July 29, 2012--If you had to guess the answer to who stands first individually after the conclusion of the Olympic eventing dressage today, and your choices were Yoshiaki Oiwa of Japan (who?), Stefano Brecciaroli of Italy or two-time individual Olympic gold medalist Mark Todd of New Zealand, you probably wouldn't consider it much of a stumper.
I'll bet eight out of 10 people would pick Mark, two would pick Stefano and Yoshi wouldn't get any votes. But a jaw-dropping performance aboard Noonday de Conde earned him only 38.1 penalty points to give Japan its biggest equestrian headline in decades. Stefano was second with a glorious extended canter on Apollo WD Wendi Kurt Hoev (38.5) and Mark was third aboard Campino (39.10).
Interestingly, no judge actually placed Yoshi first; two had him second, one had him fourth, with the scores they gave. But Stefano was sunk by a judge who placed him 10th; the other judges had him first and second. It just happened that Yoshi's total was a shade better than Stefano's.
When I asked Yoshi what the reaction would be in his country, he said, "Probably everybody will be shocked now."
That would sum up the reaction at Greenwich Park, where Yoshi wasn't even on the radar screen as everyone waited for the epic battle between German world and European champion Michael Jung with Sam and William-Fox Pitt of Great Britain with Lionheart.
But Michael had two mistakes, a break in the trot and bouncing at the walk, putting him 11th on Sam with 40.6 penalties. And Lionheart, William's horse, is not as polished as some of the other mounts I've seen him ride, though of course he got the maximum out of him. He is 17th on 44.10 penalties, 0.20 ahead of the best U.S. rider, Phillip Dutton, 18th with Mystery Whisper. That horse was a little spooky going around the ring before entering, and his rider wisely didn't push for the maximum. His controlled test, however, wasn't enough to give the score that everyone expected would boost American fortunes.
If you're a U.S. fan, just keep repeating the mantra, "Eventing is more than a dressage test; eventing is more than a dressage test."
Okay, have you done that? Are you sitting down? Maybe you should have a drink. The U.S. is seventh at the moment with 138.8 penalties, 19.7 behind the leader, Germany, which is followed by Australia, Great Britain; New Zealand and Sweden, tied for fourth (remember I told you yesterday to watch out for Sweden.) Oh yes, and in sixth place is Japan; no one told you to watch out for Japan.
On the plus side, it's a good thing, a sign the sport is expanding, as dressage has, beyond the same old players. On the other hand, it would have been nice to have the U.S. higher up in the standings at this point.
More about Yoshi: He was 49th at the last Olympics and 38th in the 2010 World Equestrian Games. He is sponsored by an ocular lens company and trains with German rider Dirk Schrade, whom he beat handily (Dirk stands sixth).
Yoshi's hero is Baron Nichi Takeishi, an Olympic gold medalist for Japan before World War II. His bio calls his dressage "a perceived weak area." Maybe the bio should be updated. And he has a superstition about sprinkling salt and sand on his Selle Francais mount and himself before he rides. I couldn't get much out of him about that. If he's still first after tomorrow, I'll dig a little deeper.
But I have a feeling that cross-country is about to change the picture, and a good effort on the hills of Greenwich could give the U.S. a chance to recoup. Obviously, however, the team has a lot of rungs on the ladder to climb.
Although eventing dressage isn't very exciting in itself, we had a good bit of drama, starting out with the appearance of Princess Anne (an Olympian herself in 1976) and her father, Prince Phillip. Both are former presidents of the FEI (international equestrian federation.)
She and the prince were on hand to watch her daughter, Zara, compete for Britain on High Kingdom. (And I know you know she is also the daughter of Mark Phillips, the U.S. technical advisor.) They sat with Princess Benedikte of Denmark, whose daughter, Nathalie zu sayn-Wittgenstein, is competing in Grand Prix dressage. I guess royals feel comfy hanging out together.
Zara did her best to be a credit to mom and grandpop, finishing 24th. But then, she's a former world and European champion, so what would you expect? Also offering moral support were her husband, rugby star Mike Tindall and her brother, Peter.
Thunder and lightning led officials to wisely call a 10-minute break in the action. The decision annoyed New Zealand's Andrew Nicholson, who felt the delay affected his performance on Nereo. I guess he thinks he can't get struck by lightning.
The weather also disturbed Yoshi's mare, but she calmed down and you see how well she did (must have been the salt and sand.)
There has been a lot of talk about empty seats at the venues, and equestrian was no exception. It's an issue because so many events were said to be sold out. The storyline for the situation at Greenwich Park was that people were simply wandering about, looking at the cross-country jumps, standing in endless lines for food, or taking a nap after dressage put them to sleep. But I noticed that many of the empty seats were in large blocks; unless a bunch of neighbors got tickets together and decided to go for a walkabout, I'm guessing those belonged to corporate sponsors who just didn't show up. So then give someone else a chance to come and watch. Even so, we've had a huge crowd over the last two days for what is basically a preamble to the main event.
Tomorrow should be exciting. No one really knows how the standings will be affected, since the cross-country course has less imposing (but very beautiful) jumps than a 4-star such as Badminton, but trying to make the optimum time up the hills could sort out the contenders very quickly. I'm really looking forward to it, hoping it doesn't rain and putting my money on Toddy to go to the head of the class.