The unstoppable Irish

Victoria Goff looks back at Ireland's stunning win in the 2018 Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup of Great Britain, and goes back into the history books to remember the other memorable Irish wins at Hickstead 

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As a lengthy heatwave gave way to heavy downpours on the final day of competition, it was perhaps unsurprising that Britain and Ireland were the teams left slogging it out for the honours in the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ of Great Britain.

Riders from both nations are more than used to dealing with inclement weather, and the teams hardly seemed to notice the driving rain as they became locked in a head-to-head battle to lift the famous Edward, Prince of Wales Trophy.

Britain was hoping to secure what would have been their 37th home win in the team competition, but their first since 2010, while Ireland were aiming to clock up their fifth victory in the 90-year history of the class. What followed was one of the most exciting and dramatic competitions in the history of the British leg of the series.

The Nations Cup format stands out in showjumping, which aside from championships and Olympics, usually involves individuals competing against each other. For each leg of the series, the competing countries select a squad of five riders, four of whom will make up the final team, and each of these riders must jump two rounds over a huge, technical track.

The total faults are added to create an overall team score, with the rider with the highest amount of faults from each round being the team’s discount score. Countries also select which legs they will be competing for points at, with the season’s points totalled up and determining who qualifies for the final in Barcelona each September.

At Hickstead last summer, the penultimate leg of the European Division One series, few would have guessed that the discount score from the Brits would come from former Olympic and European gold medallist Scott Brash. There was a gasp of shock from the crown when his ride Hello Shelby took aversion to the open water, eliminating them in both rounds. But his team mates weren’t about to give up, and with strong performances from the other three Brits, the host nation and Ireland were tying on eight faults at the half way stage.

It continued to be neck-and-neck between the two teams in the second round. Ireland’s first two riders, Trevor Breen (Bombay) and Richie Moloney (Freestyle De Muze) both finished on four faults while Michael Duffy and EFS Top Contender produced a magical clear. Amanda Derbyshire gave Britain a faultless round while Holly Smith and William Whitaker both knocked one fence down, so the teams were tied on 16 faults each.

Ireland’s final rider Anthony Condon would have had to jump clear to give Ireland the win, but if he faulted the two teams would have to jump off. “It was all pre-planned – we told Anthony if he knocked one down he should retire, and then he would go straight back in to the jump-off,” says team mate Trevor Breen.

When Anthony’s horse knocked the middle part of the treble, he pulled up. Both countries would have to choose a rider to represent them for one last pivotal round of showjumping to determine the winner. Having proved herself time and time again in the Longines International Arena, Holly Smith was selected to ride off against the clock for Great Britain. Riding Hearts Destiny, with whom she went on to compete at the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games in Tryon, Holly delivered a perfect clear in a fast time of 43.39sec to keep British hopes alive.

But Anthony Condon wasn’t about to give up the fight, and the Co Waterford-born rider got SFS Aristio over the line more than 2sec faster in a time of 41.29sec to give Ireland the win. “In the jump-off we had the advantage of going after Great Britain and we could see what we had to do, and Anthony did a superb job to bring it home,” said Ireland’s chef d’equipe Rodrigo Pessoa afterwards.

His team mates had been watching from the ‘kiss and cry’ viewing platform, and when they realised Ireland had won they all roared with delight. “We went in to the jump-off knowing we’d come second at worst, so Anthony went all out to win,” says Trevor. “I had great belief in him and I knew he could do it – I knew he wouldn’t knock the same fence again and he didn’t. He had a job to do, and he did it perfectly.”

Michael Duffy, who at 23 was the youngest man on the team, knew they had chosen the right man for the jump-off. “You can never think you’re over the line until you’re over the line, and the conditions were tough out there, but Anthony is a fast rider and he had a fast horse, he was Mr Cool that day,” he says.

