The dawn of a new era - Olympia Horse Show 2016
As we head into Christmas, we take a look at a stalwart of our festive calendar, The London International Horseshow, or, simply, 'Olympia'. Hannah King headed to Kensington to get the low-down on the ones to watch in the showjumping world...
Santa hats and carols mixed with the smell of hoof oil could only mean one thing - the London International Horse Show at Kensington's Olympia was in town. After Wednesday's emotional farewell to Valegro, showjumping fanatics were ready and waiting to see what the first class over fences would bring. The Santa Stakes, over 1.55m fences, gave us a hint of what would turn out to be a theme across the jumping classes at this year's Olympia. Fresh new talent, both human and equine, showed serious potential and the old guard would have their work cut out to stay ahead. The inimitable Geoff Billington, commentating as only he can in one of the latter classes, highlighted the bright future the sport can look forward to.
An early horse/rider combination that stood out was Maurice Tebbel and Chacco's Son, a 9 year old bay stallion out of Chacco-Blue. Maurice, the 22 year old son of German showjumper Rene Tebbel who represented the Ukraine at the Rio Olympics, showed off his inherited talent and hard work by producing two lovely balanced rounds. Although there was a sense Chacco's Son ran out of puff slightly in the jump off, he had put this right by Sunday's Longines FEI World Cup round, where he placed 12th above previous world beaters Marcus Ehning and Steve Guerdat.
On the domestic front, Jessica Mendoza showed she is preparing for future success as several young and exciting prospects were brought forward across various classes at the show. Wan Architect took her to victory in the Dodson & Horrell and world Class Programme U23 British Championship class, and the lovely 8 year old gelding Toyboy showed serious class despite being a little green in the Santa Stakes.
Perhaps the biggest story in the early classes was Chinook II, a 9 year old Dutch warmblood out of the great Verdi. Ridden by Ireland's Anthony Condon, this gelding has progressed from nivice classes to Grand Prix competition in just this current season, with his maturity over fences belying his relative inexperience.
If the younger riders who have already started their careers on the Grand Prix circuit weren't exciting enough, the U23 class won by Jessica Mendoza provided us with several other demonstrations of riding that wouldn't have been out of place in the Longines FEI World Cup class on Sunday. As so often with this class, the field was split into those with the star quality needed to succeed on the international stage, and those who are just setting out on their road to the top. The familiar names of Harry Charles, Emily Ward and Alfie Bradstock, as well as the relative newcomer Miles O'Donnell, all caught the eye as showing serious elite level potential. As always, the younger Whitaker generation was well represented, with both Jack and James Whitaker showing that the apple doesn't fall far from tree. Jack in particular showed maturity beyond his 14 years, riding mature rounds on his father's former Grade A ride Valentin R, a stunning grey stallion out of Heartbreaker. Only Jessica Mendoza, the veteran of several Nation's Cups and this year's Team GB travelling Olympic reserve, could beat him.
A lot has already been written about Jack since he came to prominence at last year's Global Champions Tour leg in London and, given his family background, many have argued that he is merely a talented product of his upbringing. This would be to do Jack a great disservice however, as his ability to handle the pressure and produce two superb, beautifully balanced rounds was something not always seen even at the top level, as we saw in Monday's Grand Prix, let alone in an under 23 class. As if to prove the point further, other scions of showjumping families unfortunately succumbed to the pressures of the famed Olympia atmosphere, sending poles crashing down on more than one occasion.
There was a palpable sense of a new era in both the international and domestic fields this year. The likes of John Whitaker have said for some time that we need world class talent to come through the ranks and takeover the reins from riders who have been lynchpins of the sport for years. Scott Brash, Bertram Allen and Ben Maher have already gone far along the journey to greatness. However, with a wealth of real talent among younger riders who are more than capable of joining them in the top ranks,they'd better look out!