Sarah Carless reports ..
Australia is lying in pole positioning in the Equestrian Eventing competition at the Olympic Games following the influential cross country phase. Chris Burton leads the way in the individual competition with the team occupy the Gold medal position in the team event.
It was clear from the outset that the 33-fence track would prove hugely influential, and with three of the first eight riders biting the dirt it more than lived up to expectations.
The standings in the individual competition makes it too close to call going into the final show jumping round, with Burton sitting on 37.6 with Santano II, less than four penalties in front of defending Olympic champion Michael Jung of Germany who has 40.9 penalties with Sam FBW. France’s Astier Nicolas and Piaf de B’Neville are third with 42.0 penalties
Burton was in second position after the dressage phase but a dominant cross country round moved him into the gold medal position after overnight leader William Fox-Pitt of Great Britain was relegated down the leader-board after Chilli Morning had a refusal.
Despite taking longer routes on course, Burton’s horse had a fast and consistent pace which ensured he returned home within the optimum time. Afterwards Burton said; “He’s a very green, inexperienced horse so I took full long routes. For a horse with very little blood in his breeding, he is a rocket. So I’m delighted at this stage.”
Michael Jung’s clear round promoted him to silver medal spot, but he said he didn’t have an easy time before he set off on his cross-country run. “The warm-up was difficult on Sam’s nerves. The loudspeakers, horses galloping by, the cheering spectators. He was already sweaty in the stables. He was overly motivated in the beginning but nevertheless wonderful. He gave me a good feeling and was still fresh at the finish line and staying inside the time was easier than I expected.”
French pathfinder Astier Nicolas said of his round: “It was such a good feeling. I realised the pressure – I had to do well for my team-mates, and that’s a huge feeling. I didn’t expect to have such stress and joy for the team competition. It’s a very demanding course and there’s never a place to drop your reins and let him breathe.”
Strong cross country performances gave Australia, who were team Gold medalists in 1992, 1996 and 2000, the advantage leading into the crucial show jumping rounds in which the team and individual medals will be decided. Burton’s individual result combined with the performances of his team members have Australia sitting on 150.3 penalties.
Team mate Sam Griffiths also completed a clear round with former Badminton winner Paulank Brockagh, but picked up 6.8 time penalties to finish on 53.1 to put him into ninth position. He commented; “It was a tough course and I was lucky to be on such a good horse. I am over the moon. What a star. To go straight overall you must be a gold medal rider.”
This was reinforced by another great run from Stuart Tinney and Pluto Mio who put just 2.8 time penalties on the board, so even though Shane Rose was eliminated late on the track with CP Qualified Australia still went out in front at the end of the day.
However, they have one show jumping rail in hand as second-placed New Zealand is on 154.8 penalties. France is third with 161 penalties and Germany fourth with 172.8 penalties.
New Zealand’s team didn’t get off to the start they were hoping for when pathfinder Tim Price and Ringwood Sky Boy had a fall on the flat, meaning that the remaining Kiwis had no choice but to keep it together and they succeeded brilliantly. Sir Mark Todd (Leonidas ll), Clarke Johnstone (Balmoral Sensation) and Tim Price’s wife, Jonelle Price (Faerie Dianimo) each went clear with only time faults to add.
Todd commented: “I had instructions from the team to stay safe and clear. Fence six had me worried but it was mostly a perfect round. The horse was brilliant all the way through. I was told to take one long route and briefly thought ‘do I disregard the order?’ But then I thought I should better behave myself. I am over the moon to have finished and gone well. It is a 3* course with 4* technicality. The fences come at you thick and fast. The team needed me to get round. There is no room for error – the horses have to stay really focused. It is a real riders course out there.”
Astier Nicolas set up the French with a fault-free run so they could drop the 50.4 collected by Karim Laghouag (Entebbe) who ran into trouble at the first of the two angled brush fences at 12. Team-mate Thibaut Valette (Qing du Briot) also faulted at this one but came home with a relatively modest 24.4 penalties to add, while Mathieu Lemoine (Bart L), individually third after dressage, took a careful tour of the track, and the final team tally of 161.0 was good enough for third.
