IRELAND won the Aga Khan Nations Cup for the 24th time in the history of the competition at the Dublin Horse Show on Friday afternoon.
A thrilling competition came down to a jump-off, when Conor Swail sealed victory for Ireland for the first time since 2015 with his third brilliant clear of the day with Count Me In, beating off Frenchman Marc Dilasser and Ariotodu Gevres.
An emotional Michael Blake commented: “You have no idea how much this means to me, to get the Olympic Games qualification and the Aga Khan trophy in seven days. That’s just the stuff of dreams.
“I do it because I love the sport, I breathe it. Team jumping is just the most amazing thing. The excitement, where else would you see it? Jumping all day and it ended up as a competition between two horses.”
Ireland were drawn sixth of the seven teams, with the USA out first. Ireland, France, The Netherlands, Norway and Sweden were competing for points in the Longines FEI Division 1 series and while Ireland started the day eighth of the nine teams, the victory means they finish on a score of 310 points and sail through to Barcelona.
Alan Wade built a track of 12 fences and the time of 78 seconds was not influential. There were seven double clears in the competition and 17 clears in the second round.
Conor Swail was first to go for Ireland with Mannon Farm’s Count Me In (Count Grannus x Sherlock Holmes) and the 15-year-old gelding was foot-perfect the whole way around on his first visit to the Dublin Horse Show.
Making his Aga Khan debut at the age of 18, Max Wachman was next to go with Coolmore Showjumping’s 11-year-old gelding Berlux Z (Berlin x Major de la Cour). The pair didn’t let the occasion get to them and were clear all the way until the final fence, which fell for four faults.
There was plenty of hype surround Shane Sweetnam and the nine-year-old Irish Sport Horse gelding James Kann Cruz (Kannan x Cruising), who is owned by the Gizmo Partners LLC and was bred by Shane and Patrick Connolly in Co Galway. The rain was falling during their round, but it made no difference as they never looked like coming close to a pole, finishing with a perfect clear to the delight of the home crowd.
Anchorman Cian O’Connor was in his favourite position and he guided Susan Magnier’s 10-year-old Kilkenny (Cardento x Guidam), who was bred by Sinead Brennan in Gowran, Co Kilkenny, to another class clear round. That meant Ireland discarded Wachman’s four faults and finished the first round on a zero score.
Switzerland and France were just behind them on four faults, Brazil and The Netherlands carried 12 faults, while USA and Norway were both on 20 faults.
Ireland were last of the seven teams to jump in the second round as they went in reverse order of merit. Swail produced one of seven double clears with Count Me In, perfect all the way once again.
Wachman knocked the final part of the treble combination at fence five to repeat his four fault score on what was a brilliant debut for the youngster who is awaiting his Leaving Certificate results later this month.
There was heartbreak for Sweetnam when the last fence fell in his second round. His four faults meant O’Connor had to go clear to force a jump-off with France who, after four clear second rounds, finished the competition on four faults.
Once again, O’Connor relished the pressure heaped on his shoulders and, as the country held its breath, he delivered a clear round with the wonderful grey gelding.
Victory for Ireland! World number four Conor Swail and Count Me In, owned by Mannon Farm and Sandy Lupton, in action during a thrilling Aga Khan Nations Cup won by Michae Blake's team of Conor Swail, Cian O'Connor, Shane Sweetnam and Max Wachman \ Laurence DunneJumpinaction.net
French chef d’equipe Henk Nooren choose Marc Dilasser to go forward to the jump-off and he was first to go with Ariotodu Gevres. He jumped his third clear in a time of 31.81 to lay down the gauntlet.
Blake sent Conor Swail and Count Me In back in and he was so up for the challenge. He was already up on the time at the Longines vertical and was tighter than Dilasser back to the wall, then a good gallop to the final fence and the crowd went wild when he broke the beams in 30.31 seconds to take the title for Ireland.
Michael Blake: “Coming here I thought we had a very very good chance, it was ours to lose. We started really well, we made a few mistakes and the French put a little pressure on us but this cool man here [Cian O’Connor] delivered under pressure to keep us in it. Conor was just amazing. I am just so thrilled, I can’t believe reaction of the crowd, full marks to them, they so understand the sport and it means so much. This is an extra stratosphere to me!”
Cian O’Connor: “I am so thrilled with Kilkenny. I couldn’t be happier, when the bell goes and head down to first fence, it feels like he owns the ring, I just have to not get in his way or make any mistakes. It was really good fun riding him around there today.”
Shane Sweetnam: “James Kann Cruz is a fantastic horse, he was made in Ireland by Francis Connors. He jumped special in the first round. This is my fourth Aga Khan, it has always been the dream to win so I am absolutely thrilled. I started jumping here in 12.2s with a pony near Brandy Bay and eliminated at fence 3. There have been ups and downs in there but this is a very special day.”
Max Wachman: “I am getting my Leaving Cert results in September. It’s a dream come true to be on a team with such amazing riders is amazing, I am thrilled.”
Conor Swail: “It’s amazing for me, it’s my third Aga Khan and first time to win. As an Irish rider it’s a life time goal and I’m so thankfully I’ve achieved that. The horse jumped like that all year, no surprise, he is so fast. Saw Marc’s round, very tidy, but I felt with him, he does that every week he comes out no problem.”
source: The Irish Field - Ph. © Sonya Hennessy