IRISH eyes were smiling in Wellington, Florida last Saturday when Michael Blake’s team of Andrew Bourns, Cian O’Connor, Eoin McMahon, and Max Wachman claimed the four-star $150,000 Nations Cup for the fourth time in the 21-year history of the class.

It was the second Nations Cup win of the season so far for Ireland following victory in Abu Dhabi in January.

Saturday night was the highlight of week eight at the Winter Equestrian Festival and the excitement was palpable for the second round under the lights at the venue where the Irish fans always make their presence heard.

Chef d’equipe Michael Blake was proud of his team, commenting: “I like giving opportunities to people that I think deserve them. We did our job very, very well tonight, and I’m delighted with the boys. Max is 18 years of age, and it was a phenomenal effort from him. Even though Eoin is not a whole lot older, he’s also a veteran.

“Andrew has been in the States for quite a while, and needed his shot. He rode very well. I thought he was a little unlucky to have the last fence down. And Cian has always been an amazing, amazing rider for team Ireland. He has been on so many Nations Cups teams and has pulled us out of a hole so often. I’m very proud of all of my team.”

Eleven nations lined out in the competition and just eight returned for the second round on Saturday evening. Heading into round two, Ireland was tied with Canada on zero faults after three clear rounds from McMahon and Beerbaum Stables’ Chakra 9, 18-year-old Wachman and Berlux Z, owned by Coolmore Showjumping, and Bourns on the Irish Sport Horse Sea Topblue, owned by QBS Equestrian LLC. With three clear rounds, O’Connor did not have to compete with Cerruti Van Ter Hulst Z, owned by Ronnoco Jump Ltd.

The group was tightly bunched with Britain, Australia and Mexico just one fence behind on four faults. However, when it came to jumping the second round under the lights, fortunes changed dramatically and fences fell all around the track.

Ireland held strong and a phenomenal double clear from the youngest rider in the whole competition, Max Wachman, helped guide them to victory.

Pathfinder McMahon and 12-year-old mare Chakra 9 had just one time fault to get the team started in round two, before Wachman returned with a brilliant double clear, one of only five in the class, on just his third senior Nations Cup start with the 11-year-old gelding Berlux Z who was at last summer’s Tokyo Olympic Games under Frenchman Simon Delestre.

Riding in the third spot, Galway’s Andrew Bourns and Sea Topblue were coming off a strong WEF circuit, having won the four-star Grand Prix during week three. The 11-year-old gelding by Chacco-Blue, bred by John and James Meade, was unlucky to knock the last fence for four faults.

In an unusual turn of events, Cian O’Connor was eliminated when his 12-year-old mare Cerruti Van Ter Hulst Z took a disliking to the wall at fence four. Despite not having a drop score, a final score five faults was good enough to see Ireland win comfortably ahead of Canada in second on 12 faults and the USA in third, also on 12 faults.

With 38 Irish riders to choose from competing at the Winter Equestrian Festival, Blake sat in an enviable position with a wealth of choices for his team. He chose horses and riders with solid recent results but also team members where horses or riders had less experience.

“We have incredible depth,” said Blake. “It is hard to give everyone a chance but we do as many Nations Cup as we can and try to give everyone a chance. We use up to 30 riders a year and you have got to do that. It is not a closed shop, if your horse can jump you will be on.”

Asked about a team of four versus a team of three, he added: “As it so happens, a team of three would have worked for us tonight and same when we won in Abu Dhabi a few weeks ago. But I am a fan of a team of four, I really am. I don’t think it is a compicated sport, it is easy to know you have a drop score, it is better for everything. For me, it is always four.”

Along with Wachman, other double clear performances came from Lillie Keenan (USA) and Argan de Beliard, owned by Equivarandas, LDA., Eugenio Garza (MEX) on El Milagro’s Contago, Lauren Balcomb (AUS) riding her own Verdini d’Houtveld Z, and Tiffany Foster (CAN) on Figor, owned by Artisan Farms, LLC.

After Sunday’s Grand Prix, the Niall Grimes “Cheers” Perpetual Trophy, given to the top Irish rider during the CSIO week at WEF, was presented to Michael Blake as all four of his Nations Cup riders tied for the honour.

What they said...

Eoin McMahon: “Coming here, it was my plan to jump Chakra in the Nations Cup, so we planned our weeks up to tonight. She’s been a very good horse for me. Even though she’s 12, she’s not that experienced. She jumped fantastic in the first round, and she jumped great in the second round as well. I was a bit too slow; that was a rider error. I was very happy that it didn’t cost us tonight. It’s always a real privilege to be able to jump for Ireland. I’m very grateful for Michael selecting me.”

Max Wachman: “I’m delighted, and it’s a great feeling to win. My horse [Berlux Z] is very good. He’s been able to bring me to bigger levels, because he’s quite experienced and he’s not green. I’m very grateful to be riding him. It’s special to be on a winning team with [my trainer] Cian. All the lads are great.”

Andrew Bourns: “I was very happy with Sea Topblue tonight. This is his first Nations Cup. I was a little worried he might come out in the second round and think it was a jump-off. But, after the second or third fence, I realized that I was right on the money with him. I’m very grateful, bringing a horse that hasn’t jumped in a Nations Cup before, to be on a team like this and to be given a chance to develop a horse in an atmosphere like this. To watch the likes of Max and Eoin go in and do so well is a very proud night. I think it was a good plan and well executed in the end.”

Cian O’Connor: “Cerruti has been going quite well, she came in here with good form. I just haven’t showed her the last couple of weeks. I wanted to let her freshen up. She just seemed a little more on her toes tonight. She took a serious dislike to the wall as soon as I turned the first time. I felt it, but she dug her heels in. But listen, that’s horses. We’ll regroup and school the wall probably and build her back up. She’ll be back to fight another day.”

Michael Blake: “I am a fan of a team of four, I really am. I don’t think it is a compicated sport, it is easy to know you have a drop score, it is better for everything. For me, it is always four.”

Under 25 win for Wachman

MAX Wachman put in a brilliant performance to win Thursday’s FEI $10,000 under 25 Welcome class. Riding Quintini, he delivered a clear in a time of 63.21 to beat 65 other combinations. In fourth place was Francis Derwin and Scarlett Du Sart Z, who also maintained a clean sheet but in a slower time of 67.91.

Later in the day, Gavin Harley and Kavalli Di Magigo slotted into sixth place in the $25,000 ProElite Jumper Classic, when they finished as the fastest of the four-faulters in 38.49.

Irish riders also featured in the $37,000 1.50m class with Jonathan Corrigan claiming seventh place with Fair Play, clear in 76.4, ahead of Stephen Moore and Conner in eighth.