IF nothing else went to plan all year, winning the Aga Khan trophy on Friday at the Dublin Horse Show makes it a good year for Irish show jumping.
However, in 2022, so much went right for Michael Blake’s team and indeed for individual riders too. Five Nations Cup wins over three continents, 12 five-star Grand Prix wins and qualification for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, plus multiple wins at every level of the sport, including an all Irish medal podium at the FEI Pony European Champaionships, marked an exceptional season with hardly a minute to catch your breath.
Blake used 29 riders on teams over the season and it didn’t take long to get a first victory on the board when winning the first of 10 legs of the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup Series in Abu Dhabi back in January.
It took six clear rounds to win that competition and there were double clears from David Simpson (Foudre F) and Jack Ryan (BBS McGregor) who was making his first start at five-star level and second on a senior team. Shane Breen (Z7 Ipswich) and Trevor Breen (Highland President) both delivered a clear to help get the year off to the perfect start.
Fast forward to March and Ireland were winning again, this time in the four-star Nations Cup of Wellington, Florida; it was the fourth Irish win in the 21-year history of the class. The then 18-year-old Max Wachman made his senior debut that day aboard Berlux Z and produced a brilliant double clear; a sign of what was to come later in the season for him.
Wachman was joined by Eoin McMahon with Chakra 9 (0/1), Andrew Bourns and Sea TopBlue (0/4) and Cian O’Connor with Cerruti Van Ter Hulst Z who had an off day when eliminated.
Taylor Vard took the helm for the three-star Nations Cup in Lisbon, Portugal, where two riders were making their senior debut. The experienced Richard Howley, who was double clear with Consulent de Prelet, and Jenny Rankin (Carmela Z), who has been on winning teams in the past, were joined by debutants Jessica Burke (Namamia) and Kevin Gallagher (Ballypatrick Flamenco). Both jumped one clear round to help Ireland hold on, while Rankin’s second-round clear under pressure clinched the victory.
In early June, a veteran team of Daniel Coyle (Legacy), Shane Sweetnam (CSF James Kann Cruz), Andrew Bourns (Sea Topblue) and Conor Swail (Count Me In) topped the five-star podium in Langley, Canada.
The two Irish Sport Horses on the team – Sea Topblue and CSF James Kann Cruz – impressed. Bourns was one of just two double clears on the day, while Sweetnam picked up a single time fault and the world began to take notice of the grey gelding who was produced in Ireland.
Andrew bourns, Daniel Coyle, Michael Blake, Shane Sweetnam and Conor Swail were the winning Nations Cup team in Langley, Canada \ FEI/ MACKENZIE CLARK
Aga Khan glory
The final, and undoubtedly the highlight of the entire year, was the win at the Dublin Horse Show in August, back on the calendar after two years of Covid-19 cancellations. The thrilling competition came right down to the wire with a jump-off against the in-form French, ended in Ireland lifting the trophy for the 24th time in the history of the competition.
For Blake, it was his first chance to lead the team as chef d’equipe and he picked the team of Cian O’Connor (Kilkenny) who was double clear, Shane Sweetnam and CSF James Kann Cruz (0/4), Max Wachman with Berlux (4/4) and Conor Swail who jumped three clear rounds – one against the clock.
“The win in Dublin of the Aga Khan and in the manner in which the competition evolved in front of such an amazing crowd cannot be topped,” Blake told The Irish Field when reflecting on the year.
Getting Olympic qualification in the bag the week before was the icing on the cake on an incredible year, but being just six hundredths of a second away from the bronze medal was a disappointment. Blake added:
“Olympic qualification on the first attempt was really special but to miss out on a medal by six hundredths of a second was hard to take.”
The feat of Olympic qualification and an Aga Khan win in one week took meticulous planning, a trait that Blake has in spades. He sent O’Connor (C Vier 2), Bertram Allen (Pacino Amiro), Denis Lynch (Brooklyn Heights) and Daniel Coyle (Legacy) to get the job done in Herning and had it not been for a rail here and there, the colour would have been better than bronze.
Strength and depth
“To win Nations Cups on many different continents shows the amazing depth we have as a nation. The FEI Nations Cup Series starts off from Abu Dhabi to Dublin and to have won both in the same year is a great achievement for our riders. Irish riders are really dedicated to the Nations Cup series and this makes the job much easier. It is also really great to see young new combinations evolving,” Blake said, reflecting on the year.
Looking forward to 2023, what will the game plan be, with the ultimate goal being a medal in Paris? “It is great to have Olympic qualification secured but now the task of developing combinations to win at top level has started. We have the European Championships in late August and championships are different to normal Nations Cups, it takes a special combination to deliver on these occasions.
“We have to use our Nations Cups to develop combinations in a pressure environment so as to have as many choices as possible going forward. We have to be able to target specific events and delivery on those days; this is something we are getting better at it is really important to prioritise our events.
“All in all, 2022 was a very successful year; of course a few got away and that was disappointing. It was great to see more national television coverage of the Nations Cups, this will improve the popularity of the sport. I would like to thank everyone who helped to make our year so successful.
“The owners who make the horses available to us deserve such credit, as do the support staff of the riders. It takes a village we have a great High Performance Committee and our vet Marcus Swail is second to none. Thanks to HSI for supporting us and having confidence in us to deliver.”
2022 in numbers
24th - time Ireland won the Aga Khan at the Dublin Horse Show
12 - Irish five-star Grand Prix wins
5 - Conor Swail’s ranking
6 - Medals won at the Pony European Championships by Irish riders in one week
2 - Gold medals in Lanakan for Irish Sport Horses
600th - Of a second that Ireland missed the team bronze medal at the World Championships