It will be the 33rd running of the FEI European Eventing Championships, a three-star contest that runs every two years and dates back to 1953. It is the second time that Longines will be the Official Timekeeper following its involvement at the UK-based 2015 Longines FEI European Eventing Championships held at Blair Castle, Scotland. Taking place in Strzegom, lower Silesia region in south-west Poland, the FEI European Eventing Championships kick off on Wednesday 16 August with the first horse inspection. This is followed by two days of dressage and then Saturday’s cross-country phase, concluding with a second horse inspection and final showjumping rounds on Sunday 20 August. Qualified nations can take up to six horses and riders, with four making up a team and the remaining two competing for individual honours only. In each team the horse and rider with the highest number of penalties becomes a discounted score because only the best three scores (i.e. lowest number of penalties) count when working out the final standings. As the host nation, Poland may field ten riders: four on its team and six individuals.
Any rider representing a European country is eligible to compete in Strzegom, providing they meet the qualification criteria on the horse they intend to ride. European Championships run at three-star level and horse and rider combinations must have one qualifying result at CCI3* level, plus meet their national federation’s criteria. A qualifying result requires the combination to have jumped clear across country with no more than 30 time-faults – this equates to not exceeding the optimum time by more than 75 seconds – and have incurred a maximum of 67 dressage penalty points and four showjumps down. There is no limit on the number of teams that can compete. Every European nation can go, providing their riders have qualified. Organisers expect between 18 and 20 countries to be represented – that’s around 80 horses – in line with previous championships.
Many competitors and followers of the sport of eventing will already be familiar with Strzegom and its terrain. The venue has been hosting horse trials for 15 years, running classes up to CCI3* level. Despite this experience, however, Marcin Konarski, president of the organising committee at Strzegom, recognizes that the Europeans represent a huge challenge for the team. “The championship is a completely different type of competition in relation to all international events organised in Strzegom so far,” she says. “On the one hand there will only be 80 horses, which is a small number in comparison to the 300 starting at our horse trials every year, but there will be several thousand visitors, hundreds of service staff, several hundred journalists and dozens of broadcasters and live reporters. From an organisation and logistical perspective, it is a completely different show and we have to prepare well.”
The championship will take place at Stragona Equestrian Centre, the most famous venue for horse sport in Poland covering 60 hectares and hosting more than 20 equestrian events every year.
Much investment has already been made to revamp the cross-country course and improve the infrastructure. The main arena, which will be used for the dressage and showjumping phases, is now on an all-weather surface, thus providing consistent footing for the whole field. “We started preparations in 2014, straight after the rights for organising the championships were admitted,” explains Marcin. “The first stage was replacing the surface in the main arena and warm-up areas. Then we modernized the water complex — it is now three times the size of its previous form — and added a new water fence.”
Eventing fans will have to wait and see what course-designer Rüdiger Schwarz, also the man behind the Malmö Europeans track four years ago, has in store. There have been glimpses, including a new track through woodland added over the winter. “A lot of work has also been carried out to improve the ground on the cross-country route,” adds Marcin. The city of Strzegom has long been associated with breeding Silesian horses and thoroughbreds, plus it has strong horse racing roots and has acted as a training base for its national eventing squad for many years. Strzegom is also successful hunting ground for Great Britain, the country that won back-to-back Nations Cup classes here in 2015 and 2016 when fielding a line up of young horses and riders. The nation is seeking a 22nd European team gold in 2017; the most any country has ever won at this level.
However, it would be foolish to overlook Germany’s chances for team gold, the nation that finished at the top of the leaderboard at the three most recent European championships (Luhmühlen, Germany, 2011; Malmö, Sweden, 2013 and Blair Castle, UK, 2015). France broke Germany’s stranglehold on gold at the Rio Olympics in 2016, and the French will be looking to break the mould again in Strzegom – bagging their first-ever European team gold in the process. In individual ranks it is hard to look past Germany’s Michael Jung. Michael’s gold medal run – two Olympics (2012 and 2016), one World (2010) and three Europeans (2011, 2013 and 2015) – has been thwarted only once. His undoing at the 2014 World Equestrian Games in Normandy was teammate Sandra Auffarth (Opgun Louvo), and both were fundamental in securing another team gold for Germany.
Of course other riders will be vying for the top step of the podium and, if he is selected, Astier Nicolas, the young Frenchman who led France to Olympic glory and claimed individual silver in Rio last year, is capable of challenging Michael for gold. Whoever finishes on the podium, Strzegom is ready to rewrite the history books when it hosts the first ever FEI European Eventing Championships to take place on Polish soil – and it plans to impress. “We are aware that our town will be written in eventing history,” concludes Marcin. “We care deeply that this event will be remembered well by riders and spectators.” [Aimi Clark]