Lorenzo de Luca (ITA) hailed his “fantastic” win at the Longines Global Champions Tour Grand Prix of Valkenswaard presented by Sapinda as the race for the title crown narrowed sharply, setting up a thrilling sprint to the championship finish line.
The Italian star obliterated the opposition with a super fast jump-off victory, while there was drama for home heroes Maikel van der Vleuten (NED) and LGCT Ranking leader Harrie Smolders (NED) in the edge-of-the-seat competition. Smolders (NED) keeps hold of his Championship lead, with 268 points overall, however Christian Ahlmann (GER) has kept his title hopes alive with a strong second today, to move up behind the Dutchman with a score of 257 points. Just two points behind is Alberto Zorzi (ITA), with 255 overall, meaning the high-octane race to the finish will be all the more intense as the final two Championship rounds play out.
Talking about the battle for the title, Smolders said: "It gets more and more exciting - or more and more nerve-breaking - because I’m pretty sure the top six still have the possibility to win the overall rankings.” Smolders also spoke of the top calibre on sport today with the level of competition at the very highest: "It’s great to be part of it. The excitement, the top level of sport we have seen. With Uliano after the course walk I said to him it looked big enough - he said, “we’ll get eight clears” and he was right! The jump-off was fast and exciting, which is what we want to see and to be part of that is already beautiful for our sport.”
Amidst stormy weather, the top 25 riders from the previous class - the Global Champions League of Valkenswaard - returned to the ring to try their hand at the prestigious LGCT Grand Prix of Valkenswaard presented by Sapinda. Spectators packed the grandstands and along the arena, treated to a thrilling display of top horsemanship as the world’s best took centre stage under the floodlights, and VIPs including Bruce and Patti Springsteen watched on from the state-of-the-art hospitality.
Two weeks ago the main arena was transformed from grass to sand, and Jan Tops spoke of the decision today: "I always loved to have a grass arena here, but if you see this weather not one horse slipped or was uncomfortable so I was very happy with that. They [put the new surface down in] it in two weeks - it was amazing. The conditions were perfect."
Course designer Uliano Vezzani created a masterclass of a Grand Prix course, with technical challenges for the riders, utilising the full length and breadth of the huge space - making the most of the brightly coloured fences featuring windmills, tulips and the spectacular Tops International Arena imagery.
The square hedge oxer caught out a few of the very best, including LGCT London winner Scott Brash (GBR) with his top mare Ursula XII, while the Longines treble towards the in-gate seemed to be one of the most troublesome lines, catching out a few including Sergio Alvarez Moya (ESP) and G&C Arrayan, and top French riders Simon Delestre (FRA) with Chadino and Pénélope Leprevost (FRA) with Urano de Cartigny.
One of the first to go clear was Switzerland’s Janika Sprunger (SUI) with Edesa's Basantos. The pair rode a tidy round, with the Swiss rider beaming as she exited the arena after a foot-perfect clear. Jos Verlooy (BEL) set off to a phenomenal start, riding high on the win for his GCL team the Hamburg Diamonds earlier this afternoon. Riding Caracas, the young Belgian talent pulled out all the stops to jump clear, with the grey stallion delivering the goods to ensure they would be in the jump-off. He was quickly followed by Italian rider Lorenzo de Luca (ITA) with Ensor de Litrange LXII and Christian Ahlmann (GER) with the formidable Codex One.
Young German star Andreas Kreuzer (GER) put in a sublime round with Calivot, the attractive chestnut leaping boldly around the arena. But the pair played it too safe, picking up a costly time fault and ruling them out of the running. There was further dismay when the legendary Marcus Ehning rolled the final pole with Gin Chin van het Lindenhof, the crowd with their heads in their hands as it clattered before them in front of the grandstand.
Henrik von Eckermann kept his cool despite a sudden downpour, with Cantinero jumping a superb round despite the distracting weather to make it another clear. The rain intensified for Pieter Devos (BEL) with Apart, the Belgian getting the worst of the stormy weather. The chestnut dropped a hind leg on the rail in the vertical coming into the Longines triple combination, but were fast, the quickest of the four faulters so far.
