August 27, 2006 -- Greetings from Aachen. I have been writing this blog sitting in the back of the TV production truck. I put on my headphones, turn the volume up, and crank up my tunes to get in the right mood for contact journalism. For my kick-off tune today, I went with REO Speedwagon's "Riding the Storm Out." We just made it, too. Zara Phillips jumped the last fence clear to win the individual gold, and the next thing you know, we were having a good old-fashioned frog strangler. Clayton Fredericks jumped a classy round to move up into the silver slot, and how 'bout that Amy Tryon?
It was deja vu Athens all over again, where she comes into the ring in seventh place, jumps the money round, and this time gets the individual bronze.
Kim Severson gets all the press, but Kim would be the first to tell you that Amy is the rock we build the team on, and she did not let us down this time, we let her down. Despite Amy's medal, there are some long faces in the USET stables tonight. We need good horses and riders to back up the people we brought here, and right now we don't have them. Look at the Brits... There are not many other teams that could lose the individual gold medal winner, plus the winner of the Rolex Grand Slam, and STILL win the silver... and they started two World Championship/Olympic rookies to do it. That is depth.
If I were a U.S. rider, age about 20, with a nice three-star horse, I would say to myself "Hmmmmm... the Olympics are in two years, the World Equestrian Games will be here in Lexington in four years... I think I am going to go back out to the barn and ride without stirrups for a while... because I want to ride for my country, and it looks like I have a chance." But it won't just happen. You have to make it happen. Good luck, kid, you don't really realize how badly we need you and how much we are pulling for you. Now you run along to the stables and cross your stirrups while I tell the rest of these nice people about the rest of what I saw today.
I was thinking of trying to slip in some more of the stuff that got me in such trouble the other day, say, something like I have noticed that (watch it! your Net Nanny is on this site 24/7). OK, OK. It was worth a try. (Cue insane laughter sound track here.)
The course today was typically European. It was not quite as big, or as related, as the course at Rolex this spring, but it took a lot of jumping, and there were not many double-clears. This is a big arena, and the jumping lines stretched from one end of the arena to the other. When you are on a slightly tired horse that was whizzing around at 600 meters per minute yesterday, it is a tricky job to hold them together. If you fight with your horse, you knock rails down, but if you just let them run you knock rails down, so you have to find the right balance of control and aggression.
It also does not help that most riders are so nervous when they ride into a big time arena that they want to throw up. While I watched the jumping today, I got to thinking how rare Sunday afternoon nerves are. By that I mean it is rare to see people who can come into an arena with their team and individual chances on the line, with a chance to go into the history books, and with a TV zoom lens showing every detail live to a worldwide audience, and then they ride better than you have ever seen them ride. That is Sunday afternoon nerves. Look up "Sunday afternoon nerves" in the dictionary, and you will see Amy Tryon's photo. She has got them. So does Clayton Fredericks and Zara.
Of course, Zara is a special case. She has grown up with the tabloid press breathing down her neck, so that sort of thing doesn't bother her. But still, she didn't get into the ring because she is the Queen's grand daughter. She got in there because she rides her horse the living best. And when she gets in there, she makes the best of it... sounds simple, but a lot of people weren't able to do it today.
And talking about that zoom lens, when Zara went through the finish line, they had a close up shot of her face. She looked up at the main scoreboard, and confirmed in her own mind that she had just won the gold medal. The she dropped her eyes to Toy Town, and gave him a little pat, and you could see her thinking, "You are so special, and I am so lucky to have the ride on you, and I really love you." In the meantime, Toy Town, who is a British sport horse but looks and acts Irish, was googling his eyes at the crowd, and obviously going "Eh, eh, did good, didn't I, Mom?"
We were talking earlier about the type of horse that the short format would demand in the 21st century. Just for the record, Toy Town is a British sport horse, Ben Along Time is an Irish sport horse, and Poggio is an American Thoroughbred. Out of the next three? Two Thoroughbreds and a Holsteiner. And one of them, Glengarrick, is 19 years old, and was unlucky not to jump a double clear--he barely touched the last rail in the triple. Nineteen? That is like 120 in dog years.
We haven't talked much about the Germans winning the gold team, basically because they won it fair and square, and beat everybody else;s brains out. Did you see the margin of victory? Fourty-four points? They could have knocked down 10 rails, and still won. Heck, even Kim didn't win Rolex by that much last year. Then the Brits were ahead of the Aussies by 17 points. But the Aussies only beat us for the bronze by less than two points. That is a gut wrenching margin anywhere, and even worse a competition of this magnitude. I can tell you from personal experience that all four of our riders will look at the ceiling in their motel room tonight, and go "If only I had..." But we didn't, and the Germans did, and we have to suck it up and get better. That is all there is to it.
And this is about all there is to it, for me. I've really enjoyed my time here in Aachen, but am starting to get a little homesick. I've been married 40 years now, and my wife doesn't pay much attention to me any more. When we had our anniversary this year, somebody asked her if she had ever considered divorce. She replied, "Murder, yes. Divorce, never." Anyway, I'd better get back before she knows I am gone. I left a tape of me snoring, so she probably thinks I am still around the farm somewhere.
The NBC guys I have been working with, Bob Hughes, Jim Carr and Bob Ives have been great to work with. They got involved with horse sports seven years ago when they were hired to do Rolex. They started out looking at horses as just another TV job. And now? Let me tell you a little story about how they spent last night. I went to a party downtown and got back around 11. They were sitting in the living room, drinking local German beer and watching the dressage freestyle finals live on Eurosport. Not only were they hooked on horses, but they were picking on the judges, whining about horses being irregular in the passage and generally sounding like a bunch of died-in-the-wool horse fans. Cracked me up.
Naturally, I stayed and watched the rest of the rides with them. But I had to draw the line when they started watching Triumph the Insult Comic Dog from the Late Show. (Not true! This is Bob Hughes speaking, executive producer of the 2006 WEG, the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 WEG from Lexington--Wofford laughed his...off!.)
(Bob, oh Bob. Not you, too? Net Nanny is watching you. Behave or else.)
Is there an echo in here? I must be overserved, or under-cocktailed or something. I better go, I got a plane to catch, grandkids to watch and Labradors to check up on. I'll see you soon. In the meantime, goodbye from Aachen.
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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WEG 2006 Diary: Jim Wofford