Hong Kong, August 9, 2008 -- The U.S. turned in a shining effort as eventing got under way this morning with the dressage phase, contested beneath the Sha Tin venue's own version of the Olympic flame.
Amy Tryon produced her usual workmanlike performance aboard the veteran Poggio II, Gina Miles was excited about a personal best with McKinlaigh and Becky Holder lit up the spacious arena with a lovely test on Courageous Comet.
But the Australians sparkled a little more, led by the husband and wife pairing of Lucinda and Clayton Fredericks with a marvelous follow-through from teammate Megan Jones.
Lucinda's personal best of 30.4 penalties on Headley Brittania still leads the pack. Both she and her husband entered the arena with vigor, obviously bent on success and followed through with style. They are an adorable couple, with each helping the other and succeeding no matter which one gets the glory.
While Clayton was second early-on with 2007 Rolex Kentucky winner Ben Along Time, his 37-penalty score didn't hold that place. He dropped behind Karin Donckers, riding as an individual for Belgium aboard Gazelle de la Brasserie, and third-place Megan on Irish Jester.
Australia leads on 102.8 penalties, the American team has 121.5 and Germany is third on 135.3.
When I congratulated U.S. coach Mark Phillips on the performance of his group, he just smiled, commenting, "So far, so good."
Truly, it is, as they say in Britain, "early days" yet for this competition. But plenty already has happened.
France, tipped by some to take the gold as it did in 2004, became a non-factor yesterday when Nicolas Touzaint scratched Galan de Sauvagere at the last minute during his warm-up.
It seems the horse hurt himself in a thunderstorm Friday (shades of Carlsson vom Dach during the U.S. show jumping selection trials) but the groom neglected to tell anyone that he had fallen. A stifle injury got worse, prompting the horse's withdrawal. Earlier, another top French entry, the 2002 World Champion Jean Teulere with Espoir de la Mare, was taken off the start list due to a fetlock problem. That left the French without their two best horses and no drop score. I'm taking them off the medal list; I'll be happy to apologize if I'm wrong.
"I don't know what to say," commented a devastated Thierry Touzaint, the coach who is also Nicolas' father. "This is a nightmare, the worst possible scenario."
"I find it difficult to believe," added a glum Nicolas.
Britain, also considered a medal possibility, lags behind fourth-place Sweden. Its biggest name, William Fox-Pitt, who was considered an individual medal contender on Parkmore Ed, had a lackluster test that put him in 23rd place. And we still have one more dressage session to go tomorrow morning, which likely will drop him further.
The French and William weren't the only ones who didn't have a day that went as planned. As word filtered out of Beijing about the stabbings of the U.S. volleyball coach's in-laws, security became tighter here. Guards got a woman protesting Chinese presence in Tibet under control so quickly that few realized she was raising that country's flag in the stands.
But in the afternoon a human rights protestor was more boisterous, yelling as he was taken away after Alex Hua Tian became the first Chinese rider ever to compete in the Olympics.
The disruption was a bit unsettling to the next competitor, perennial Olympian Andrew Nicholson of New Zealand, who quipped that he realized the yelling wasn't coming from a regular equestrian fan. His Lord Killinghurst was not quite himself and stands 12th.
The U.S. endeavor was very even, a blessing for a team considered an underdog after a series of mishaps during the run-up to the Games that included the death of the talented pony Theodore O'Connor and the loss of several horses from the short list.
The team is really together, though, and their enthusiasm was easy to share.
If Gina had not run into problems with McKinlaigh's usual downfall, flying changes, she'd be placed even better than she is right now, in the seventh spot.
She was still bubbling over the experience of being in the Olympics with her longtime partner when I talked to her several hours after her ride.
Becky and Comet were certainly on their game and added to the drama of the spectacular setting under the lights with the gelding's stirring presence and glowing gray coat.
"It's fantastic to get an opportunity to represent my country. I'm so, so excited for the rest of the weekend," said Becky. "We were really pleased I was able to put in a really solid performance for our team."
The stadium was nearly full during the evening as the heat and humidity index finally drifted toward bearable. During the morning, spectators fanned themselves with their start lists as the day got warmer. The morning competition, done to the accompaniment of soothing music, started at 6:30 a.m. and ended by 10 to circumvent the most oppressive part of the day. I felt for the Olympic mascots, attired in bulky plastic suits, who cavorted during a break in the action. We all speculated that they must have some kind of self-contained air conditioning inside their bright cocoons--otherwise, cavorting simply wouldn't be possible.
The action resumed at 7:15 p.m. to complete the split session. After Monday's cross-country, all the competition will be at night to make things more comfortable for everyone concerned.
Karen O'Connor goes tomorrow morning with the relatively inexperienced Mandiba, who she says has grown in stature during his Olympic quest.
"He left a boy and now he's all grown up," proudly declared Karen, who was a longshot to make the Olympic team after the death of Teddy.
"Of all the horses that Teddy liked, he liked Mandiba the best," she said, noting there's some kind of spiritual link to the way she got here.
While she's enjoying her fourth Olympics, she still misses Teddy and is awaiting a bracelet that is being made from his tail hair.
She'll undoubtedly miss Teddy even more on cross-country day, because the challenge at the Beas River Country Club and Hong Kong Golf Club seems to have been made for him.
"He would have been like a motorcycle around that course," she said.
Karen had some interesting thoughts about the course.
The U.S. team's anchorman will be Phillip Dutton, the two-time gold medalist for Australia who is competing in his first Olympics as an American. It's interesting that his homeland likely will be his biggest competition.
The show jumpers are getting behind the eventers and were on hand to cheer for them today. During cross-country, they will be spotters, observing how other riders handle the course and passing on information.
That team seems to be having a wonderful time, apparently spending much of it getting custom-made clothes, a Hong Kong specialty. This is McLain Ward's second Olympics, but he doesn't miss the presence of the other sports.
"Being that we're the only Olympic event in Hong Kong, it's so highlighted, and it's very nice. A lot of times at the Olympics, we're overshadowed by higher-profile events and this whole city has rallied around equestrian events and is focused on them. That's very exciting for us," he said. "People are very aware, excited and enthusiastic. At some other venues, they ask what equestrian events are."
U.S. show jumping coach George Morris was equally complimentary of Hong Kong as an Olympic site.
I'm working on two hours of sleep a night with this crazy schedule, so I better take what I can get now. I'll be back with you tomorrow to wrap up dressage and fill you in on the dressage horse inspection. Choi keen!
Award-winning equestrian journalist Nancy Jaffer is covering her eighth Olympics. Her columns, photos and articles appear regularly on EquiSearch.com.