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Thrills and spills, drama and determination, happiness and heartache - all the ingredients of great sport came together at the FEI Children’s International Classics Final 2017 at the Equuleus Arena in Beijing, China, where Brazil’s Philip Greenlees claimed the gold.
After two tense qualifying competitions earlier in the week it was still all to play for as the 20 Jumping athletes from 13 countries came into the last day.
And what a finale it was, with Mexico’s Maya Ines Denis Chambon claiming silver ahead of Brazil’s only other contender, the diminutive Pietra Carolina Manucci Bizzotto.
Huge numbers of children between 12 and 14 years of age once again competed in regional qualifiers across the globe, and joining the four Chinese representatives at the deciding event in the Chinese capital city were youngsters from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, France, Germany, Guatemala, Mexico, New Zealand, Russia, South Africa and Syria.
And it was the host nation flag that flew highest in Saturday’s first qualifier when Quianya Zhang steered Maya de Presle to victory in the Speed event ahead of Syria’s Sham Al Assad riding Carenco in runner-up spot and Russia’s Maria Efimova and Jenny D’Amour DH in third place.
Dutchman Tom Martens was Horse Manager for the event and provided a lovely selection of mounts for the visitors, whose riding skills were strongly tested as they quickly had to build relationships with horses they had never sat on before.
Philip Greenlees was still familiarising himself with the 12-year-old Dutch mare Adinka when finishing 14th, with a fence down, in the first qualifying competition.
But he rocketed up to runner-up position in the second qualifier won by 13-year-old French girl Elisa Averlant, who showed a devastating turn of speed with the clever 10-year-old Dutch mare Celeste to finish almost two seconds faster than her nearest rival in the 10-horse jump-off against the clock.
Third place here went to South Africa’s Hannah van Niekerk with Gladstone while first-day winner, Quianyu Zhang, had to settle for fourth this time out.
Only seven jumped clear in the first round of the medal-decider on New Year’s Day in which Swiss course designer, Gerard Lachat, presented them with another superb track that demanded control and judgement of pace.
Colombia’s Ivanna Saldarriaga Vargas led the way into the jump-off, but left the door wide open when collecting 18 faults with Don Diablo.
So when Pietra Carolina Manucci Bizzotto brought the charming bay gelding El Ninjo home clear in 45.95 seconds she took the early lead.
No matter what time of year they are born, all horses become a year older at the start of the new year so El Ninjo turned nine on January 1, and 12-year-old Pietra Carolina did a great job to stay with this relatively young horse when he put in a huge effort at the second element of the double, four fences from home. Big horse - small rider - lots of talent - great future ahead for this young lady….
Canada’s Charlotte Rajotte and Vocarlos posted an eight-fault result when third to go, but Mexico’s Maya Ines Denis Chambon, who won the Style Award, piled on the pressure when setting a new target with Zonnekoning in 39.13 seconds.
With just three left to run, would it be the 14-year-old who took team bronze at the 2017 North American Children’s Championships in Saugerties, New York who would come out on top?
Her series of tight turns had given her a very clear advantage, but that was instantly blown away by Philip Greenlees who, with arms and elbows hard at work, raced through the timers in 38.08 seconds to recalibrate the target.
Now he had to sit back and wait to see what the last two could do, and the crowd gasped when Syria’s Sham Al Assad was eliminated for a fall after the second fence.
Last into the ring it seemed that gold medal was still up for grabs because Elisa Averlant and Celeste had been like flying machines all week. The 13-year-old French girl whispered to the mare before she set off, but luck was not on their side as a fence down pinned them into fourth place.
Gold medallist Greenlees has had a great 12 months because he also took team gold at the 2017 South American Children’s Championships and was on the third-placed team in the Children’s Nations Cup in Wellington, USA last March.
The 14-year-old whose next big target is the Youth Olympic Games 2018 in Buenos Aires (ARG) next October praised his borrowed horse, Adinka.
“She jumped super every day, four clear rounds out of five!” he said. “I gave it everything in the jump-off. I really went for the win and I knew I was on the podium after my round but there were two more fast riders to come. Winning is a fantastic feeling - really emotional!” he added.
Silver medallist Maya Ines Denis Chambon spent her whole season checking the series standings in the hope of qualifying for this Final in Beijing.
A trip to the intriguing Forbidden City was included in the competitor’s programme for the week and Maya said visiting China was a great experience and that she really enjoyed competing on Zonnekoning.
Talking about her jump-off ride she said: “He’s not the fastest horse so I didn’t have high hopes. I tried to win it on the turns and the long lines and I got them right and kept a steady gallop. I’m very, very happy to finish second!”
Bronze medallist Pietra Carolina Manucci Bizzotto was very happy too, and it seems she has fallen in love…..with El Ninjo. No surprises there actually, the pair are simply a perfect partnership despite their disparity in size.
“I want to bring him back with me to Brazil - he is sooooo sweet!” she said.
Ringmaster extraordinaire Pedro Cebulka led the children into the arena for the presentation of medals by FEI Bureau Member Jack C. Huang (TPE), Ground Jury President HO Nai Yue (SGP), Organising Committee President Michelle Wang (CHN) and Nathan Shi (SHN), Co-Founder & Director of Equuleus International Riding Club.
A great effort by the Organising Committee ensured that this edition of the FEI Children’s International Classics Final was yet another triumph.
Text by Louise Parkes
Images by Yong Teck Lim