Cesar Donnais and the 10 year old Arab mare Srour.

Fast Calculations

Some fast calculations were made as the competition concluded with both Italy and France finishing with three team members in the top ten. With the tension buzzing across the venue it was confirmed that France had managed to hold on to the lead by a mere 74 seconds ahead of Italy who had to settle for silver medal spot.

Spain looked good for team bronze, but it was wrenched from their grasp when Nuria Serrabassa Fabre’s ride Casba, their final team horse, was deemed lame despite crossing the finish line in eighth position. With only two team members having completed, Spain therefore dropped out of contention allowing the British to step up for bronze – their first team medal since 1997.

Hard-Fought Competition

Director of Non-Olympic Sports, Ian Williams, expressed his delight at the successful Championship, “This was a hard fought competition” he explained, “but these athletes can be very proud of their performances. They rode with maturity beyond their years, and all of the horses looked very good coming across the line”.

Special remarks were also made about the turn-out of these young teams. It was clear that a great effort had been made and both horses and riders looked immaculate, a real credit to the ever-growing sport of Endurance.