(CNN)Julien Epaillard edged out defending champion Ben Maher by a whisker to win the first leg of the Longines Global Champions Tour in Doha.
Epaillard, of France, and his horse Usual Suspect d’Auge raced to victory by producing a clear round in the jump-off in a time of 40.11 seconds, just 0.44 seconds faster than Britain’s Maher and Explosion W, the winners of the 2018 overall Global Champions League.
“It’s crazy for me, today,” Epaillard said in a televised interview, after riding away with prize money of €123,750 ($140,733).
“Normally I have another horse to ride the Grand Prix today, but he had a little thing and then I changed my plan,” he said. “I ride him today and I was so surprised for the first one to be clear. And then at the jump-off, only five riders, I say, OK, try the best. And it worked today. It’s nice.”
Now in its 14th year, the Longines Global Champions Tour and Global Champions League, show jumping’s richest circuit, has expanded to 20 legs this season, with new stops added in New York, Stockholm and Montreal.
Held in the vast, sandy arena at the state-of-the-art Al Shaqab Equestrian Facility in Doha, the season opener had attracted 50 riders and 99 horses.
Uliano Vezzani’s challenging course over jumps as high as 1.60 meters saw only five riders qualifying for the jump-off on a clear, cool night in Doha.
As the first rider in the jump-off, Epaillard and Usual Suspect d’Auge, an 11-year-old French-bred gelding, set the pace, going clear in a time of 40.11 seconds.
LGCT and GCL Doha Special: The year of Maher
With the next two riders, Italy’s Alberto Zorzi and Holland’s Frank Schuttert, both dropping a pole, Belgium’s Nicola Philippaerts and H&M Chilli Willi played it safe as they produced a clear round in 43.43 seconds.
“I just tried to go quick enough and tried to stay clear and be on the podium,” Philippaerts said in a news conference.
The last to go, it was all in Maher’s hands as he guided Explosion W over the fences in a rapid pace, only to come up short in the last turn into the final stretch.
Watching from the warm-up arena, Epaillard clenched his fist and let out a roar when he saw Maher’s time.
“Just misjudged it today, he’s naturally very fast and we just weren’t good enough to beat Julien today,” said Maher, who won Madrid, Paris, Rome and Doha last season. “Today he was very fast. That’s sport, and that’s the way it goes.”
Epaillard had finished in second place no less than three times earlier in the week in Doha.
“I was not thinking, really, to win the Grand Prix,” Epaillard said. “It’s fantastic, the horse is amazing. It’s his second Global Champions League Grand Prix, he already won in Paris, and now here, I am very happy to ride him.”
His win in Doha means Epaillard is the first rider of the 2019 season to secure a spot in the lucrative Super Grand Prix in Prague, at the end of the season in November.
“It feels very good,” said the Frenchman. “Prague is an amazing place, I had a chance to ride there last year, it was a super show and already exciting to ride there.”
Earlier on Saturday, the two-day Global Champions League (GCL) team event was won by Shanghai Swans, with Germany’s Daniel Deusser and Switzerland’s Pius Schwizer both producing a double clear.
Valkenswaard United finished second while New York Empire were in third place.
“We have a very good team, but still in the end you have to get the job done,” Deusser told the GCL website. “We had a strong day on Thursday, and two clear rounds today — I have a super partner with Pius, so we’re very happy.”
With sixteen teams of six riders each, one more than last year, the competition will be fierce this season.
“I expected more teams on a double clear today, but it showed the course was tough,” said Deusser. “There were faults everywhere. It’s a long season, but the first step is done so we hope to continue like this,” he added.
“Very proud of my horse, how he jumped today,” Schuttert, of Valkenswaard United, said. “Hopefully, next time we can climb one spot up.”
London Knights, last year’s overall Global Champions League winners led by former Olympic champion Maher, finished in fifth place in Doha, just behind Madrid in Motion, who had triumphed in the first-ever GCL Super Cup at the GC Prague Playoffs in December.
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