Horse show jumping is not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Israeli sport.
While that isn’t about to change anytime soon, the Hatikva national anthem has in recent months been played in some of the world’s biggest show jumping competitions, something that was unthinkable not that long ago.
Daniel Bluman and his collection of horses are responsible for that, and if everything goes according to plan, Israel could have its first Olympic medalist in an equestrian event at the Tokyo Games in 2020.
The 28-year-old Medellin native represented Colombia in two Olympics, in 2012 and 2016, before changing nationalities to compete under the flag of Israel in December 2016.
Bluman’s grandfather moved to Colombia after being liberated from Auschwitz and Daniel started riding at the age of three. Bluman had been the highest ranked Colombian rider on the FEI Jumping Rankings since 2011 and he is currently Israel’s No. 1, sitting at No. 38 in the world.
Bluman has been in sensational form so far this year, picking up three first-place finishes over the past couple of months, including in four and five-star Grand Prix events (the number of stars indicates the level of prestige and prize money). Bluman won the $205,000 NetJets Grand Prix CSI4* competition at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Florida, with his veteran horse Sancha LS at the start of February before claiming top position the following week at the lower level Turf Tour $15,000 1.40m Grand Prix aboard Esmee.
The very next night, Bluman recorded his biggest victory of the 2018 winter season, capturing the first five-star grand prix of the Florida season – the $384,000 Fidelity Investments Grand Prix – atop Ladriano Z, beating Olympic silver medalist Beat Mandli and Dsarie in a two-horse jump off and tearing up as the Israeli national anthem played in his honor.
“I’ve always felt very close to Israel,” Bluman told The Jerusalem Post
. “I grew up going to Hebrew school and the Israeli flag was always something that is very meaningful to me and when there came the time to put together a strong equestrian team to represent Israel and I had the chance to help I didn’t think twice about doing it. To have the opportunity to do something for Israel is very important to me.”
At grand prix level events, the horse jumps a course of 10 to 16 obstacles, with heights up to 1.60 meters and spreads of up to 2.00 meters. Grand Prix-level show jumping competitions include the Olympics, the World Equestrian Games, and other series of internationally ranked events. Grand prix show jumping is normally referred to collectively as five-star Concours de Saut International (CSI) rules.
The Israel Equestrian Federation, led by president Ken Lalo, has been working to assemble a strong national team over recent years, including focusing on attracting eligible riders from abroad, with Bluman being the star recruit.
Israel’s second-highest ranked rider is Danielle Goldstein at No. 108, with Alberto Michan at No. 214 and Robin Muhr at No. 386.
“Israel now has riders that made aliya from different parts of the world,” said Bluman, who splits his time between West Palm Beach and New York, visiting Israel in the off-season.
“We have a Mexican, an American, we have myself and an Israeli. We are going to be as strong as any other nation in the sport so we are very motivated.”
Bluman keeps around six horses as his main string that travel with him to the biggest shows in the world. At the same time, he continues to produce younger horses.
“What has brought me the most success is to produce young horses into international horses,” he explained. “I have an operation that is always running year round with 20-25 young horses so that I always have horses coming from behind to strengthen the string.
“We have a very structured model that has been very successful and has given me the opportunity to be where I am and to allow me to keep up this level for many years to come because I normally don’t lack horse power and always have nice prospects coming through.”
While he has already participated in two Olympics, Bluman, who married amateur Israel rider Ariel Epstein in 2016, is only at the start of his career.
All three medalists at the Rio 2016 Games were 44 or older, with Britain’s gold medalist Nick Skelton 58-years-old at the time.
“I’ve still got 30 more years ahead of me,” noted Bluman. “It is a sport that allows you to stay competitive for many years and I think that with more experience you gain you are able to be more successful.
“I hope I can continue to get better and make it all the way to the top of the ladder. I’m already in a pretty high position, almost in the top 30 in the world, and if someday I can be No. 1 or close to that it would be a dream come true. I have many years to try and accomplish that.”
The main goal for Bluman this year is the world championships in North Carolina in September.
“Of course we also have the Grand Slams and every five star competition is always a big goal,” added the rider.
The CHIO Aachen in Germany, The CSIO Spruce Meadows “Masters” in Calgary, Canada, The CHI Geneva in Switzerland and The Dutch Masters in ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands are the four major competitions that compose the Grand Slam. The prize money at each event is at least 1.2 million euros.
While success in a Grand Slam would be an amazing achievement for Bluman, nothing can really compete with the prestige of the Olympics, a medal at which would give his sport a tremendous boost in Israel.
“An Olympic medal is something every athlete in the world, regardless of sport, dreams to do,” explained Bluman.
“And especially for Israel to have an Olympic medal would be huge. That is certainly one of my biggest goals.
“There are so many great goals to have and so many fantastic moments we can live so I just want to try and continue to get better and doing the best that I can so that I can make those dreams and goals a reality.”