AACHEN, Germany--Qualifying for the !,500,000 Euro Grand Prix of Aachen on Sunday, July 3, was significant, making the jump-off was a feat in itself, and finishing fifth was equal to winning a major grand prix anywhere in the world.
McLain Ward on HH Azur was one of five riders who jumped two clean rounds to make it to the jump-off, but then he had to go first in the tie breaker.
The five who made it to the jump-off reads like the who's who of jumping - along with Ward on Azur, last year’s winner and the contender for the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping, were Daniel Deusser of Germany with Killer Queen, the only rider in history who has won the Rolex Grand Slam to-date, Scott Brash of Great Britain with Hello Jefferson, Nicola Philippaerts of Belgium on Katanga van het Dingeshof and Gerrit Nieberg of Germany with Ben.
"It was an amazing class,"said chef d'equipe Robert Ridland. "The first round was one of the toughest I've seen in 40 years.
"The top 18 in the first round made it to the second round. There were 11 or 12 clean and the rest with 4 faults. Just making it to the jump-off was amazing. Then McLain had to go first, and of course he didn't know how fast he'd have to go.
"McLAIN DID such an amazing job of strategizing his three horses, riding Contagious in the two biggest classes at Aachen besides the Grand Prix, riding Kasper in the Nations Cup to give him experience and then to have Azur, who's 16, in shape to compete in the Grand Prix and jump two clean rounds.
"Azur is jumping so well at 16. To see her jump so well is great," said Ridland. "McLain did 10 strides to the last fence, leaving out a stride. But then everyone left out a stride to the last. Azur was just running out of gas at the last fence."
Azur left the ground to the last fence but just couldn't quite reach to jump it clean, having it down for 4 faults.
"I think even if she'd jumped it clean, McLain would have been third on time,"said Ridland.
The last to go in a jump-off always has the advantage of knowing how fast he has to go, and the four who followed Ward left nothing on the table.
Nieberg risked all in the Grand Prix, a risk that his much more experienced colleagues didn’t dare take.
He made an inside turn to the second to last that made it a very difficult line but saved his tenths of a second.
His reward: He achieved what his famous father didn’t manage to do in spite of all his achievements: He won the Rolex Grand Prix.
But even after the prize-giving ceremony he still couldn’t quite believe it.
Second to go after Ward was Deusser on Killer Queen.
The German crowd roared, as last year’s winners were greeted with rhythmic applause.
Deusser stuck to his trusted concept – he didn’t rush, simply relied on the scopey canter of his mare and didn’t risk picking up any jumping faults, so he was clean in 41.60 seconds, and the crowd exploded.
Brash was next on Hello Jefferson,, and he was clean in 39.24 seconds.
Nobody thought anyone could beat the time.
Philippaerts on Katanga van het Dingeshof tried his hardest, and he was clean,, but 7/10s of asecon slower in 39.92 seconds.
THE COMMENTATOR greeted Nieberg with the words: “So Gerrit, it is a good day to write history!”
But nobody really thought the 29-year-old could pull off this feat. Would he merely try to ride home clear? Or would he try to beat Scott’s time?
After the first obstacles it seemed like he’d opted for a steady clear to take fourth place.
The fifth obstacle in the jump-off was a double with a bush a few metrers in front of it, and Nieberg calmly took the route that none of his fellow colleagues had dared take, namely in front of the bush.
That saved him a few meters and a few canter strides.
He came out of the turn and found the ideal take-off and his Ben jumped over the fence with ease.
In flow they simply changed their direction and took a tight turn to the vertical that had almost sealed Philippaert’s fate.
Then, Nieberg and Ben changed gear and sped to the last obstacle, the Rolex oxer, and the clock stopped at 38.63 seconds.
An incredible victory! The 40,000 spectators went wild, they shouted, whistled, stamped and clapped.
“I asked my colleague during the warm-up whether I could do the turn to the double," said Nieberg. "And he said okay you can do it. So I did it and it was good. It is still all unreal, everything. I didn’t expect it to happen, it is a dream come true for me today. It was great, an amazing feeling.”
Brash had mixed feelings: “Whether I am happy or disappointed? Both! I am absolutely delighted with Jefferson. He was amazing, he did everything I asked of him and more. Unfortunately, we didn’t win because of this guy here to my right. He makes it harder and harder for me. I thought about taking the inside turn to the double. I thought I’d do in the jump-off, but when Daniel didn’t go inside and he is really good at that, I thought about it again and when I came over the jump and saw the turn to the oxer, I thought, no. I knew if Gerrit would go inside he’d win, and he did it and did it very well. He really deserved to win today.”
"THE WHOLE show was great," said Ridland. "The weather was good, and the crowds here - I can't believe their enthusiasm. After the Grand Prix there was the traditional waving of white handkerchiefs. And McLain is such a crowd favorite. They gave him a huge ovation when he came in the ring for the jump-off.
"They redid the footing here, but they left the same contouring," said Ridland. "There's a two meter gradient in the ring. So it's not just the size of the jumps but whether you are going up or down hill. There's a big water, it's16 feet, which is very hard down hill, and in yesterday's class they had it going up hill"
"Frank Kemperman retired after 29 years of managing the Aachen show," said Ridland. "He used to ride a bike around the show grounds. So they brought the bike in, surrounded by tulips, on a platform drawn by a tractor. He sat on the bike, pedaling away, and of course going nowhere as it was tied down, as they took him around the ring twice. It was quite a tribute."