Events at the Winter Equestrian Festival on Saturday, March 19 culminated in the $216,000 Horseware Ireland Grand Prix CSI4* during Saturday Night Lights. WEF 10, also sponsored by Horseware Ireland, is the fourth week of FEI-rated four-star competition hosted throughout the circuit. At the night’s conclusion, Olympic team gold and silver medalist Laura Kraut took home the top prize with her longtime partner Confu, owned by St. Bride’s Farm.
Forty-five entries from 14 nations contested Michel Vaillancourt’s opening course. His challenge for the riders included two double combinations, a triple combination and a triple-bar early on at obstacle three. The first clear round came as the fifth rider on course, Ashley Vogel, produced a top ride aboard Madiba AG Z. Two horses later, Sweden’s Petronella Andersson put in her bid for the top title and ensured a jump-off. As the class neared its halfway mark, the field of returning riders grew with Mark McAuley, Lillie Keenan and Ben Maher adding their names to the list. Belgium’s Abdel Saïd put forward a heroic effort to repeat his winning performance in the WEF 9 Grand Prix but tipped just over the time allowed of 83 seconds and incurred a single penalty.
A final tally of 10 world-class pairs set the stage for an exciting jump-off across the evening’s final short course. Vogel led the charge but would not see the top of the podium, as she accrued four faults. Andersson was the first to put in a successful double-clear, but McAuley was quick to up the ante. The night looked to be in the bag for the Irish as McAuley sat in second and Conor Swail put in a blazing round as the second to last to go into the lead, but Kraut and Confu clearly had other plans.
The last to go in the jump-off, the duo proved they are never a pair that should be counted out. Kraut and the 15-year-old Holsteiner gelding exploded into action, finishing with a final time of 36.44 seconds.
“I knew how quick all of the riders were tonight, so when I was heading in, I thought, ‘I would be happy with fifth,’” Kraut said. “My plan was just to go at his pace and hopefully let him be double clear. The turn to the wall and the rollback to the oxer felt incredibly fast to me. I was then lucky to get a good jump on the second to last fence, and then also lucky to keep the final fence up. He knew exactly what to do.”
The win was extra special for both Kraut and the Horseware Ireland team. Horseware Ireland has been a longtime supporting partner of Kraut.
Kraut admitted that if she had been told Confu would produce this victory several months ago, she may not have believed it. The event was the first Grand Prix for Confu since November of 2021 in Europe. The gelding suffered from a serious virus at the end of 2021, and his future had been extremely unclear.
“The win tonight means everything,” Kraut said. “A few months ago, we were crying because we weren’t sure he was going to make it. It means the world to have him win, and to win on Horseware week, I don’t think we could have scripted it any better. I’m so thankful to have had their support for many years, and it feels like winning this class was meant to be.”
The luck of the Irish was clearly still strong during the penultimate day of the Horseware Ireland week, as both Swail and McAuley joined Kraut in the lap of honor. Swail once again locked in the honors of the runner-up position, this time with his own 13-year-old Selle Francais gelding Vital Chance De La Roque after flying over the final fence in 37.10 seconds.
“I’m very pleased with how tonight went, and I think we are a great partnership,” Swail said. “He’s quite a buzzy little chap; he is quite aggressive, but he uses it to his advantage because he is so small. He is small and mighty.”
The pair have had a successful season thus far, but Swail admitted he may have left room for a quicker ride.
“I wouldn’t have minded going a little better from fence one to two,” he said. “I was a little behind in some areas, but I thought I was quite tight back to the oxer and had a good shot to the last fence. The final fence I rode forward and wide to give him a little space and the best chance to jump it well.”
McAuley and SNC McAuley Equestrian’s 13-year-old BWP gelding Jasco VD Bisschop duplicated their third-place finish in a four-star Grand Prix when they stopped the clock mere milliseconds behind Swail for a finishing time of 37.55 seconds. The pair were previously second-place recipients as well in the $216,000 NetJets Grand Prix CSI4* during WEF 3. “He hasn’t jumped much under the lights, but I think this circuit has been great for him,” McAuley said. “It felt almost easy to ride him this evening compared to when we competed in the evening on week three.”