August 23, 2006 -- Greetings from Aachen. I am here in Germany for the World Championships, and will post some of my impressions as the week goes along.
Let's get the disclaimer out of the way right away... if you want the straight truth, you have come to the wrong place. If you want to know what the REAL story is, then OK, we've got a deal. I make this comparison all the time, about that guy who worked for Bill Clinton testifying under oath that he had lied to his diary. So I am going to keep a sort-a Bill Clinton diary. If it didn't happen the way I tell it, it should have!
My real reason for being over here is that I am doing the commentary for NBC, so I will have the best seat in the house. If you really want to see a big time horse event these days, the way to do it is to wrangle your way into the production truck. That is where all the various cameras show their pictures in real time, so you are not just watching what will finally be shown to the TV audience, but the rest of the pictures as well. (By the way, this program will air at 4:30 p.m. EDT on Sunday, September 24 on the main NBC channel. Shameless plug.)
This is a real trip down memory lane for me, as the last time I was in Aachen was 1956, when my brother Warren was riding here. The grounds are the same as then, but not really. There are four big enclosed grandstands around the arena now, and the trade fair is way larger, but the smell of the rostbrautenwurst is the same, as is the anticipation on the faces of the crowd.
Rolex smells differently and looks differently, but the underlying excitement and sense of occasion is the same, because you know that when you come here you are going to see something special.
Aachen looks special these days, which is a change from the last time I saw it, when it was still digging out of the rubble of World War II. Young boys are fascinated by burned out buildings and walls with bullet holes all over them, and it wasn't until years later that I took into account the devastation that I was witness to at the time.
My family really made a trip of it in 1956, going to a lot of the horse shows here in Germany. I remember Hamburg, Dusseldorf, Cologne and, of course, Aachen. All of those cities were pretty much in the same shape that year.. there wasn't much left of your town after Georgie Patton and the Third Army got through with it. Of course all that went over my little 10-year-old red head.
The thing I remember the most from that trip is dipping tadpoles out of one of the water jumps in the main arena for the Hamburg Derby, sneaking them back to the HamburgerHof, and putting them in the ornamental fountain in the main dining room. I would've gotten away with it, too, but the darned things hatched out and started croaking like mad. So I did the only thing I could think of at the time... I blamed it on young Johnny Russell.
Anyway, we were speaking of special, and it doesn't get any more special than the World Championships. People have worked most of their lives to get here and some of the riders are walking around looking like they just saw Elvis walk down out of the mothership... carrying Tom Cruise's baby. But that won't last as the competition has already started with a bang.
Endurance was held this past weekend in rain and deep mud, and there were some tired puppies out there. The U.S. team covered themselves with mud, but no glory. Many of the endurance horses have already shipped out, and they aren't sorry to leave, as their stable area has been flooded for the last three days, with water running through the aisles and into the stalls. Needless to say, they were a little grumpy, but the organizing committee has been spreading sand like mad, digging ditches and generally trying to take care of the situation.
This is the sixth World Championship I have been to as either a rider, coach, spectator or now TV commentator, and every organizing committee I have ever watched has thought they had things under control going into it, only to watch things get all upgefuchen (that's German for "gosh, what a mess.") at the last minute. I heard a rumor that the stable manager finally told one especially waspish chef d'equipe to click her heels together three times and go screw herself, but that is probably only a rumor.
So far, the Germans are taking the same approach they did in Munich during the 1972 Olympics. They are bending over backwards to make sure everyone feels welcome... except for that cop this morning, but what the heck, it was a one-way street after all. Huh? Oh, for sure the other way. What can I say? Rules were meant to be broken.
Despite that unscheduled detour, I got here this afternoon just in time to watch the U.S. dressage team get their bronze medals, which is good news for a group that has really been digging down and working for success. The look of pride on Klaus Balkenhol's face was a study, and several of the U.S. dressage groupies in the stands were having a Kleenex moment. Can't say I blame them.
The U.S. eventing team all passed the vet check today, as did all the rest of the horses that were presented, and their first day of competition starts tomorrow morning. Andrew Hoy had a scare with Master Monarch, as he was held for reinspection, but got through on the second attempt. That can't have done his nerves any good, but he is too old a hand to let that put him off his game.
I usually stick my neck out and try to predict the winners, but I won't do that yet, as I want to see the horses and walk the cross-country course before I get that brave. I'll post my impressions of the course tomorrow, but my jet lag is kicking in now, so I am going to reach down into my carry on (yes, my carry on, you didn't think my luggage would make it, did you?) and pull out this all-purpose brown fluid. The label says "Caution-after drinking this, you will self-destruct in three, two, one..."
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