Having the support of your team is what makes the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ series special, according to Trevor. “I’ve always loved watching the Nations Cup. From my days playing rugby, I used to love the team camaraderie, and in the Nations Cup you’ve got everyone fighting for the same side, and you can bounce ideas off others in a real team environment. Michael, Anthony and myself had been on the winning team in Lisbon a few weeks earlier and we are all good friends, so there was a great team atmosphere and we all pulled up together on the day. Chefs Michael Blake and Rodrigo Pessoa had a big influence too.”

For both Trevor and Michael, winning at Hickstead was particularly special. Trevor, whose brother Shane Breen has been based at Hickstead Place for more than a decade, lives just a few miles away from the showground, while Michael is also based locally and spent several years as stable jockey to Shane. It was also the first time either rider had been selected for the team at Hickstead. “I was on the squad for Ireland in 2013 but I was the fifth man, so it was a huge buzz for me to be selected last summer,” says Trevor. “Hickstead is a home from home for me, and to be chosen to represent my country there was amazing, but to win made it even more special.”

For Michael, being selected for the team was the realisation of a long-held ambition. “One of my favourite memories of Shane was watching him jump a crucial clear in the second round on Cos I Can in 2012 – I remember being sat at home in Ireland watching on Sky Sports, and little did I know that two years later I’d be working for him,” he says. “I’ve been based over here for six years now, and I was always the kid sitting on the sidelines watching the top boys in the Nations Cup, so to join them and even beat them was incredible.”

Michael got his Hickstead career off to a good start when winning the Science Supplements All England Grand Prix here in 2013 at the age of 18, and in 2014 he won the same title for the second year in a row. Four years later, he stood on the Nations Cup podium in the same arena where he’d had that early break through win. “It shows what a good pathway Hickstead’s National show is, that I’ve gone from winning there to competing at five-star shows in a few years,” says Michael. “I’ve had a few great opportunities over the years, and now I’m in the fortunate position of having some exceptionally good horses.”

Trevor has a remarkable record at Hickstead, having won all but one of Hickstead’s most famous classes following his Nations Cup win last summer. Now, the only class he is yet to win is the Longines King George V Gold Cup, which remains his big ambition. It surely won’t be long before Trevor has his chance to add the King George to his list, but in the meantime, the memory of Ireland’s historic fifth Nations Cup win will live on – the unforgettable day the boys in green did battle with the Brits in the pouring rain, and were crowned the kings of Hickstead.

 

Ireland on top

  • Ireland has won the Edward, Prince of Wales Trophy a total of five times. Their first win in the British Nations Cup was back in 1937, when the event was held at the White City Stadium, and the team was made up of riders from the army. The next year, Great Britain won their home leg and they repeated their win in 1939 before the competition came to a halt until 1947 because of World War II.
  • After that initial win, the boys in green then had a 63-year wait before winning again, this time at the FEI Nation Cup of Great Britain’s permanent home here at Hickstead in 2000. Ireland had been on dominant form all year, winning six legs and finishing top of the league table. That year also came down to a battle between Ireland and the host nation, though the Irish team of Cameron Hanley, Cian O'Connor, Dermott Lennon and Kevin Babington ended up victorious, especially after British rider Andrew Davies was eliminated for starting before the judge’s bell. It was an especially good show for the Irish, with Hanley also taking the Longines King George V Gold Cup.
  • The Irish then secured back-to-back wins after finishing top of the podium again in 2001. They came into the competition as firm favourites, having won team gold at the Arnhem Europeans just a month earlier. Dermott, Kevin and Cian were back on the team after their win the previous year, and they were joined by Peter Charles, who switched nationalities to ride Ireland from 1992 to 2007 before reverting to represent Great Britain.
  • The Irish team of Shane Breen, Richie Moloney, Darragh Kerins and Clem McMahon stood on the top of the podium in 2012 after beating France in a thrilling competition that went down to the final rider, with a clear round from McMahon eventually clinching victory for Ireland.
  • After winning in Hickstead last summer, Ireland went on to finish second at their home leg of the series in Dublin just a week later. At the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ Final in Barcelona, they continued their strong run to finish third overall.

 

This article was first published in July 2019. 

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