| THE Mediterranean Equestrian Tour has kicked off once again at the Oliva Nova resort (Oliva, Valencia province) for the second year running, with a notable decline in the number of British riders but a greater presence of Spaniards and Italians.
Classes for professional showjumpers have more than doubled in number, with three in the Silver category (fences at 1.2 metres, 1.3 metres and 1.4 metres, or 4'0”, 4'4” and 4'8”) and four in the Gold category (at 1.3 metres, 1.35 metres, 1.4 metres and 1.45 metres, or 4'4”, 4'6”, 4'8” and 4'10”).
The highest-level Gold class winners earn points for the Fédération Équestre Internationale, but other than the Gold Grand Prix every Sunday, fences remain below Olympic height.
Three Bronze categories for amateur showjumpers at 1.1 metres, 1.25 metres and 1.4 metres (3'8”, 4'2” and 4'4”) serve as a training ground for the stars of tomorrow, and already many of last year's competitors in the amateur classes are back on the block and in the rosettes.
Saturday's Silver 1.4 metres winner was Philippe Le Jeune Jr, riding Laser d'Hammer for Belgium with an eye-wateringly fast time of 67.67 seconds, followed by Robert Vos for the Netherlands – who was also among last year's competitors – just behind at 68.18 seconds on Another Pleasure.
The British Isles proved to be a force to be reckoned with, as Ireland's Joanne Sloan Allen on Suma's Zorro, Bertram Allen on Ajaccio and Kevin Thornton on Kobold von Schlosslihof took third, sixth and ninth place respectively, and Pippa Allen – who competed in the amateur classes last year – carried the flag for the UK on Espoir 17.
In the Gold 1.45 metres, a spectacular and speedy clear for Russia's Vladimir Tuganov on his handsome chestnut gelding Blue Buster netted him the top prize of 5,875 euros, closely followed by Sweden's Linda Heed – just 1.07 seconds behind Tuganov with a time of 69.89 seconds – taking second place and the 4,700-euro prize money on her dark bay mare Chausette Polo.
Getting round in under 70 seconds proved a real challenge, particularly as those who jumped number six on the angle and took the corners tightly at numbers seven and 10 frequently came a cropper.
France's Marie Pellegrin Etter's bay gelding Admirable, Bertram Allen's Zenzation and France's Jêrome Hurel on Warrior came third, fourth and fifth respectively with times of just fractions of a second over the 70 – but what looked initially to be a dearth of clear rounds on this challenging course proved not to be the case as 22 out of 63 managed it, and only the top 16 were in the money.
All bar one entry in the highest-level Bronze class, at 1.4 metres, were in the money given that there were only eight entries, but only three went clear – the unstoppable Ray sisters Ashley and MacKenzie, back from the UK after sweeping the board at last year's Mediterranean Equestrian Tour, taking first and third place on Witro and El Sueño Night Fever respectively, and France's Aude Boudet coming second on Premier du Rouet.
The first day of 'serious' competition was Friday, with Switzerland's Nadja Peter Steiner on Lucifer Platière coming first in the Gold 1.45 metres – a class with eight Spanish riders out of 52 and only one British combination, Pippa Allen on Cúpido Z, none of whom made it into the money – and Alexander Schill for Germany on West Falica winning the Silver 1.4 metres, another class with only one British representative and two Spanish riders.
Today (Sunday) will see the classes taking the usual format, but the Silver 1.4 metres and Gold 1.45 metres will be replaced by Grand Prix classes with stiffer courses and higher prize money.
Photograph: Germany's Marc Bettinger, back for another year, eighth place in Friday's Silver 1.4 metres on Mélan du Malnuit and third in the Gold 1.45 metres on Quannan R. Both horses gave him four faults in each class on Saturday.