Packed crowds gathered at the Castle Arena for the pinnacle of the week’s action, The Rolex Grand Prix. Sweden’s Henrik von Eckermann and Toveks Mary Lou emerged victorious to rapturous applause over course designer Bob Ellis’ challenging course, making a thrilling finale for the Show.
The track demanded bold and precise riding from the field of 34 combinations, including 15 of the world’s top twenty riders, contesting the €500,000 prize, the richest purse ever in UK Show Jumping. The tough course reduced the sensational calibre of talent down to 12 clear combinations to progress to the jump-off.
First to go in the deciding round was British rider William Funnell, whose homebred Billy Diamo demonstrated sheer skill and bravery to keep the partnership’s cool and secure the first double clear round. The pair set the tone for the rest of the competiton, having made the decision to go for precision rather than pace, in a time of 47.58 seconds.
William Funnell commented: “It is fantastic, an amazing venue, the crowd was great. It really makes you want to do well. Billy Diamo is another super horse that we have bred, we hope he will qualify for the 2020 Olympics and this year we want to make sure he qualifies for the European Championships, because he is that type of horse.”
Next to go, and also waving the British flag, was Robert Whitaker and 16-year old Catwalk IV. Despite a strong start the pair were unable to sustain a clear round as the fast pace led to an unlucky pole down, keeping Funnell at the top of the table.
Belgian rider Gregory Wathelet (Spike Van Der Withoeve), already a winner this week and hoping to replicate his success, was the first of several combinations to incur four faults at the Rolex oxer at the last. It was Frenchman Simon Delestre (Hermes Ryan) who was able to successfully challenge Funnell and knock him into second place. Delestre’s carefully navigated turns obtained a clear round in 45.07 seconds, although not the fastest over the ground yet, he was the quickest clear and into the lead. German riders Christian Ahlmann (Take A Chance On Me Z) and Daniel Deusser (Cornet 39) were likely contenders to challenge Delestre’s time. Both competitors were a real threat against the clock, however, they finished with four and eight faults, respectively, keeping Delestre in prime position with five riders to go.
Henrik Von Eckermann wasted no time in shaving time off the clock with the 13-year-old mare Toveks Mary Lou. A tight turn into the penultimate fence and speed into the last oxer shaved over two seconds off Delestre’s time to finish on 43.02 seconds and snatch first place. With two to go, including two Olympic medallists, Eckermann had confirmed a top three position but faced the toughest competition yet, leading to a nail-biting conclusion to the Rolex Grand Prix.
Eric Lamaze, who secured his place in the jump-off with great form, would no doubt be one of the strongest contenders for pace. However, the Canadian rider had a pole down at the second and the last fence with Chacco Kid. This meant the results of the competition were in the hands of Kent Farrington (USA), a two-time winner at Royal Windsor Horse Show, and Creedance.
The former World Number One and his chestnut gelding Creedance, seemed to be the likely winners as the pair presented one of the most striking rides of the jump-off, until an unexpected error at the last resulted in four faults to confirm Eckermann the winner.
The victorious Eckermann said: “Mary Lou is such a fantastic horse; she is so quiet at home but when she gets to shows she really comes to life and gets very excited. She has a fantastic mind, she always helps me and really wants to make it, that’s what makes her such a special horse. I haven’t competed here for 10 years, so it is great to be back! The crowd was amazing, and I have really enjoyed my time at this event. I definitely hope to be back next year to defend the title!”