It was a roller coaster of emotions for local spectators, after hopes were dashed after Leopold van Asten (NED) and VDL Groep Beauty took out the first two parts of the Longines triple, before Maikel van der Vleuten (NED) put in a stunning clear with VDL Groep Verdi TN. The delighted Dutchman sat to a celebratory buck from the top stallion, as the crowd roared in approval - proving the wet weather couldn’t dampen any spirits.
Harrie Smolders (NED) knew he had to do better than 11th place to extend his lead in the Championship. The superstar Emerald jumped his heart out for the flying Dutchman, stretching over the oxers and flying around the arena to make it another clear for the popular pair.
The final pair to go joined those clear, with Gregory Wathelet (BEL) jumping clean with Eldorado van het Vijverhof to make it an 8-rider jump-off, featuring some of the biggest names in the sport.
The rain settled into a steady rhythm as Janika Sprunger (SUI) returned to the ring, with the spotlight on the leading lady as the pathfinder for the field yet to come. Cantering into the ring with Edesa's Basantos, the pair set off to lay down the gauntlet. A turn too tight, and one down meant they would not be in the running for the win. Next up, young star Jos Verlooy with the experienced Caracas looked intent on jumping clear. The duo flew around the arena to jump clear, setting the time to beat at 41.51s.
The galloping course suited the long-striding horses, with long distances allowing riders the chance to open up the speed and move their mounts up a gear. Speed demon Lorenzo de Luca (ITA) and Ensor de Litrange LXII looked dangerous, blazing around the arena and taking out strides wherever they could. They were up on the clock from the start, with a turn to the Sapinda oxer beautifully managed to save milliseconds - as they galloped to the finished they smashed the time, finishing two and a half seconds in front in 39.20s.
The popular Christian Ahlmann (GER) and Codex One gave it their all, with Ahlmann managing the stallion beautifully around the arena. They gave it everything, but couldn’t better the Italian’s time to finish in 39.93s.
The crowd clapped in time as Maikel van der Vleuten (NED) and VDL Groep Verdi TN entered the ring, all hopes pinned on a home win. Setting off at a gallop, the duo looked strong, but hearts pounded when Verdi almost stopped towards the Stal Tops gate, before Maikel gathered him up and over clear. They quickly picked up the pace, but the time was lost, and they could only finish in 40.31s.
There was further heartache as overall LGCT leader Harrie Smolders galloped to the last with Emerald. The pair, who had looked so strong and consistent throughout took a chance at the final fence, with the crowd groaning as the final pole fell.
With just one horse and rider left to go, all eyes would be on Gregory Wathelet (BEL) and Eldorado van het Vijverhof to see who would take the win. A nervous wait ensued for de Luca (ITA) however the pressure was too much for Wathelet and the duo rolled a pole, meaning the speedy de Luca would take his second LGCT Grand Prix win of the season.
The Tour now looks to Rome, Italy, for the penultimate leg of the Championship race from 21st - 24th September, where the battle for the title will culminate in a thrilling sprint to the finish line.
Lorenzo de Luca, LGCT Valkenswaard winner: “My horses are jumping really consistent. I know the horses and they try their best for me. Ensor loves the big rings so I knew he could do really good here and he did a fantastic job. When I finished I thought I was fast but never fast enough as those guys are really dangerous! My horse has a really big stride, I was quite fast everywhere but you’re never sure when you come out. I tried a long distance to the first which was risky, but it paid off today.”
Christian Ahlmann, LGCT Valkenswaard 2nd place: “I’m really happy with my position but nothing is over. There are two more shows and for sure six riders [in with a chance] of the podium or a win. To beat Harrie is very, very difficult as he’s in unbelievable shape - he doesn’t know anymore what is one down! But we’ll keep on trying.”
Maikel van der Vleuten, LGCT Valkenswaard 3rd place: “Today I wasn’t expecting [Verdi’s almost stop]. I thought 'I have to keep going' - and he jumped amazing today. I did lose some time, which is a shame as I would have been close, but I’m happy with the third place.”
Photo: LGCT / Stefano Grasso