LONDON (Reuters) - Britain captured its first team show jumping gold in 60 years on Monday after a tie-breaking jump-off with the Netherlands while Saudi Arabia took bronze with some royal help from the grandson of Saudi King Abdullah.
Britain last won gold in the event back in 1952 while it was a first team medal for the Saudis, who left stalwarts such as Switzerland and defending Olympic champions the United States in their dust.
Britain and Netherlands went into the jump-off tied at eight faults apiece after the three tough days - Saturday’s individual qualifier and the two-day team final - jumping progressively bigger and more difficult courses.
That was an impressive result given that only six riders out of 45 made it through the huge nautical-themed course with neither jumping nor time faults. The four-meter wide water jump was a particular challenge.
The jump-off between Britain and the Netherlands required all team members to jump a shortened course, one country alternating with the other.
Three clear rounds in the jump-off assured victory for the home team. Scott Brash, who has stayed cool under pressure in his first Olympics, had one rail down for four faults.
Dutch rider Jur Vrieling had a clean round but the Netherlands dropped to silver with two rails down for Maikel van der Vleuten and one for Marc Houtzager.
Gerco Schroder did not need to jump because Britain had already claimed gold after Peter Charles went clear on Vindicat.
Van der Vleuten said the Dutch team were more than happy with a hard-fought silver despite missing out on gold.
Britain’s team veteran and hot individual gold prospect Nick Skelton was flawless throughout the contest, from Friday’s first individual qualifier through the jump-off.
Skelton had failed to win a medal at five previous Olympics. He missed the Sydney Games after breaking his neck at a horse show and initially planned to retire but changed his mind after finding a good horse for the Athens Games.
On Monday, he said the gold medal around his neck was worth the wait.
“I’ve waited a long time. Been to a lot of Games. Made a lot of mistakes. And I suppose really you couldn’t do it in a better place for us,” he said.
Skelton heaped praise on horse Big Star, which his owners bought with London in mind.
“He has everything you need in a horse - he’s got all the scope, he’s super careful, he’s brave, he has an intelligent head on him, he’s good to ride.”
Britain stands a good chance of another gold in Tuesday’s dressage team final.
The team, which has risen up the ranks in international dressage over the past few years, leads with an average score of 79.407 percent, with Germany close behind at 78.845 percent.
Britain also has a chance of individual jumping glory on Wednesday with Skelton and Ben Maher among the favorites.
The top 35 riders qualify but begin with a clean slate.
It may have been a long-awaited victory for Britain but the biggest surprise on the podium was bronze medalists Saudi Arabia, especially given that the riders individually are not rank among the world’s top show jumpers.
Germany, France and Belgium, who took the top three spots in the 2010 world championships, did not even make the cut for the second round which features the leading eight teams.
Abdullah Waleed Sharbatly is the Saudis’ highest-ranked show jumper at 59 while the others are ranked 150 or below.
The team said this was because there was really only one show that counts for them - the London Olympics.
“To be in the top ranking, it’s also something. But you know it’s not so easy for us coming from Saudi, trying to compete in these big shows and collect points, you need a string of horses,” said Ramzy Al Duhami, who is ranked 264th.
“So we had one focus in mind - that was the Olympic Games -and we worked hard to really get the horses ready at the time of the Olympics.”
Saudi rider Khaled Al Eid won individual bronze for jumping in the Sydney Games in what the team described as an inspiration for many in the country to aim for the upper ranks of the sport.
The Saudi riders train in Europe, backed by an organization called Saudi Equestrian that has bought a number of high-level horses with the aim of doing well at the London Games.
Prince Abdullah al Saud, the second royal equestrian to compete at the London Olympics, only had one rail down in three days of competition and said it was an honor to compete at this level for his country.
He said his team had been based in Belgium and worked closely together for the past four months.
Switzerland was fourth on Monday with a two-round total of 16 faults. Canada, riding a man short after the disqualification of rider Tiffany Foster for oversensitivity in one of her horse’s legs, was fifth with 26 faults.
Editing by Ken Ferris