September 29, 2010 -- Greetings from Lexington. I finally walked the cross-country course that all the insiders have been talking about, and it's a doozie. But before I tell you about it, I want to share my point of view with you. I am here to provide the color commentary for the WEG eventing. This is the best seat in the house, especially on cross-country day. I'll be sitting in the production truck this Saturday, with about 20 TV screens working in front of me. Once you get on course, you can run, but you can't hide. I'll be watching.
Some of the lenses these NBC TV cameras have could focus on a tear in the man in the moon's eye. If he has been watching the last couple of days, he is going back and forth between cheers and tears. That's just part of a life with horses. They drop us to the depths of despair, and they lift us to the heights of excitement we never thought we would attain. And there have already been plenty of both here at the WEG.
Our USA reiners are walking around with a goofy gold medal smile on their faces, and I don't blame them. They have really set the standard for their sport, and they should be proud of their achievements. On the other hand, I walked by one of our U.S. dressage riders just after the dressage medals were awarded, and the rider looked as if they had been kicked in the stomach. It is bad enough to miss out on a medal, but to miss out on it in your home country really hurts. Then, to add insult to injury, we missed the bronze medal by two points. Two points, spread over two days of competition. I can tell you from personal experience that our dressage riders are going to be secretly beating themselves up for the rest of their lives. "Two points! Two points? If only I had gotten a better half-halt before my pirouettes, I could have gotten two more points myself."
All you can do is lift your head and keep going. I know some of our dressage team members, and I promise this is going to be a big factor in their training over the next two years. They are already scheming about how to win a medal in the 2012 London Olympics. Lord willing, I'll be in the stands, cheering them on.
And you can bet I was in the stands to watch Edward Gal and Moorlands Totilas do their thing in the team dressage competition. It is the first time I have seen them live, and it was worth the wait. This horse is incredibly free and extravagant with his movement. He looks like he goes into piaffe and passage for fun and could keep it up all day. Then he walks out of the arena on a loose rein, looking towards the out gate for a hand-treat.
Horses are a sometime thing, and there are some really good horses here, but for now Moorlands Totilas is the one to beat.
Any horse person who has a TV set is in for a treat, because you are going to be able to see more prime time coverage than ever. NBC has scheduled 8 1/2 hours of coverage over the three weekends of the WEG, and way more than that on channels such as Universal Sports. NBC hired Carr-Hughes Productions (CHP gets Emmys for their Olympic programs; they know what they are doing) to produce the shows, and they really have some wonderful sights for you. The programs are going to be seen in over 100 countries, which is a record for horse sports. By the way, I have had a sneak peak at NBC's opening sequence. All I can say is that if you can watch this without getting goose bumps, you don't love horses. Make sure your TiVo is working, and watch it in HD. There is so much going on, I don't know how they are going to get all that material in, but Carr-Hughes is the best, and I am sure you will enjoy it.
Speaking of too much material, my daughters are hooting at my first blog, where I say I am afraid I might not have enough material for my Lexington blogs. Jennifer said that me hanging around the WEG looking for material and writing a blog about it was like taking candy from a baby. (Sometimes I have the feeling my daughters are laughing at me, not laughing with me. but it's nice to bring a little laughter into someone's life, don't you think?)
Anyone who has walked the cross-country course is not laughing, that's for sure. I know most of you have already seen the photos of the course posted on the various blogs that are coming out of the WEG, so I'll just make some general comments. I am certain this is the biggest and most technical course that Mike Etherington-Smith has ever designed. Bigger by far than his course in Hong Kong, and much more technical than his Olympic courses in Sydney (where he built courses for both the team and the individual competitions), this is the course that will define his legacy.
It is extremely modern in design. By that I mean that there are 48 jumping efforts on the course. and 29 of them have some technical aspect to them. In other words, every other jump around this 6,200 meter, 11'15" course makes you hold your line, as well as kick. You can't Forrest-Gump your way around this one--it is just too big and too hard.
I would say we will have about 20 clear rounds, but only about 5 double-clear. This is partly because the World Championships are essentially a team competition: This means the first riders to go will be a tiny bit conservative. It also reflects the difficulty of the course. I have mentioned the technicality of this course, but I also want you to notice its sheer, massive scope. Most of the spreads are over five feet across the top; for big-time horses this is OK once, but it takes a lot of scope and energy to jump that sort of spread time after time. If your horse is not superbly talented and absolutely fit, sooner or later you are going to start to go the long way around. NFL Hall of Fame Coach Vince Lombardi said "fatigue makes cowards of us all." If your horse gets tired out here, you had better start giving serious consideration to Plan B. Plan B involves a lot of time faults, but it will get your horse home safely.
Another thing to notice is that this course is a real test of your horse's courage. Mike E-S has used ditches at several critical places around the course, most notably at 17A and 26A. Both obstacles have a gaping chasm in front of them and a narrow angled opening to jump through. The face of the ditch and the actual obstacle are at about 45 degree angles to each other, so if your horse has the slightest "spook" in him, he may look down into the ditch and then glance off the obstacle. That is hard enough to begin with, but 17A is also the biggest drop on the course. and it is into the water at the Head of the Lake (called "Land Between the Lakes" this year, but you and I know it is really the Head of the Lake). Later on at 26A, the same question is asked again, at a maximum 4' 7" brush with an angled ditch in front of it, followed three strides later by another brush the same size. The frosting on the cake here is that you are three fences from home at this point. If you can't keep him straight. well, someday you can tell your grandchildren, "Kids, I once almost jumped clean in the World Championships."
The course is a little "left-handed." There are far more chances to duck out to the left than there are to the right. This is unusual for Mike E-S's courses, as they are typically well balanced and test both sides of your horse.
Finally, I would say that this course, like most cross-country courses these days, subscribes to what I call the "Russian Roulette" school of design. The main question being asked here this week is "stay straight and jump. Never mind how narrow, or how the ditch looks, stay straight." The course designers ask this question over and over again. And, just as with Russian Roulette, sooner or later you get the wrong answer.
As usual, I have successfully over-analyzed it. Think back for a minute to one of your first dressage lessons; what did your dressage instructor tell you? That's right, she said, "Don't try to go straight with your hands, darling, use your legs." So if you have a course that tests straightness to an extreme degree (and this one does) and all the distances (which I haven't really talked about because they are almost always slightly "going") are forward. well, put your legs on, go straight, and jump the jumps! The riders that go the best over this course are going to jump it all on straight lines, and they are going to make it look effortless. And I guarantee that when the last horse jumps the last cross-country fence, you are going to lean back on your couch and say, "Wow, I've never seen anything like it!"
Anyway, I'm afraid I might run out of material. I'm going back to watch the afternoon session. I'll post more later.
Read Part 1 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6
Jim Wofford has represented the U.S. in eventing at three Olympics and two World Championships; he has won the U.S. National Championship five times on five different horses. As a coach, he has had at least one student on every U.S. Olympic, World Championship and Pan American team since 1978. He is a regular columnist for Practical Horseman magazine.
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