IRELAND’S pony eventing riders dominated the European Championships in Fontainebleau, France last weekend, claiming team gold along with individual gold and bronze.

It is the first time that Ireland has led after dressage, and the win provided some compensation for chef d’equipe Sue Shortt, whose squad was denied by one-tenth of a penalty 12 months ago.

Ana O’Brien and the ever-competitive Ice Cool Bailey led the way for the Irish, sitting in second after dressage on 41.9 penalties. They remained in that position going into Sunday’s jumping after putting in a clear round across the challenging cross-country phase.

Galway native Cathal Daniels posted a dressage score of 45.2 to sit in fourth before the cross-country phase. Going clear, and inside the time, on the 16-year-old Irish-bred Master Murrose, he moved up one place to third.

The Irish team held a narrow advantage after dressage, with Gavin Smiddy (Mr Hale Bob) and Lucy Latta (Nono) both posting sub-50 marks to sit in seventh and 13th respectively. The British were the nearest challengers, followed by Germany.

Benoit Marchand’s cross-country course caused a number of problems, with the Germans dropping right out of contention when two of their riders were eliminated. Like Daniels and O’Brien, Latta remained clear.

Going into the final phase, Germany’s Leoni Leuwer (Camissa Nera) led on her dressage score of 40.6, followed closely by O’Brien and Daniels. The latter kept the pressure on when delivering another clear, while eight faults for O’Brien proved costly as she dropped behind her teammate.

When Leuwer added 12 faults to her total to drop to fifth, Daniels secured the gold, while Britain’s Louisa Nesbitt, riding Carrowmore Gemstone, loved up to the silver medal position. O’Brien claimed bronze.

The Irish had enough in hand to take the team gold, with the British taking second. The Dutch improved their placing after the final two phases to take team bronze.

Shortt’s delight

Chef d’equipe Sue Shortt said: “I knew in the last few weeks that we had the best team Ireland had ever fielded at the European Championships, and their performance was fantastic. I’m delighted for the kids; they deserved everything they won today.

“This is the first time an Irish team has ever led the field after dressage, and we owe that to our dressage coach, Sue Smallman, who turned the riders inside out in the months leading up to this. Also, Tom Slattery was magnificent helping us with the jumping phase, and I do believe without the wonderful services of our vet, Con Kennedy, we wouldn’t be on the podium today.”

Horse Sport Ireland chairman, Joe Walsh, congratulated the team, saying: “This is a brilliant achievement.”

Punchestown Festival extends to five days


THE Irish National Hunt Festival at Punchestown will take in a fifth day for the first time in 2008.

The extension to the popular April fixture was confirmed this week, along with an outline of the expected race programme. Though the Festival has traditionally been staged from Tuesday to Friday, Punchestown has hosted a low-key meeting on the Saturday in recent seasons, but the closing day card will be much stronger next year.

A two and a half-mile, €220,000 handicap hurdle will be the feature of the final day of the 2008 Festival, while the charity race will be transferred from Friday to Saturday, the final day of the National Hunt season. Prizemoney for the meeting will increase to approximately €2.8 million, with at least two Grade 1 races staged each day.

Since the Festival was extended to four days in 1999, attendance has continued to grow and last year reached an overall record high of 90,868, with a massive crowd of 32,883 turning up on the last day. It is understood that the surge in numbers attending the Friday of the Festival prompted the addition of an extra day, in a bid to avoid overcrowding.

The Punchestown Festival is already Ireland’s biggest hospitality event, attracting 25,000 corporate guests. Dick O’Sullivan, general manager of Punchestown, said: “There was no better time than now to make the change. We didn’t agonise over the decision. We have two or three sponsors lined up already, which is great, but we’re still searching for a big sponsor to bring a large following with them.”

Hawk Wing off to a flyer with Triskel


DECIDING what to buy somebody for a wedding present can be difficult. Last year Liam O’Toole bought his wife, Bairbre, a horse.

The filly, Triskel, who comes from the first crop of star miler Hawk Wing (By Woodman), cost €85,000 at the Goffs Million sale. It was quite a present. Now, some 10 months on, the filly is certainly worth a good deal more than she cost.

She may prove to be a considerable bargain as, having won the Listed Silver Flash Stakes at Leopardstown recently, she is now a serious contender for both the Group 1 Moyglare Stud Stakes and, of course, the Parknasilla Hotel Goffs Fillies Million.

[Triskel in fact made just one more start, finishing down the field in the Group 2 Debutante Stakes. She sold as a four-year-old, in foal to Rock Of Gibraltar, for 62,000gns. She is the dam of two minor winners, most recently I’m Mable (Cable Bay), a three-time winner, including this year]

Meade leads the way at Ballybrit


NORMALLY a drop of £153,994 in the Totalisator aggregate over four days of racing, or £38,500 per meeting, would be considered a near disaster, but at Galway it seemed only a slight imperfection on the sun-drenched scene.

I am confident that what was lost on the Totalisator was more than recouped by the bookmakers, so the coffers will be as full as ever. Up to and including Thursday, the layers were having the better of matters, with only six winning favourites.

Noel Meade was the man of the meeting with five successes, including the two major wins for Pinch Hitter, a double by Welshwood and Steel Duke, and most likely more to follow.

Stephen Craine seems certain to end up with £400 as the leading rider on the flat, but the top National Hunt jockey is not yet decided.

The attendance on the opening evening was over 1,000 down on the previous year, but still of a size that would make most executives’ mouths water. On a race-for-race basis, the aggregate was almost exactly the same as last season, but therefore down in real terms.

Highlights of the night were a repeat win in the featured McDonagh Handicap for Pinch Hitter, and a double for Dermot Weld.

Considering the one-day bus and rail strike, there was a surprisingly large attendance present on Wednesday for the running of the O’Malley Construction Galway Plate. At 11 years of age, the oldest horse in the field, The Lady’s Master, won out against all the odds.

Unable to win this event when in his prime, the old fellow had been point-to-pointing earlier this years, but did score on his outing on the racetrack. Some years ago he won the big amateur handicap. Now owned and trained privately by Matt Duggan, he seems to have gained a new lease of life.

Bolger is grateful after fire


JIM Bolger wishes to thank most sincerely all those people who helped in any way during the recent fire at Lohunda Park, especially those of his own staff and neighbours who risked their lives in getting the horses to safety.

He also wishes to thank and compliment the fire officers and Gardaí on the efficient manner in which they quenched the fire and directed operations. Thanks is also extended to all those people who offered stabling, hay and straw, especially Christy and Michael Grassick.