August 25, 2006 -- Greetings from Aachen. Boy, when you get lost around here, you can really get lost. We missed one exit off the Autobahn, and the next thing we knew, we were lost in three languages... four, if you count English. We went through The Netherlands and Belgium before we got back to Germany, and it only took 20 minutes. When the big guy in a Politzei uniform gets off his BMW motorcycle and comes over and says, "Yah, can I help you?" that is the German redneck version of "Ya'll ain't from 'round heah, are ya?" "Yup," I said, "the only thing more lost than me is my luggage." He didn't get it. Anyway, no harm, no foul.
We have got it a lot easier than the rest of the international media, who are depending on the Organizing Committee's shuttle system to get them around. This is great, but the shuttle picks you up and drops you off at different places every day, at a time to be determined in the future. Needless to say, The Press (notice the caps) is not happy. You want to get a tongue-lashing, drop off a photographer with bad feet, a 500mm lens, and a 30-pound knapsack a mile out of their way. It gets ugly in a hurry.
Talk about ugly, I am in the scheisse around here. (That's German for deep macaca.) Yesterday, I forgot this site is "G" rated. Hoo-boy, I need hip-boots for the doo-doo I am in... no, I'm not going to tell you what I said, you think I'm crazy? If I tell you, you don't have to read it, and you are supposed to read it, or EquiSearch is going to be mad at me. John Ashcroft ain't gonna have to email me again, no sirree-bob.
What this really is, is a "G" rated website for horse lovers, and you would feel right at home here in Aachen. The stands for the Grand Prix dressage are packed (25-30,000), they clap in rhythm with the horse as he trots out after his test, and they gasp if the horse skips a beat in one of the piaffe sequences. These guys know what they are watching.
During the lunch break they had a display of German stallions, and it sounded like they were having a rock concert. The fans are not just confined to the stands either. Aachen's town square is next to the cathedral, and there is a stage set up, where a jumbotron is showing live action all day long. People are sitting under umbrellas, drinking beer and watching dressage for fun. Go figure.
The eventing dressage is better today, and both Bettina Hoy and Zara Phillips lit up the world with their tests. I'll get to my picks in a minute, but you can take a hint.
Besides the stallions, there was a display in the eventing arena this afternoon. This place is a literal three-ring circus... the reining and vaulters have a stadium to themselves. At one point today, all three stadiums were going at once, and there was always a wave of applause washing over the grounds. I caught the vaulters act earlier today. Holy cow... these guys do stuff on purpose that I spent years doing by accident. And they land on their feet, too.
This display was 10 local German pony clubbers doing a quadrille ride. All 10 horses were on the bit, and all of the kids had a position to die for... they know how to sit over here. We would have to search the entire country to get 10 kids who could sit and ride like that, and these were just local pony club kids. Makes you worry, and understand why the Germans are such a powerhouse.
They showed their power in the Grand Prix Special, and Isabell Werth really had the place going with Satchmo. The stands here are concrete... the last time I saw concrete stands rocking like that, it was at RFK stadium, and the Redskins had come back in the fourth quarter to beat the Cowboys and advance to the playoffs. But that had nothing on the main arena here at Aachen. Anky van Grunsven's horse, Salinero, is a favorite of mine, but he didn't quite have it today. Anky was smiling and waving on the silver medal stand, but her smile did not get all the way to her eyes, and I would bet that mentally she was already planning her training schedule for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Andreas Helgstrand from Denmark lived up to his advance billing, and the USA's Steffen Peters should be proud... fourth place in this company is better than a dry hacking cough, for sure.
It is starting to drizzle a slow, soft, steady drizzle, and there are some long faces in the eventing barns. The footing on the course is good, but can't take too much more rain or it will start to affect the outcome. Fingers crossed.
So, about that outcome... Well, I dunno what to tell you. Based on their scores so far, Bettina and Zara have the inside track, followed by Andreas Dibowski and Kim Severson. I am not a betting man, but if I were, I would bet that when the dust settles (or the mud dries out) it will be gold to Kim Severson, silver to Andrew Hoy, and bronze to Zara Phillips. The teams will be Great Britain, USA and Germany, in that order. My wild cards would be Clayton Fredericks, Karin Donckers and Nicolas Touzaint, and my wild card team would be the French.
The obvious ones left off my list are William Fox-Pitt, Ingrid Klimke and Bettina Hoy. I love William's riding, but he is not lucky, and Napoleon thought that was the most important attribute a man could have, to be lucky. I hope his luck turns here. He deserves it.
Ingrid had a heck of a fall a couple of weeks ago, rang her bell pretty thoroughly, and the jury is still out on her.
And Bettina? Well, Bettina got convicted of RWB (Riding While Blonde) at Athens, and I don't think she will shake the hex here. I'm sticking pins in a miniature start line on the course map like mad, because she is a lovely person, but I don't think it will help.
It has been a long road to Aachen for all these kids, and there are a lot of broken hearts left behind. In January everyone could see themselves on the medal stand, but along the way something went wrong, and there are only these few horses and riders left, and only one of them will be the World Champion.
Muhammad Ali said a champion has to have last minute stamina, and that they have to have both skill and will, but that the will must be stronger than the skill. They will need that stamina in the last minute over this course, and they must have that rock-solid, unshakable confidence in themselves and their horse. We have got it easy; all we have to do is sit back and watch. The horses and riders are in charge now. They wouldn't have it any other way.
As for me, when I lift the first one tonight, I'll drink a little toast to the horses. They are the reason I'm here.
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