Aachen, Germany, August 26, 2006 -- What do these people have in common: William Fox-Pitt, Phillip Dutton, Ingrid Klimke, Kim Severson and Andrew Hoy?
Of course, they are world-class event riders--but that's just the easy answer.
The unhappy tie that binds them together today is the fact that all these stars had refusals (not to mention time penalties) on the cross-country course at the World Equestrian Games (WEG).
That's how tough the route was. I don't think I've ever seen so many corners and narrow fences, which practically required a horse who could thread a needle.
The biggest letdown involved poor Kim, the Olympic silver medalist, riding Winsome Adante, the horse who won Rolex Kentucky three times. Kim got in trouble at the fourth fence, the road crossing, when she didn't make it clear to Dan exactly what it was he was supposed to jump, and had a miss there for 20 penalties. What a downer, coming so early in the course, and at a fence that was still basically a warm-up jump. It stunned even a seasoned campaigner like Kim.
"For me...it was hard to go on," she admitted about the mistake that dropped her from a tie for third to 16th. "I was rather surprised that I had a hard time in my head about going on with it, but as we went around and it got better and better, I was obviously more and more comfortable with it, and he was great after that."
Despite Kim's mishap, the Americans somehow managed to claw their way into third place from fourth after dressage. Their perch is precarious, though, with the Australians breathing down their necks just 3.2 penalties back. Will Faudree redeemed himself for his problems in the dressage by moving up from a tie for 53rd to 20th on Antigua. Heidi White, who, like Will, is making her team debut, had a bunch of time penalties with Northern Spy, which demoted her from a tie for 22nd to 30th. Listen to her and she'll explain what happened.
Although the event won't be over until tomorrow's stadium jumping wraps up, it would take a major disaster for the Germans to lose. The home team is 32 penalties ahead of the British, who are in second place, so they could enjoy the luxury of being able to knock down a total of eight fences before they have to be seriously concerned about losing their lead.
The U.S. riders, meanwhile, have just 3.2 penalties between them and the Aussies. Remaining in the bronze medal position will be tough, "but we'll do everything in our power to stay there," said Karen O'Connor.
She and Jan Byyny are riding as individuals, and not contributing to the team score. But her remark is indicative of the team spirit that is buoying this squad.
However things turn out tomorrow for our eventers, their time at WEG is something they will remember fondly.
"The amount of camaraderie on this team has been better than anything I've ever experienced," observed Karen, who has been on all kinds of teams over her career, so she knows what she's talking about.
"This has been a really good team. This team has pulled together," she continued.
I'm making a point of noting this because unfortunately, team spirit and sporting spirit have not always been evident at the WEG. I won't go into specifics, though I have already mentioned one or two over the past week if you want to look back, but it's refreshing to see a group of riders who are all for one and one for all.
Today was a rough one for the Americans, so they needed all the support they could get from their teammates, staff, owners and groom, who they all thanked profusely in something like an Academy Award acceptance speech.
Only determined pathfinder Amy Tryon on the former mountain pack horse, Poggio II, was able to go double clear over 45 obstacles along the 6,380-meter route that was just a short walk from the rest of the Aachen showgrounds.
U.S. coach Mark Phillips described the course as a "postage stamp," crammed into smaller quarters than the layout at the Kentucky Horse Park, which is hosting the WEG in 2010 and has the luxury of lots of parkland for its galloping routes. As Mark noted, the postage stamp courses are getting more common as open land gets more scarce.
But this layout was neatly done. I particularly liked the walls flanked by windmills and the two fences with the "needlemaker's mark," a giant hand with the little finger pointing up and the thumb pointing to the side. (Don't try it; it hurts). Aachen apparently was a needle-making center, and the way Aachenites (Aacheners?) greet each other in foreign countries is with this hand signal, which replicates how they used to sort needles. Or so someone in the crowd today told me.
If you didn't like crowds, the WEG wasn't the place to be today. There were 44,000 on the course, and I had a hard time getting anywhere near some of the fences. Narrow bridges across a stream became human traffic jams, but everyone took it in good humor, waving their flags (mostly German) and cheering their lungs out.
The first water complex, the "seaside resort," sponsored by Rolex (which also backs the 4-star at Kentucky) was more lavish than the one we have in Lexington. There were several options to get through it, and they were needed, because a lot of folks had trouble. An island in the center had a boat at the top of a little hill that was part of the speedy, straight way to handle the complex. But I saw several riders come to grief there when their horses either lacked impulsion or said "no" after getting a glimpse of all the baskets and oranges stuffed in the boat.
Zara Phillips, Mark's daughter, had a spot of trouble at the complex, but she came through to go to the head of the class on Toy Town after the overnight leader, Germany's Bettina Hoy, took some long routes with Ringwood Cockatoo near the end of the course when she felt him getting tired.
Zara, whose mother is Princess Anne, rides for Great Britain, naturally, and must think top-class eventing is easy. She won the European Championship on her first try, and now she's ahead here. The question is: will she actually be wearing that gold medal around her neck tomorrow? Toy Town isn't the best at show jumping, though he's working on it.
I'm sure Bettina will be thinking about how she messed up in show jumping at the Athens Olympics (she went through the start line twice, leading to disqualification and the loss of two gold medals; hers and the teams.) So you know Bettina is going to use her considerable prowess for a better result here. There's less than a rail between these two ladies, but whatever happens, Bettina insisted, their friendship will be unaffected. That's the spirit!
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Plus, don't miss Jim Wofford's entertaining online diaries as he follows the WEG eventing action.