In the perfect prelude to Saturday’s GCL and Longines Global Champions Tour of Cannes, a high-octane race to the finish saw Julien Epaillard take another breathtaking win with his 9-year-old home bred Donatello d'Auge in the 1.50m Prix de JW Marriott Cannes jump-off class.
As the floodlights came on for the second day of competition, spectators and VIPs were dazzled with top sport, as the French rider took the victory ahead of Maikel van der Vleuten in second and Nicola Philippaerts in third.
A delighted Epaillard spoke after his round: “This is a very special win for me. The horse is only 9 years old and from our home bred. This is only the second class he has jumped at 1.50m and the second class he has won at 1.50m so I can’t ask anything more of the horse, he is a fantastic horse. It was a good jump-off for me today and an amazing night! My horse jumps for the first time under lights today and he learnt a lot, he is one to watch for the future.”
Uliano Vezzani’s course spanned the full length of the square sand arena, with a straightforward but technical 1.50m course. As well as floodlights and dancing shadows to contend with, a gappy liverpool set in the middle of the arena and a tricky final line to a Longines plank challenged the very best show jumpers. The triple combination also dashed the hopes of many as a couple of combinations ground to a halt including Olympic champion Ben Maher.
As the sporting excitement unfolded, spectators and viewers were treated to spectacular entertainment from the get-go as 43 combinations tackled the track only metres from the famous bay of Cannes.
Only 6 horses and riders made it through to the enthralling jump-off with an electric atmosphere.
Olivier Philippaerts set off at a blinding pace with grey gelding Zayado, the 11-year-old was lightning-fast and looking like he would be one to beat. But at a flat out gallop to the last the crowd were left on the edge of their seats as Zayado knocked both two poles off the wide oxer and added four faults to their score.
Having tasted victory in the same class a couple of weeks ago in St Tropez, Julien Epaillard knew his homebred 9 year old was more than capable of top honours. He rocketed the jump-off up another level with the effortlessly fast Donatello d'Auge much to the delight of the local crowd who gave them a standing ovation as he exited the arena stopping the clock in 32.29s.
Fernando Martinez Sommer put in a brave try, but one down and finishing just shy of the time in 35.04s slipped him to the bottom of the order with High Five. The crowd cheered as Maikel van der Vleuten crossed the finished line on a double clear and just a fraction off the pace sliding into second place with the clear round machine Elwikke in 32.54s.
Up on time to start, the combination of Simon Delestre and Hermes Ryan shaved off milliseconds on the turns, the agile horse responding to every movement from Delestre - they were 0.01s up on the time at half way and looked as though they had the win in the bag as they approached the final line. But the penultimate fence came crashing down and the pair finished on the exact same time as Epaillard in 32.29s but with 4 faults on the board.
One final rider stood in the way of Epaillard and the win. After talking tactics with his brother Olivier who had the advantage of going first, Nicola Philippaerts cantered into the arena with the eye-catching Khan v. Kattevennen Z, the flashy gelding raring to get his jump-off round started. They played it slightly safe opting to be the third double clear for the final spot of the podium handing the win to the flying frenchman.
Saturday will see the final day of action, where the GCL Cannes final will kick off at 18:30 local time, with the LGCT Grand Prix of Cannes taking place at 21:15. All the action will be streamed live via GCTV, available on the www.gctv.gcglobalchampions.com website or app.