Germany, London 2012 team Gold medallists and leaders after dressage, dropped to fourth on 172.8. Their dream of a third successive team title took a hammering despite a brilliant clear from defending team and individual Olympic champion Michael Jung when Julia Krajewski and Samourai du Thot were eliminated. This meant mistakes from Sandra Auffarth and Opgun Louvo and Ingrid Klimke and Hale Bob OLD had to be taken into account.
Germany’s National Coach Hans Mezler said of the day’s action: “Michael has once again been world class. We had many great days, now once a bad one. Of course it is a disappointment. Of course we are spoiled by the successes of recent years. It was clear that it would be difficult.
Klimke, however, was positive saying: “We have three good jumpers, now we have to roll up the field from behind.”
Brazil’s Carlos Parro rocketed up from 33rd place after dressage to hold equal-seventh spot with the Brazillian team now lying fifth ahead of The Netherlands.
All four of the British contingent collected both fence and time penalties to slot into eighth place and Fox-Pitt was clearly disappointed at his own result. “I had a very good round, it was just annoying that I went off at that third element of the Ski Jump. It was my fault entirely. I went too quickly I think and there was no way I could turn him. He didn’t do anything wrong. Watching those first few horses, you could see the course was asking questions all the way, and a lot of them weren’t coming up with the answers,” he added.
First out for Team GB was Gemma Tattersall and Quicklook V. They had an unfortunate stop at fence four and this was followed by a second refusal later in the course giving them a two phase score of 136.8 penalty points.
After an impressive dressage test yesterday, Pippa Funnell and Billy The Biz were the third combination for Great Britain out on course. Flying round the course, Pippa produced some great riding, but also incurred an unlucky run-out towards the end of the course.
“I’m very proud of him,” commented Pippa. “When I walked that last fence I thought it was really unlucky at that stage of the course; I know other great horses have done it, but when you see a lot of horses struggling, I was a little worried because he’s so special but I’m delighted with him today. I’m just gutted for Yogi, the team and all the connections.”
The final British combination of Kitty King and Ceylor LAN had to wait to the end of the day to head out on course. An unfortunate run-out at fence 11 saw 20 penalty points awarded to the duo, which added to their time faults saw them finish on a score of 53.6 penalties, and a total score of 100.4.
Kitty said afterwards; “There are a lot of positives to take out of it, and he still did a great job. He jumped really well in the warm-up and felt fantastic and he felt brilliant over the first few; as soon as he jumped the first two I thought we’re going to have a good ride and we did.”
Despite the US team being eliminated from the overall standings, two of its riders are in the top six going into the final phase – Phillip Dutton on Mighty Nice and Boyd Martin and Blackfoot Mystery. After his round Boyd commented: “I’m so grateful I was on an old racehorse from Kentucky. He kept fighting the whole way home. It’s one of those courses where you can’t ease up for one second. You’ve got to jump, get through one fence then think about the next.”
The statistics tell the tale of a tough day at the office, with eight of the 13 teams reduced to just three team-members, and USA and Russia no longer in contention after retirements and eliminations.
As the competition unfolded, riders quickly learned from those who went before them, but tackling the many complex questions on the course still proved a difficult task. The reality was that only a speedy run on the direct routes would be fully rewarded, but that meant risking a glance-off or stop if the skinny combination obstacles in particular didn’t come up right. In all there were 15 eliminations and two retirements while 38 of the 65 starters collected fence penalties. Only Brazil, France and Great Britain will have full four-member teams ahead of the show jumping provided all goes well in the final horse inspection.
Course designer, Pierre Michelet, felt he had provided plenty of different options for the riders to get themselves around the track. “You could change your mind and take a different route if you needed it” he said, “but I was surprised there were a lot of run-outs and dramatic things happening.”