Ireland Reigns Once Again In $150,000 CSIO4* Nations Cup

Podium finishers in the $150,000 CSIO4* Nations Cup, presented by Florida Coast Equipment: Ireland, Canada and the United States, with Nico Cubillos, director of marketing for Florida Coast Equipment, Jenny Quinlan and Wellington International President Michael Stone. Photo by Sportfot

Ten nations brought forth teams to compete in the $150,000 CSIO4* Nations Cup, presented by Florida Coast Equipment, the highlight event of Week 8 at the Winter Equestrian Festival, which runs through March 31 at Wellington International.

With no shortage of team spirit, the four-rider squad from Ireland — Darragh Kenny, David O’Brien, Cian O’Connor and Shane Sweetnam, led by chef d’équipe Michael Blake — stole the victory for the fifth time in the 23-year history of the event at WEF.

Teams from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Great Britain, Ireland, Israel, Mexico, New Zealand and the United States competed in the opening round of the Nations Cup with the top eight teams returning under the spotlight at Saturday Night Lights. After disappointing first rounds, New Zealand and Mexico did not advance.

Heading into the second round, the Irish lads were the only ones sitting on a score of zero after three clear rounds were produced by pathfinder Kenny riding Eddy Blue, owned by Kerry Anne LLC, O’Brien aboard El Balou OLD for owners Chansonette and Leap Year Farms, and O’Connor in the irons of Coolmore Showjumping’s Fancy de Kergane. Sweetnam pulled one rail in the opening round to post the drop score on RR Combella for owners Sweet Oak Farm and Voquest LLC. All four riders were atop horses making their Nations Cup debuts.

Israel with four, Canada with eight and the U.S. tied with Colombia with 12 remained in the hunt between rounds. Ultimately, Israel and Colombia fell victim to the track built by Steve Stephens and Nick Garant. In the end, Canada finished second with 12 faults after winning the 2023 edition of the WEF Nations Cup, and the U.S. settled for third.

Leading the way for Team Ireland, O’Brien and El Balou OLD finished with only two time faults from the second round in his first Nations Cup appearance under the Irish flag. “On big days, he’s a fighter, and it’s really special for me to be sitting up here with these three Olympic riders,” O’Brien said. “The horse has a long history, and I got him because he was a difficult child, and he needed a continuing program. To me, he’s my No. 1, so every day we’re out for a long time, and it’s a process to keep him focused. But results wise, I’m very happy with him.”

Kenny, who’s no stranger to success in the International Arena with a CSI5* Grand Prix win already in his pocket this season, led-off with a clear to start the night and finished on a total of four faults with Eddy Blue.

“I love to ride for Ireland. It’s one of my favorite things, second to winning, of course,” he said. “But winning with an Irish team, that’s even better.”

O’Connor jumped as the anchor for his team, and after their consistent performances across two rounds, was able to sit out the second round as the win was already clinched.

“We saw a bit of everything in the course tonight,” O’Connor said. “Obviously, it plays a part with one round in the daytime then one at night. Both rounds were light, delicate and the plank was difficult to judge.”

Sweetnam gave RR Combella a chance on Saturday, and he noted that he learned a lot about where she is headed from here. While the mare pulled a rail in each round, he was pleased with the effort in her first-ever Nations Cup.

“That’s the purpose of giving her a chance in this; you really do learn a lot,” he said. “She showed her character and how good a horse she is. I think the rider could have done better, but I was very happy with her, especially at the end to go and give a solid round to make sure that we did win.”

Nico Cubillos, director of marketing for Florida Coast Equipment, commented on the newly minted partnership with Wellington International.

“We really wanted to be part of the Nations Cup, not only because it’s popular, but we believe it is powerful how a team comes together, and that quality can be sustained over two rounds,” Cubillos said. “Just like expectations are high for these athletes, so are they for our Kubota tractors; it means proving ourselves to the community that every night, this ring is ready to go. And for me, I’m an amateur rider, so this is a dream to be up here with these riders.”

As the night came to a close, Blake summed up the win by saying, “This team is a little unusual. In a hundred something [Nations] Cups that I’ve been involved in, I’ve never had a full team where none of the horses ever jumped a Nations Cup before. That shows true depth in that we could put out a team of new horses, very good horses, but still new horses. On paper we didn’t look like the favorites, but I knew we’d be hard to beat.”

For the win, Blake accepted the Denis Quinlan Perpetual Trophy from Jenny Quinlan.