FOR the third time in history and the second year in-a-row, Ireland have won the Wellington Nations Cup in Florida, USA, after a commanding performance in the early hours of Saturday morning.
A magnificent team display from Shane Sweetnam, Paul O'Shea, Conor Swail and Cian O'Connor, saw Ireland, under the guidance of team manager Michael Blake, win for the second time in two weeks on American soil after they had also came out on top in the Ocala Nations Cup a fortnight earlier.
At the finish, it was a convincing win for the Irish who completed the two round contest on a total of just four faults. Just as they did in Ocala, their American hosts had to settle for runner-up spot on a 13-fault total, while Brazil took third spot on the podium on 16, with Venezuela fourth, Britain fifth and Canada sixth of eight teams that took part.
First to go in the opening round, Cork's Shane Sweetnam and Chaqui Z jumped clear with just one time fault. Limerick's Paul O’Shea (Skara Glen’s Machu Picchu), Co Down's Conor Swail (Rubens LS La Silla) and Meath-based Cian O’Connor (Seringat) then all jumped clear, to leave tied for the lead with Brazil after the first round on a zero score. At that stage, it already looked a three-way battle, with the USA on five faults the only other nation within touching distance of Ireland and Brazil.
The second round saw Sweetnam and Spy Coast Farm's Chaqui Z come home with just a single rail down, before O'Shea completed a superb double clear performance with Skara Glen’s Machu Picchu, who is owned by Skara Glen Stables, Whipstick Farm, P. Hurter & P. Agnew. Conor Swail and the Vanessa Mannix-owned Rubens LS La Silla then finished with one fence down, and as the final line riders prepared to enter the arena, Ireland, Brazil and USA all still had a shot at victory.
An eight-fault score from America's last rider Georgina Bloomberg ended their chances of a home win, before Cian O'Connor entered the ring as last to go for the Irish with the Ronocco Jump-owned Seringat. Just as he did in Ocala a few weeks before, O'Connor kept his cool to complete his double clear performance and leave Ireland on an unbeatable total of just four faults. Brazil's Eduardo Menzes lowered two poles with Quintol when last to jump, dropping them below the Americans and into third.
Irish team manager Michael Blake said: "We came here to win, and we went to Ocala to win. It is very easy to win with these guys because they are really good. Basically, if you have a bit of a plan and tell them in time where they are going, they are going to turn up. That is what they did on both occasions. People asked why I changed the winning team from Ocala (switching out Kevin Babington and Richie Moloney). I changed because I was looking at Paul and Conor, and I think their form is fantastic. I did not think they were quite ready in time for Ocala, but I knew they would be ready now, and they were fantastic."
It was Sweetnam's 10th straight year competing on the Irish team in Nations' Cup at Wellington, and he spoke of Blake's strategy for the team.
"Michael made a good plan and talked to all of the riders that were here in Wellington. Obviously Cian and I were lucky enough to be on both teams that won, but Kevin and Richie were also here in the practice ring tonight helping out. The team spirit is fantastic. I have to give it to Michael; it is just amazing."
O'Shea jumped double clear on Friday night with Skara Glen's Machu Picchu, a ten-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Silverstone x Matterhorn), and was happy with his first time on the team in Wellington.
"Nothing really fazes him, so I was not worried. He has such a good mind. He is a very straightforward horse, very easy, and very adjustable."
Swail put in a faultless first round and dropped one rail in round two with the 11-year-old Mexican Sport Horse stallion Rubens LS La Silla (Rebozo LS La Silla x Cash). He remarked: "The horse jumped very well tonight. He is a new horse to me this year. He is a wonderful horse, and a great prospect for the future, and for the Irish team. Ireland has won here now three times, and thankfully I have been on all three teams. It has been a good record for me. We all mucked in, and dug in the trenches there, and I think we all did a great job tonight."
O'Connor anchored his team with double clear rounds for the second Nations' Cup in-a-row with Seringat, an 11-year-old Selle Francais gelding (Chef Rouge x Guillaume Tell).
"He had a rest since Ocala. Obviously it is a very different atmosphere here. Ocala was very warm, and it was during the day. I found this a little bit harder because the horse was lit up and on his toes, especially coming down the last line. I had to use all my strength to pull him off the combination, but he is very careful. He knows where his legs are, and he knows to get them out of the way, so I am very happy. It is great to win, and it was a fantastic team effort."
The American runner-up finish included and excellent clear round from Chloe Reid riding the Irish Sport Horse stallion Codarco, with whom she has been competing for the past two years, while the Irish Sport Horse mare Luibanta BH also made her Nations Cup debut on the British team with Amanda Derbyshire.
Codarco (ISH) – 2007 bay stallion by Darco (BWP) out of Vereedom G (KWPN), by Orame (KWPN). Breeder: Thomas O’Brien, Co. Galway. Owner: Chloe D Reid LLC. Rider: Chloe Reid (USA)
Luibanta BH (ISH) – 2008 mare by Luidam (KWPN) out of Mabanta (KWPN), by Abantos (KWPN). Breeder: Justin Burke, Co. Galway. Owner: David Gochman. Rider: Amanda Derbyshire (GBR)