Defending series champions from Belgium finish a close second.In a spectacular start to the Europe Division 1 series, Switzerland pipped reigning series champions Belgium in the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ of France 2019 at La Baule (FRA) today where the host nation lined up third.

Clear rounds are key to success, and there were plenty who managed to leave all the poles in place on the track set by crack French course designer Frederic Cottier despite a testing time-allowed of 75 seconds. But double-clears are even better, and when the Swiss posted two of the the five recorded this afternoon, thanks to superb efforts from team pathfinder Niklaus Rutschi (53) and anchorman Steve Guerdat (36), they beat the Belgians by a single penalty point.

It was Guerdat who clinched it when last into the arena, shouldering unbelievable pressure as only this man can. But it was Rutschi who set it all up with a fantastic performance from his 11-year-old gelding Cardano CH. He had every reason to be proud this evening.

“It’s a dream come true! We have this horse since he was a foal and we are good friends together. Last year he was injured so he had a long break, but he’s right back to his best now. He’s one of the best horses in the world - he’s scopey, he’s careful and he just needs his rider to his job properly!” said the man from Lucerne.

It was neck-and-neck between the Swiss and Belgians at the halfway stage when both sides finished the first round with four faults on the board. The Irish were close behind with five while last year’s La Baule winners from Brazil were sharing fourth place with the French on eight faults. Germany carried 10 into the second round, but the British and Canadians were already looking vulnerable with 18 and 19 faults respectively before the action resumed. However the spotlight shone brightly on a new young British star when Amy Inglis (22) followed a first-round clear with a single time-fault in round two with her lovely mare, Wishes.

French hearts were lifted with three rock-solid second-round clears that saw them climb up the leaderboard when both the Irish and Brazilians faltered, but it was the Belgians and Swiss who would slog it out for the win in the closing stages, and it went right down to the wire.

A clear from Nicola Philippaerts and H&M Chilli Willi gave the Belgians a great start to round two. And when Niels Bruynseels’ second clear of the day from Utamaro D’Ecaussines was followed by just a single time fault from Pieter Devos and Claire Z they looked bullish because even without the services of their final partnership, Gregory Wathelet and MJT Nevados S, they could finish on no more than five faults.

 Rutschi’s second clear of the competition was followed by eight faults from Bryan Balsiger (21), but Paul Estermann (55) pulled it back for the Swiss with a foot-perfect run from Lord Pepsi and that set it up for one final showdown. If Wathelet could return a zero score then the Belgians could discard Devos’ single time fault and it might just force a jump-off with the Swiss.

But the vertical that followed the 4-metre-wide open water had hit the dirt plenty of times during the day. “It was difficult because the horses were inclined to look at the crowd in the tribune behind, instead of at the fence”, Rutschi explained this evening. And when that fell, then Devos’ four faults was the discard as only the best three results from each of the four-member teams are counted, and now Belgium were definitely finishing on those five faults.

So as Switzerland’s Guerdat rode into the arena with the brilliant mare Albfuehrens Bianca with which he claimed individual bronze at last year’s FEI World Equestrian Games™ in Tryon, USA the result was hanging in the balance. A fence down and it would be all over, a single time fault and it would go to a jump-off but a clear round would win it. And you could hear a pin drop as the London 2012 Olympic individual gold medallist and three-time Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ champion steered his fiery mare through the track one last time.

“Being able to give the win to your country is one of the best feelings. It’s for these kind of moments that I love our sport!” he said after clinching it for his country, Bianca still bursting with energy as she bounced through the finish one more time.

Today’s result puts Switzerland at the top of the Europe Division 1 league table at this early stage of the eight-leg series which now moves on to their home ground in St Gallen (SUI) in two weeks’ time. Each team in this series has four opportunities to collect points towards qualification for the prestigious Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ Final 2019 in October where, along with the much-coveted series trophy, one last Olympic qualifying spot will also be on offer.

Result: 1, Switzerland 4 faults - Cardano CH (Niklaus Rutschi) 0/0, Clouzot de Lassus (Bryan Balsiger) 8/8, Lord Pepsi (Paul Estermann) 4/0, Albfuehren’s Bianca (Steve Guerdat) 0/0; 2, Belgium 5 faults - H&M Chilli Willi (Nicola Philippaerts) 4/0, Utamaro D’Ecaussines (Niels Bruynseels) 0/0, Claire Z (Pieter Devos) 14/1, MJT Nevados S (Gregory Wathelet) 0/4; 3, France 7 faults - Ilex VP (Nicolas Delmotte) 4/0, Venezia D’Ecaussines (Thierry Rozier) 0/0, Vancouver de Lanlore (Penelope Leprevost) 4/0, Timon D’Aure (Alexis Deroubaix) 4/4.

 Full result here

 Standings after Round 1 of the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ 2019 Europe Division 1 series:

 1. Switzerland - 100

2. Belgium -   90

3. France -   80

4. Ireland -   70

5. Germany -   55

6. Great Britain -   50

 Detailed Standings here

 Watch highlights here 

 press release by Louise Parkes