"Every Moroccan rider must fight to join the team," Philippe Le Jeune
In September, World Champion Philippe Le Jeune added a new string to his bow by taking over the reins of the Moroccan national team. Three months later, the Moroccan national team is already enjoying success by qualifying four riders individually for the Olympic Games in Tokyo, a first for this emerging nation. The Belgian looks back with us on these last few months that have animated and fascinated him daily.
A new chapter in your career has opened as you have been appointed the head the Moroccan team. How has this adventure been so far?
I have 148 Nations Cups under my belt and have worked with six Chefs d’équipe. I have also coached Belgian riders at the CSI2* and 3* level. After a year of teaching management and discipline, we did some really good things with a real team spirit, even though it’s a mostly individual sport. So I have a lot of experience; I know what the expectations of a rider are or not. I first started working with Abdelkebir Ouaddar at the beginning of the year and then with the other Moroccan riders in September. I set out guidelines, rode their horses to better understand them and to settle some technical issues. I also want to teach them another way of working and so far, everything has gone very well. I have often heard, not directly from them, that they don't necessarily have good horses. They have realized, with the exercises I have given them, that their mounts are progressing fast. I'm not saying they are all Olympic horses, but they are very good horses. It's only with work that each pair will improve. I pay a lot of attention to perfection, the horse’s well-being and discipline. Let's take the example of Istanbull V.H Ooievaarshof (Casall), Abdelkebir Ouaddar's partner! He could look around a lot and be afraid of other horses... I rode him as if he was any other horse, and he came to spend a few weeks at my stables. The penny dropped! I made his rider understand that he had to trust him, and since then, they have jump incredibly well together. Istanbull is a star-to-be! I would like to thank His Majesty King Mohammed VI, may God glorify him, the entire Royal Moroccan Federation of Equestrian Sports as well as its President Sharif Moulay Abdellah Alaoui for allowing me to live this adventure and to put all this in place to develop the sport in Morocco.
Morocco has just ridden in their first Nations Cup with you at the CSIO3* that was held at the Sunshine Tour. How did you approach it?
In my career, I have always worked towards goals and that was what I had wanted to do with them. When I found out that we were invited to Vejer de la Frontera for the Nations Cup, I prepared an adjusted CSI competition schedule ranging from 2 to 3*. I wanted the horses to jump three times a weekend to toughen them up, and they did it brilliantly. The day before the event, I gave them a speech telling them that they were ready for this Nations Cup. I don't want them to ride with any pressure. In the arena, there are only the two of them; the horse and his rider. I trust them, I won't criticize them, far from it. I live for the Nations Cup. Every morning I have a knot in my stomach and I like that feeling because it pushes me to be good. On Saturday morning, before the Nations Cup, I felt a little tense, so I told them: "17 teams are here with good riders and several championships under their belt. If they don't make it to the second round, they’ll look like fools. You have no pressure, and nothing to lose!" As a rider, I knew what to tell them at that moment and it gave them a boost! (Editor’s note: The team was composed of Abdelkebir Ouaddar, Ali Al Ahrach, Ghali El Boukka and Samy Colman).
Morocco placed seventh in this Nations Cup and secured four individual tickets to the Tokyo Olympic Games. How would you take stock of this?
I can tell you that they were so happy with this qualification for Tokyo after the first round, that they were a bit careless in the next one! Each of them made a small mistake when they should have stayed focused. Without the rounds from Abdelkebir Ouaddar and Samy Colman, we could have been on the podium. I want them to understand that I'm aiming for much more than seventh place, or for them to be caught out in the second round. I'm still much more demanding than they are of themselves, but I was still happy with each pair, and I didn't fail to tell them that! If they want to talk about the high level, you have to set the bar higher, become even more professional, work hard and improve. That's what I want them to understand. They're very good, I have no doubt about that.
So will the Tokyo team be similar to the one that lined up at the Sunshine Tour?
Right now, the four Nations Cup riders have their tickets; I have to focus on that! I also have to look to the future; the youth are the future. There’s also Mohammed Azoum and Hicham Er-Radi who, for the moment, have horses that are too young to compete in Olympic events. I also want to give young riders a chance, not just this small group of riders. I don't know all the other riders yet. I have yet to meet them. We have a trip planned soon, where I will join the riders in Rabat. In Europe, we see many young people under 20 years old riding over 1.50m courses; the Moroccans are still far from that. I've only been there once but I can't wait to find out how they work in different stables.
After the Autumn Sunshine Tour, the troops returned to Morocco. What's next?
They all went home to rest with their families. The grooms also did a great job! I'm going to visit them twice a month to continue coaching them during work sessions. The idea is also to get to know all these young people and to establish a plan. I also want to get closer to the owners in order to create a buzz for top level sport. Each Moroccan rider must fight to join the national team. Next February, I would like them to spend a few weeks at the Sunshine Tour to ride in the CSI4* in order to get back on track. Apart from Abdelkebir Ouaddar, the others don't have much experience in 4 and 5* events. So they will be able to jump over bigger heights... a CSI3* has nothing to do with the Olympic Games! It's another sport, and fortunately, I have that background; I know how to give confidence to the rider and their horse. All the great champions are usually present every weekend at the CSI5* events, so getting the opportunity to go to the Games is huge. It's a great novelty for this nation and these riders, except for Kebir who has already competed in Rio. I don't want them to feel the pressure too much. I keep telling them that they have nothing to lose!
Precisely, it is getting more and more difficult to get access to a CSI5*, and even more so nowadays...
The infamous Longines Rankings take a lot of high-level riders away from the sport. It's anti-sport! It’s only good for the Top 30; I find it more negative than positive. If my riders are not invited to a CSI5*, I have to ask the Federation to pay for five entries, which will be a frightening figure with four or five zeros for only one weekend of competition, which doesn’t take the rest of the shows and riders into account. It's crazy and I don't want to have to do that. I have asked my riders to make it onto one of the podiums of the next Nations Cups. On the one hand so that they can compete, and on the other hand so that I can go and ask for invitations or wild cards into one of the CSIO5* events with the weight of my name.
A few months ago, you told us that this new post wouldn’t make you hang up your boots. Are you still able to ride as much as before?
Yes, I ride six to eight horses a day while training my wife Lucia Le Jeune Vizzini, who is starting to pick up Grand Prix partners. I’m busy from 8am to 8pm every day! I stopped riding at the top level simply because, for my wife and I, it’s difficult to have several horses going at this level for two riders. Financially, we don't have sponsors available to us to buy good horses. We start with young horses that we train. We also have two little girls with whom I like to spend time at home, as well as being in my fields with my foals and 3-year-olds. I'm really passionate about everything I do. Of course, I love following the CSI5* events, especially when Lucia had her incredible Loro Piana Filou de Muze (Stakkato), because the high level is as fantastic as it is exciting. I hope to get back there with the Moroccan riders!
Featured photo: Léa Tchilinguirian. Photo Credit: Léa Tchilinguirian / Sportfot.com