TEAM Austria had plenty to celebrate after their superb victory in the first leg of the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ 2023 series in Abu Dhabi (UAE) on Sunday. In a third-round head-to-head against Great Britain’s Joe Whitaker, it was Austrian pathfinder Christoph Obernauer who clinched it with a brilliant ride on the 10-year-old gelding Kleons Renegade.

Ireland finished third on 16 faults and the next two teams, Saudi Arabia and the hosts from the United Arab Emirates, took the two Middle East qualifying spots on offer for the series finale in Barcelona (ESP) later in the year when lining up in fourth and fifth places respectively, while Syria finished last of the six competing countries.

The 12-fence track set by Italian course designer Uliano Vezzani proved testing, and there were only five clears in the first round. When Austria and Great Britain produced two each of these then they were already on level pegging at the halfway stage, carrying just four faults apiece going into round two.

Obernauer had a single mistake first time out but was foot-perfect at his second attempt. However team-mate and chef d’equipe, Gerfried Puck, followed his opening clear with a pole down at the penultimate triple combination with the 10-year-old stallion Equitron Naxcel V before Katharina Rhomberg and the bold but brilliant Cuma posted their second clear of the day to pull it right back. Despite a big score from the last-line combination of Bianca Babanitz and Caipidor, the Austrians were now firmly established on an eight-fault two-round tally, and when the British matched that it would come down to a jump-off to decide the result.

Di Lampard’s British side got off to an unsteady start when pathfinder Will Funnell racked up 18 faults during his first effort with the home-bred Equine America Billy Picador, but clears from Tim Gredley (Medoc de Toxandria) and Joe Whitaker (Hulahupe JR) meant that only Donald Whitaker’s four faults with the 10-year-old mare Millfield Colette had to be counted at the halfway point.

And when Funnell made a brilliant recovery with a clear second time out and Donald Whitaker followed suit, then they only had to add one of the four-fault results from Gredley and Joe Whitaker to force a jump-off with the Austrians.

First to go against the clock, Obernauer was a man on a mission, setting off with a determined run that brought him home through the timers in 33.68 seconds. Joe Whitaker was already down on the clock when hitting the final planks when following him into the ring, the clock showing 34.69 seconds despite a really game run from his handsome 11-year-old chesnut stallion Hulahupe JR as he crossed the line.

Third place

Horse Sport Ireland High Performance Manager Michael Blake said: “It’s great to get a podium start to the 2023 season, but of course we would have liked to do better. There is a huge amount of potential with some great new and upcoming combinations. There was a lot of consistency across the team with no combination having more than four faults.

“There is always room for some improvement, a couple of small mistakes cost us from getting more clear rounds. Jessica [Burke] did very well to jump clear in the first round, and likewise Michael [Duffy] jumped a very good clear in the second round. Congratulations to Austria on winning the Nations Cup.”

Galway native Jessica Burke secured Ireland’s only clear round in the first round. Riding Nikki HH, the 10-year-old bay mare, owned by Liam Nicholas, this was Burke’s five-star Nations Cup debut.

Michael Duffy, Shane Breen and Trevor Breen all competed their opening round on a score of four faults, leaving Ireland in third place on a score of eight faults going into the second round.

Michael Duffy got Ireland off to a strong start in the second round, jumping clear with Cinca 3. Burke completed her second round on a score of four faults, as did Shane Breen. Trevor Breen withdrew Germaine W and did not jump in the second round.

The next competition in the Nations Cup series will take place at San Miguel de Allende, Mexico in April.