Against all the odds, Ireland’s first-ever Dressage team earned an Olympic qualifying spot when finishing seventh at the FEI European Championships in Rotterdam, The Netherlands yesterday where Germany claimed the team title for the 24th time.
And it was a spectacular last-to-go performance from Judy Reynolds and her brilliant 17-year-old gelding Vancouver K that clinched it.
Irish backs were against the wall when Anna Merveldt didn’t get the ride she was hoping for from her young stallion, Esporim, earlier yesterday. The pair are a relatively new partnership, only together since the beginning of the year, but the double-Olympian has been producing impressive results in the lead-up to these Championships.
Yesterday however her 10-year-old horse experienced stage-fright during his test, and his mark of 67.717 was below what was expected. “I think he was slightly overwhelmed by the situation” the disappointed rider said afterwards.
It was always going to be a tough ask for this pioneering Irish side, the relatively inexperienced Kate Dwyer posting 66.180 when first to go on Monday with Snowdon Faberge who, being part Welsh cob, doesn’t have the kind of pedigree normally found in this sport but who showed serious potential when posting 66.180.
Drama ensued later in the day however when second-line rider Heike Holstein took a crashing fall from a bicycle just over an hour before her test. However even though her warm-up was curtailed because she was taken to the onsite medical centre, she produced a great ride for a mark of 69.472 with her talented home-bred mare Sambuca.
By the time Reynolds set off yesterday with Vancouver K she had no option but to come up with a score of at least 73.00 to keep Ireland in the Olympic qualifying zone. There were nine countries chasing down the three spots on offer, and Portugal and France were breathing hard down Irish necks.
But the diminutive Kildare native, 23rd in the world rankings, has always been a gritty character. And as she set off with her horse-of-a-lifetime who has taken her to two World Championships, the Olympic Games in Rio and into fourth place at the World Cup Final in Omaha (USA) in 2017, the two of them had their game-faces on.
With the best Grand Prix test of their entire career together they earned 76.351 and set yet another Irish record.
“It takes the pressure off for the rest of the year, which is great given that I have a 17-year-old horse. He’s fit, he’s rearing to go, but you still want to manage him and give him the best shot for next year”, she said. Finishing individually equal-10th she makes the cut into tomorrow’s Grand Prix Special.
Yesterday’s result has really put it up to the Irish showjumpers who have failed to qualify for Tokyo so far and who are also hunting one of three Tokyo tickets on offer in Rotterdam this week. “I just met Michael Blake (Assistant Jumping Chef d’Equipe) and I told him to go down to the jumping stables and tell them to get their sh.. together – then we can have three teams in Tokyo!” said Reynolds.
Ireland’s eventers earned Olympic qualification when scooping silver at last year’s World Equestrian Games.