Hong Kong, August 10, 2008 -- The U.S. dropped from second to third at the conclusion of Olympic eventing's dressage phase, but believe me, the team is still very much in the game.
A strong Australian squad leads the way on 102.8 penalties, followed by Germany (110.5), while the U.S. has 115.6 penalties. After that, it's Great Britain, which moved up to fourth on 121.8.
With the exception of Australia, all these teams lost key horses in the run-up to the Games. Maybe that's why the Aussies, who are unscathed in that area, appear so strong.
But Phillip Dutton has another theory, and he should know. He won two Olympic team gold medals as an Australian before becoming a U.S. citizen last year.
While his competitive spirit means he wants to beat the squad from his native land, he still has fond feelings for the team members and their coach, Wayne Roycroft, who he considers the secret to their success.
"I think he'll be remembered as one of the great horsemen ever. A lot of preparation and thought goes into everything they do," he commented.
Before the Games, Phillip was tipped as America's best hope for an individual medal, but his prospects aren't looking quite as bright anymore. There are some very heavy hitters ahead of him, and his dressage test earned him a score of 40.6, only good enough for 14th.
Connaught, his Rolex Kentucky winner, lacked brilliance, which made the test ho-hum, particularly in contrast with performances like Ingrid Klimke's spot-on test with the graceful Abraxxas that had her calling for champagne afterwards. She boosted Germany by sliding into third place with 33.5 penalties behind the early leader, Australia's Lucinda Fredericks (Headley Britannia) and Belgium's Karin Donckers (Gazelle de la Brasserie).
"I was disappointed," Phillip admitted after his ride.
"Not disappointed in the horse; you go from the warm-up and then all of a sudden this big arena, and I didn't have him quite how I'd like him," he said, figuring the type of effort he intended to produce would have netted him five less penalties and put him in the top six. "With the distractions that are out there, if you have your horse correctly between your hand and your leg, he's listening to you and not worrying about other stuff outside. He's a beautiful mover, but I was just a bit in third gear."
He'll need plenty of focus tomorrow on cross-country, for which, I am sad to say, thunderstorms are predicted. Have I mentioned it's typhoon season here?
"A lot of concentration is needed for the course," said Phillip, who has walked its twisting and undulating reaches five times trying to figure it out. "It's not like you can look straight ahead where the next jump is; most of the time, you can't even see the next jump. It's not the hardest cross-country you've ever seen. But the way it's designed and the terrain puts another element to it, not so much jumping, but of being accurate."
Throw in the weather, and this cross-country is sure to be very influential.
"I hope to be able to represent my new country with something that's pretty close to as good as it gets," said Phillip, who can be expected to move up the ranks in this phase. The only question is, how far can he go?
The other American riding today, Karen O'Connor, was just a few ticks behind Phillip on the ever-improving Mandiba. She certainly looked sharp wearing her brand-new navy blue custom-made shadbelly, quickly copied from her well-worn old coat by one of the tailors in Hong Kong.
Her criticism of her ride, which earned 41.9 penalties for 16th place, involved the trot work, which she called "too relaxed."
"Thank goodness the extended walk brightened him up and the canter work was some of the best he's done. I was thrilled," she said.
Mandiba, the horse who bucked everybody off (including Karen) in the early days of his training, is now a laid-back guy with great potential. He was a last-minute addition to the team after Heidi White-Carty's Northern Spy had a veterinary problem and had to drop out. Mandiba was ready to step into the breach, but not as ready as he'll be for the major championships coming up.
"He's got extraordinary movement and a great temperament. The next couple of years will be a really exciting time for him," said Karen, pointing out that he's only 9.
"I hope to have him for Kentucky (the 2010 World Equestrian Games) or London (the 2012 Olympics), old bag that I am," laughed Karen, who turned 50 this year.
The U.S. had lacked its usual depth and going into the Games, there was a big question as to whether the team would be in medal position. Coach Mark Phillips obviously was pleased with the team's standing after dressage.
"I think everybody here has performed above the level they've been performing in recent weeks," he said. "You can't ask more when you come to the Olympic Games than to perform at your best...we're very confident we're on a roll."
Tomorrow is an important day for eventing in general because the sport has been under pressure after a well-publicized series of deaths and bad accidents on cross-country. Today we heard about another fatality, a young woman in Britain who died in the 2-star CCI at Hartpury. No details were available last night.
So things need to go well as the competition is broadcast around the world. The climate and terrain offer the potential for trouble. If it rains, even though the ground is able to take a drenching, I hope they postpone the test to make sure conditions are optimum. Days are built into the schedule to allow that, so officials can easily be prudent and not push their luck. The sport can't afford a serious accident in such a public forum.
Aside from eventing dressage in the morning, the only other action today involved the horse inspection for Grand Prix dressage.
A Brazilian horse was held for reinspection tomorrow, but aside from that everyone passed. The U.S. horses looked terrific and so did the riders in their blue uniform blazers and white pants. Steffen Peters added an extra touch with a snazzy white golf hat. There were some wild outfits though, like the red suit worn by a Spanish rider. The Canadian women looked lovely in red Chinese jackets.
Spain's Beatriz Ferrer-Salat, who made history in 2002 by winning Spain's first championship dressage medals (team bronze and individual silver) at the World Equestrian Games, has dropped out of the Olympics. Her horse, Faberge, was scratched after having an undiagnosed hind end problem.
Award-winning equestrian journalist Nancy Jaffer is covering her eighth Olympics. Her columns, photos and articles appear regularly on EquiSearch.com.