Penelope Leprevost in phenomenal LGCT Antwerp Grand Prix win

It was a phenomenal return to Europe as the Longines Global Champions Tour Grand Prix of Antwerp sparked explosive action and top show jumping as the world’s best combinations went into battle. It was leading French lady, Penelope Leprevost with her fiery chestnut mare Flora de Mariposa who stole the show following a nail-biting jump-off and taking the win at the Belgian show.

Triumphant Penelope declared her horse “just amazing” after scooping first place in the Grand Prix against a stellar field. Many of the top horses in the world had their first serious outing of the season, with Casall ASK, Flora de Mariposa and Hermes Ryan all on incredible form in their first CSI5* show and taking the podium positions.

Christian Ahlmann (GER) stretched his overall lead in the championship ahead of the next leg of the global circuit which takes place in Shanghai, China next weekend.

The spell-binding Grand Prix of Antwerp was watched by thousands of spectators and guests at the show ground next to the mighty River Scheldt where some of the top equine athletes in the world were on parade. The atmosphere in the ‘diamond city’ sparkled all evening as the impressively high calibre of sport added to the excitement of the event. Families were able to get up close with the world’s leading riders as they descended on Belgium for the 5* extravaganza of the Longines Global Champions Tour. The chilly weather did not detract from the hot competition and the heat will be turned up again tomorrow for the 3rd edition of the new Global Champions League team competition.

The first round of the Grand Prix was a big course, with designer Luc Musette setting the fences to the full 1.60m height featuring tall verticals and big oxers. Yet again, delicacy and care were the order of the class with light poles and cups allowing for easy rolls at the lightest touch, and clears were slow to come in the early draw. Lauren Hough (USA) and Ohlala were the first to go, and the first to jump clear following an impressive opening round.

Of the 45 starters, 18 went through to the next round, with 14 in total jumping clear, and four more in on one fault or four. Keeping the challenge consistent for the high calibre field, the second round threw forward many questions for the world’s top combinations. Amongst the names who made it through were Ludger Beerbaum (GER) and his grey mare Chiara, Kevin Staut (FRA) with Reveur de Hurtebise H D C, Eric Lamaze (CAN) with Chacco Kid, and Pius Schwizer (SUI) with Ailina. Belgium’s Nicola Philippaerts (BEL) was the top home rider, through on four faults with his horse, Bisquet Balou C.

An unusual refusal from Harrie Smolders’ (NED) Emerald N.O.P. meant he would drop down the field, much to the crowd’s disappointment, and as the riders took their turn it became clear that the bar had been raised to lay the foundations for an exhilarating jump-off. Many fell short of the double clear, collecting four faults, including LGCT Ranking leader and World Number 2 Christian Ahlmann (GER) and Codex One who just caught a pole in the final segment of the course. John Whitaker (GBR) and Echo of Light, who had looked so strong throughout agonisingly had the final fence down, with John shaking his head as he exited the arena.

Rolf-Goran Bengtsson (SWE) and the phenomenal Casall ASK were next to go; the pair have won six diverse LGCT Grand Prix in their career so far, and looked to be on incredible form under the floodlights tonight. Showcasing a partnership that will go down in history as one of the strongest in the sport, Rolf and Casall exuded style and class as they took the second round in their stride, earning themselves a place for the final round.

A total of five went through to the jump-off. First to go was Penelope Leprovost (FRA), who look determined from the outset and showcased clear intentions of setting the pace for the final phase of the Grand Prix. She and Flora rode an incredibly feisty round, with the little chestnut mare jumping her heart out for the leading French rider, galloping to the last in a display of agility and skill. Next up was Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum (GER) and her big striding horse, Unbelievable. Despite their valiant efforts, they were three seconds off Penelope’s time and unable to do more.

Rolf and Casall returned to the arena, knowing they had everything to do to beat the fantastic pairing of Penelope and Flora. The experienced combination gave it their all, but took less risks and crossed the line in 34.59s. Next came Lauren Hough (USA) and Ohlala – another speedy combination – however a pole down meant they wouldn’t make the podium this time.

Last to go was World Number 1, and former LGCT Grand Prix of Antwerp winner, Simon Delestre with Ryan. The pair were fast, with the audience spell bound until the last fence where whoops and cheers rang out as they crossed the line. Despite the impressive performance, the French rider finished in 33.74s, just tenths of a second from his compatriot Penelope.

It was a sensational third round of the 2016 Longines Global Champions Tour season, with ranking leader Christian Ahlmann (GER) maintaining his lead and now currently sitting on 97 points. John Whitaker (GBR) remains in second place on 85 points, with Emanuele Gaudiano (ITA) shooting up the ranking to take third with 65 points.

Jan Tops, Founder and President Longines Global Champions Tour: “I think it was an amazing class, especially with this quality of riders and horses – you rarely see that. I have to congratulate our course builder; courses like that are very important for our horses as every week we have a big show. Today you saw the best three horses on the podium, and with courses like that we can jump every week. It’s very important.

“The man here beside us {Christian Ahlmann} is in great form. I’ve seen in the last few weeks every time he’s on the podium, so congratulations to Christian. It’s good to see. We had two great events for the start of the season. The weather was a little colder, but I think the circumstances were fantastic for the horses. As a sport we couldn’t wish for better.

“Some of the other horses have already arrived safely in China, and next week will be a great event in a special location. It is different, with new public, new fans and then we return to Europe and Hamburg. This season is going to be very exciting.”

Christian Ahlmann, ranking leader: “I’m very happy to be the leader, but it’s only three shows down and we have another twelve to go. As everyone could see, every class is very good sport – it’s hard to win so it’s a long way to go but I want to try keep it! I’m in the lucky position that I have four or five horses at this level. Codex did his first show after a longer break following Doha, so he’s really fresh. Then I have Taloubet who’s having a break now and will come back in four to six weeks. It’s a strong group, but it’s what you need for this kind of show and season. We’ll hope to keep it like it is, and then we’re competitive every week.”

Penelope Leprevost, gold medallist: “My mare is very fast. For Flora it was the first big show since Geneva, I’m happy with my plan as she had a three star show before. She was just amazing today.”

Simon Delestre, silver medallist: “I have won three times here, but today Penelope was really really fast, and we had a fantastic jump-off. On the vertical after the combination I preferred to do eight, as seven was really risky for me, so she was faster today. I’m really happy with Ryan – it was the first 5* since Geneva so to do three rounds like he did today was fantastic. I have to say well done to Luc {the course designer} who did a great job for the horses and riders today; five double clear and a fantastic jump off.”

Rolf-Göran Bengtsson, bronze medallist: “[Casall] is really a fantastic horse, every year he gets better and better. He’s done it again. It was a fantastic jump-off here today, and I’m really happy with my third place here today. I came around after the first fence, I went around the outside of the fence instead and looking back I should have come inside it, and there lost time. My horse has a bigger canter and is not as quick, so had to wait for my five strides before going as fast as I could. It’s great to have Casall back on the Global Champions Tour.”

Photo: LGCT / Stefano Grasso