Day five of Dublin Horse Show. It's Friday and that means it's Nations Cup day. I'm looking forward to this, but not from a British perspective. They haven't been performing well this week so far.
There are lots of quirks to the Dublin Horse Show. One of which is that it isn't know as the Dublin Horse Show. Instead it's known almost universally as RDS, pronounced Orrr Dee Ess. Perhaps this ironically reflects the amount of British influence in the show. Likewise, instead of giving the iconic Friday class its correct name, The FEI Nations Cup presented by Longines, it is known by nearly everybody I spoke to as the "Aga Khan", after the trophy awarded to the winners. The iconic trophy was donated to the show in 1926 by the then Aga Khan. You can read a full history of the trophy here. Suffice to say it is now in its sixth incarnation, on the way to rivalling Doctor Who.
Before that excitement though, there is a small matter of the ponies. The three pony height classes compete in a series of qualifiers at Simmonscourt during the week in order to take part in the National Championship in the main arena on the same day as the Aga Khan. Indeed, this is the daily schedule which packs bums on seats in the 18,500-strong main arena more than any other.
The 138cm (or 13.2 if you prefer) ponies have the first honour. A field of 14 produces a good jump off and a win for Alex Finney on Dolly du Carel, to get the day of to a great start.
The 14.2 ponies are next and here there are lots of names which are familiar with me from my two years photographing Simmonscourt. In fact the whole field sounds familiar because it is. Among them is new European Champion Harry Allen, universally considered to be as good or better than big brother Bertram, who we will see this afternoon in the Irish Nations Cup team. It's not to be his day today though, as he has a pole down in the jump off and has to settle for fourth behind winner Cian Goggins and Sligo Little James.
The 12.2 ponies have the honour of following the Nations Cup. This could be considered as the graveyard shift, after the main event, but far from it. Inevitably some of the crowd will drift back to the many bars and quench their thirst but the crowd (and noise levels) for the smallest of the pony championships creates a fantastic atmosphere in the early evening. More on that later.
The first international class of the day is one for seven and eight-year-old horses. This time Bertram Allen does win and completes another Irish clean sweep in the process. Time for the main event...
To say there is a build up to the Nations Cup would be an understatement.
After the competitors have walked the course, there is some more of Lorenzo, then the President of Ireland is welcomed to his box. "You won't be able to tell if he is standing up or sitting down," the arena party warn me. Then the teams are paraded, with not one but two bands, and we stand for each National Anthem in turn. Finally there is a parade of the champions from other classes who have already been presented their awards in the "outside" rings.
When the competition finally gets under it is a very tense affair, with the Irish and USA teams both carrying no penalties forward from the first round and the French team just one time penalty. Nothing prepare you for, first, the silence from 18,500 people during an Irish round, and then the cacophony which follows if they are clear. "Spine tingling" isn't strong enough. It's extraordinary and needs to be experienced in person, trust me.
Unfortunately for the massive home support, the second round doesn't go as well for the Irish and they are forced to count a 12-penalty round by Mark McAuley which drops them down the leaderboard. The British are nowhere unfortunately. The Americans, however, with their all-female team of Hough, Keenan, Madden and Kraut, are on fire. They finish on zero penalties and are rightfully crowned as Aga Khan Champions for 2017.
Predictably the presentation ceremony is a protracted one, and with very strong sunshine from one side the photographers who have joined me for this one are not enjoying it particularly. No chance of a nice lap of honour shot either, as the USA team split up and can't be captured together. Annoying.
The aforementioned 12.2 Championship pony final doesn't start until after seven o'clock but provides cracking entertainment. Seven ponies are through to the jump off, including two ponies for Tom Wachman and one for his sister Alice, all three owned by John Magnier's daughter Kate Wachman. Tom tries an outrageous pony turn and obtuse jumping angle on the first of his two jumps rounds and it doesn't pay off, but cleverly he rehearses it on the way into the ring on his second. This time he manages to carve 0.13s off Olivia Devereaux's leading time and take the championship, with Alice taking fourth place. The family are great photo buyers so this is good news for our business!
Out for supper tonight, but not a late one. Early start in the morning for the Hunter Championship, my first showing class of the show!