“THAT was some performance,” said Michael Blake after the Intesa Sanpaolo Nations Cup at the CSIO5* Rome on Friday evening. His team won the competition for the first time in its 97-year history.

One of the oldest Nations Cups in the world, it was one Ireland always wanted to win since it was first staged back in 1926. A most exciting competition, Ireland looked a bit off the space in the first round, but it came down to a thrilling two-way jump-off between Ireland and the home nation.

After jumping two clears aboard Marion Hughes’ Irish-bred gelding HHS Calais (Cavalier Royale x Obos Quality 004), bred by her late aunt Ita Brennan, Mikey Pender was sent forward once again to the jump-off where he duly delivered, seeing off the challenge from Francesca Ciriesi to decide the result.

“When we got into a jump-off, we knew we had Mikey Pender and it was going to take an amazing round to beat him. We have Denis [Lynch] and three young riders from the Rolex Young Riders Academy which is a fantastic initiative…Ireland takes the Academy really seriously, we value the ongoing support it gives to the riders because you can have talent and you can have horses but you need expertise to put it all together. I’m incredibly proud of them all. It was a game of two halves, and the second half was our half,” commented a thrilled Michael Blake at the press conference.

Blake added: “We had to fight hard to get in here. We weren’t on the initial list, we weren’t selected as a team to come here and I fought hard to get the wildcard and I believe we have used it well.”

The result was far from clear at the halfway stage when France, Italy and Sweden shared the lead with just four faults apiece while Germany, Ireland, Great Britain and The Netherlands carried eight faults each into round two, Brazil and Switzerland failing to make the cut.

Pender got the team off to the perfect start first time out, before the second Irish-bred horse on the team, BBS McGregor (Cardento x Mark Twain) – ridden by Kilkenny’s Jack Ryan and owned and bred by his mother Marguerite – had an uncharacteristic 12 faults to be the discard score.

Mayo’s Michael G. Duffy was next to go with Carl Hanley and Niall Talbot’s 10-year-old gelding Clitschko 17 (Christian 25 x Check In 2) who was making his debut at this level; the pair finishing with a fence down after hitting the first element of the double at fence five, as did anchor rider and the most experienced of the lot, Tipperary’s Denis Lynch with the 10-year-old stallion Vistogrand (Fantaland x Mr Visto), owned by Parco Sport Horses Est, another making a first five-star Nations Cup start.

Michael G Duffy and Clitschko 17 in the CSIO5* Rolex Nations Cup of Rome \ Helen Cruden

Second round

It was all change second time out. France and Sweden added eight faults each to leave them on a final tally of 12 along with Germany and The Netherlands, while Belgium and Great Britain finished with a final tally of 16.

Pender produced his double clear – one of only four on the day, the others coming from Italy’s Giampiero Garafolo, Sweden’s Wilma Hellstrong and Britain’s John Whitaker. Ryan improved to just have a single fence down in the second round, before Duffy and Lynch brought Ireland home with two brilliant clears.

Clears from Italian brothers Antonio and Giampiero Garafolo meant that only the single error by pathfinder Ciriesi was added to the Italian scoreline which meant they were tied with Ireland on eight faults and a jump-off would decide the final placings.

Pender was first to go against the clock and, as he has done on so many occasions, he produced a blistering clear round in 33.91 seconds with the horse who won two rounds of the Longines Global Champions Tour in 2022.

Francesca Ciriesi was chosen to jump-off for the home team but when her mare mare, Cape Coral, clipped the second fence Italy - 29-time winners on their home turf - had to settle for the runner-up spot this time around. The French team finished third on the podium with the fastest 12 faults.

Mikey Pender and HHS Calais jumped treble clear in the CSIO5* Rolex Nations Cup of Rome \ Helen Cruden

Deserved winners

The competition was littered with top riders from all nations, making the achievement of Ireland’s youngsters even more impressive. “I’m very lucky to have such a fantastic horse, he was brilliant in the first two rounds and even better in the jump-off,” a cool and calm Mikey Pender told the media.

“Thanks to everyone at Hughes Horses for keeping this horse for me, he’s been there since he was a three-year-old and been produced all the way. I’m very lucky to be still riding him and big thanks to Michael (Blake) for giving me the opportunity to ride today. Thanks to everyone, and we’ll celebrate tonight!”

Michael G. Duffy, who is based at Carl Hanley’s stable in Germany, added: “I’m really proud of my horse, it was his first Nations Cup and to be part of this team is fantastic. Myself, Mikey and Jack (Ryan) all grew up jumping ponies together and since we’ve been doing horses Denis has been keeping an eye on us and making sure we’re going in the right direction! We had really good team spirit between us and to come away with the win is brilliant,” he said.

Jack Ryan (21), now based with Jos Lansink, was delighted to fight back in the second round in front of his family who flew over from Kilkenny and he also received the award for youngest rider in the class. “Our first round wasn’t to plan but thankfully the lads made up for my mistakes and we jumped better in the second round but the lads put in three fantastic clears,” Ryan commented.

The elder stateman of the team, Denis Lynch was proud of his horse and his teammates. He said: “A lot of people wouldn’t know but in 2016 in Dublin Italy beat us in the jump-off so this was a great day for us. We came here with a good plan and I’m very grateful to my horse and to Michael for using me today. It’s a great pleasure to ride with these young men who were exceptional today, especially Mikey in the jump-off, he rode it foot-perfect and I think all the horses jumped fantastic.

“Maybe Jack wasn’t happy with his first round but he came out and jumped a great second round and this showed the depth we have in our young riders and occasionally an old guy like me gets to come along too!”