POSTPONED for a year due to Covid-19, the Tokyo Olympic Games finally got the go-ahead and there were plenty of positives to take from a Games that had mixed fortunes across the board for Irish equestrianism.

None more positive than Cian O’Connor’s seventh place finish with the Irish Sport Horse Kilkenny; and it is very important that we don’t allow the disappointment of the team competition overshadow that.

Sending two Irish Sport Horses to the Olympic Games for the Irish show jumping team is a wonderful achievement. Both Sue Magnier’s Kilkenny (Cardento x Guidam, bred by Sinead Brennan) and Aiden McGrory’s Pacino Amiro (Pacino x NC Amiro, bred by Simon Scott), ridden by Bertram Allen, jumped phenomenal on the first day, as did Darragh Kenny with Heathman Farm’s VDL Cartello, to all make it through to the individual final.

O’Connor once again jumped an incredible round in the final and was clear over the jumps, just finishing with a single time fault which kept him out of the jump-off and in seventh place. The placing came nine years after the three-time Olympian won bronze in London with Blue Lloyd.

The rise to Olympic level was quick for Kilkenny, who O’Connor purchased late in 2020. The pair shone at the Winter Equestrian Festival early in 2021 with results that included third in a five-star Grand Prix, which brought them to the attention of Michael Blake, whose faith they repaid in Tokyo.

“I couldn’t be happier with him. To finish seventh at the Olympic Games with such a young and inexperienced horse, I’m very happy,” O’Connor said afterwards.

Bertram Allen was 15th with Pacino Amiro and Darragh Kenny finished 17th. Both riders were making their Olympic debut and picked up eight faults in the final.

Gold for Explosion W

Hot favourite Ben Maher won the individual gold medal in spectacular style with Explosion W. The four-time Olympian added the gold to his team gold medal from London 2012 and it was Britain’s second individual gold medal in-a-row following Nick Skelton’s 2016 Rio title.

Britain's Ben Maher won the individual gold with Explosion W at the Tokyo Olympic Games \ Tomas Holcbecher

Just as he was five years ago in Rio, Sweden’s Peder Fredricson was beaten by a Briton into the silver medal position with All In. The 15-year-old Kashmir van Schuttershof gelding became the first horse in almost 100 years to win two individual jumping medals. Bronze went to The Netherlands’ Maikel van der Vleuten, who has a silver team medal from London, with Beauville Z.

“It doesn’t seem real. I think it will sink in tonight or tomorrow when I wake up. It’s been a lot of pressure the last couple of weeks. I may be biased but I believe I am on the best horse, he’s incredible and I’m very fortunate to be able to ride him,” Maher said.

Team disappointment

Towards the end of his individual round, O’Connor’s Kilkenny sustained a nose bleed which then ruled him out of the team competition and he was replaced by Shane Sweetnam, also making his debut at an Olympic Games, with a last minute horse change in Alejandro, winner of a five-star Grand Prix earlier in the year.

First to go in the team qualifier for Ireland, it sadly unravelled for Sweetnam when, after losing a shoe early in the course, the gelding got a fright and after hitting a number of fences, fell at fence nine. Afterwards, the team vet reported the horse was stiff and sore and would not be able to continue in the final should the team qualify. Bertram Allen and Darragh Kenny were then withdrawn from the competition in what was a disappointing end after a fabulous start.

At the end of a great team final, it was Sweden who won gold after a thrilling jump-off against the USA. It was just reward for the team of Peder Fredricson, Malin Baryard-Johnsson and Henrick von Eckermann following a week of almost flawless jumping, knocking just two poles in total over 18 rounds.

It was 97 years since Sweden last won team gold at the Paris Games in 1924; they also won gold in Stockholm in 1912 and in Antwerp in 1920. The USA team of Jessica Springsteen, Laura Kraut and McLain Ward had to settle for silver while Belgium’s team of Pieter Devos, Jerome Guery and Gregory Wathelet claimed bronze. Von Eckermann’s King Edward became only the third horse in history to keep every rail intact at an Olympic Games.

Read all the international show jumping reviews of the year here.