Sunday, 19 December 2021
In what’s being lauded as one of the most exciting jump-offs in the history of the London leg of the FEI Jumping World Cup series, Christmas came early for Harry Charles and his fiesty mare, Stardust. They rose to the top of a strong field to take the win at the London International Horse Show – a class that counts Harry's father, Peter, among its previous winners.
Having secured the fastest clear in the first round, 22-year-old Harry and Stardust were the third last in for the jump-off and the tension in the International Arena was palpable. The pair left nothing on the table, taking a tight, fast route that saw them gallop to the last oxer and soar over it on a sharp angle. The crowd were on their feet as the clock flashed up a time of 35.91 seconds, applauding a delighted and visibly emotional Harry, who now moves up to second place in the World Cup rankings behind Ireland's Denis Lynch.
“It’s amazing!” he gushed in the press conference afterwards. “It’s the best feeling. I’ve been coming to this show for years and it’s one every rider in Britain – well, everywhere – wants to win and in front of this crowd. I didn’t watch any of the other [jump-off] rounds, but I just stuck to my plans. I know my horse, she’s quite small striding, so I didn’t want to get hung up on numbers or anything. I just stuck to my own plan and it came off. This is my biggest win ever, my career highlight for sure.
It’s certainly been a purple patch for Harry recently, who can also count a place on the British team at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games among his achievements this year. Stardust, a relatively new ride who’s owned by Peter Charles and HRH Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, is also proving to have all the sparkle that her name implies – she and Harry have already finished in the top-20 at the Rolex Grand Prix of Geneva and top-12 at the World Cup leg in Madrid in recent weeks.
“She’s quite a new horse to me,” said Harry. “We started our partnership at the beginning of the year and we started at 1.40m this year, and this is only her third five-star Grand Prix. She’s got the biggest heart, but is small striding. She has loads of blood, is super, super careful and just fights. She jumped the Geneva Grand Prix last week, which is one of the biggest in the world, and she jumped it pretty easily really, so I had a good feeling coming into today. I knew if I did my job right and nailed everything, we were in with a chance.”
It’s 20 years almost to the day since Olympia gold medallist Peter Charles won this class at its former home of Olympia in Kensington. Peter, who was representing Ireland at the time, was here tonight to support Harry and rode every stride of his son’s jump-off round from the sidelines.
“He said to me on Monday, if you don’t mess this up, you have a good chance,” explained Harry. “I’ve had him by my side always and I couldn’t have done it without his help, his knowledge, his experience, and I owe everything to him.”
Harry revealed that his prize of a LONGINES watch will be going to his dedicated groom, Georgia Ellwood, in recognition of everything she does for him and his team of horses.
The ExCel crowds were in for another treat tonight in the form of fan-favourite John Whitaker, who showed exactly why he’s still considered one of the all-time greats during the first round. Unick du Francport, who John co-owns with wife Clare, sailed over every fence and the cheer that went up after he cleared the last echoed through the exhibition hall. John, who’s been a fixture of this show since the early 1970s, pulled out all the stops in his jump-off round and streaked into the lead at the half-way point with a time of 37.5 seconds.
“It was a great class,” he said afterwards. “I was delighted with how my horse jumped and going into the lead. Once you’re in the lead, you have to sit it out and unfortunately these young guys are good. This is the class to win here – it’s a special atmosphere, particularly if you’re British. For one tiny second, I thought I might win.
“It was just one of those good jump-offs. It was a great class, the atmosphere was incredible. I’m just glad to be in there. My horse jumped great. I don’t know if I could have jumped any faster than I did, to be honest, so I can’t complain.”
John’s hopes for victory in London were dashed by Harrie Smolders from the Netherlands, riding Monaco. The next combination into the International Arena, they put in a blisteringly fast time of 36.77 seconds to snatch the lead.
“It’s always a pleasure to come to London,” commented Harrie. “It’s an amazing atmosphere, which is the same here as Olympia. We saw spectacular sport today and the audience makes our achievements greater. Huge congratulations to Harry – it’s a Harry Day today! I think this is just the start for him and we’ll be seeing a lot more of him. And well done to John – there’s a big difference in age, but he’s still at the top of his game.”
Eleven combinations jumped clear over Brazilian course designer Guillherme Jorge’s 1.60m track. Joining Harry, Harrie and John in the jump-off were British riders Ben Maher, who finished fifth with new ride Faltic HB, and Jack Whitaker, riding the smart Haya Loma N to eighth. Matt Sampson, who delighted his home crowd by making it through to the jump-off, put in a furiously fast round but his hopes of a dark horse victory evaporated three fences from home, when Geneve R slammed on the brakes – the pair finished in 11th, but should still be very proud of their achievement.
The move from Olympia to the ExCel exhibition centre in Docklands due to renovation works has been a hot topic at the show all week. While the consensus seems to be that the new venue lacks a little of the former’s unique character, the riders have been won over by the increased space, easier access and improved facilities.
“I think it’s very good – it’s difficult to fault it,” summed up John Whitaker. “It maybe misses a little of that Olympia magic but, to be honest, no one is complaining. It’s so easy, better for the horses, better for the riders. Riding, parking, hotels, big warm up, big ring – it’s all super. The same great atmosphere, it’s really good.”
The full results from tonight's World Cup qualifier are available here.
There's just one more day of action left at The London International Horse Show, which includes the London Grand Prix class. The entire evening performance is available to view from 6pm on BBC iPlayer and Red Button, and the BBC Sport website and app.