August 24, 2006 -- Greetings from Aachen. I know you are following the results on the Internet, so I won't bother much with the placings. But you know you are at the World Championships when riders from three different countries stop you and say, "Wasn't that too bad about the British rider, blowing up in the dressage ring like that?" And all the time you can hear them thinking, "Oh yeah, I'm in with a chance!" They will worry about the human cost next week, but for now, someone else's misfortune is an opportunity for them. It is a tough world here, but we are at the World Championships, right?
By now I would have flunked out of the Journalists' World Championships, for forgetting to tell you yesterday that one of the Irish horses was eliminated at the first vet check, and the one with the best name in all of eventing, too--Drunken Disorderly. His rider, Mark Kyle, will be the life of the party for sure. He's got nothing else to do for the rest of the week. Bummer, dude.
The rain that was in the forecast has held off so far, which is a good thing if you like Scandinavian-type girls. No telling what some of these Britney Spears wannabes will show up wearing (or not wearing) tomorrow. I'm keeping a list of the pick-up lines I have heard in the bar, and I'll share them with you later, but I know you would rather talk about dressage right now, not those hussies walking around looking like an 8-ounce muffin in a 4-ounce cup.
So far, the dressage is not as good as I had thought it would be. There is not a lot of atmosphere in the arena, and the stands are only about half full, but most of the riders are riding a little tight. There has been some rumbling behind the scenes that the footing is a little slick and so on, but my own experience is that nervous riders get tight and make their horses slip, and aggressive riders go forward and make their horses stick their feet deeper into the turf. Phillip Dutton came in this afternoon on Connaught and never slipped a bit. Of course, he was most definitely going for every point out there, and his score showed it. There are some good horses still to come, so we have not seen the best of it yet.
They have done a good job of putting things close together here. The main stadium is right next to the eventing and the third arena, where the vaulting and reining will take place, is just beyond that, while the cross-country course is right across the street.
Cute story about vaulting: One of our vaulting team is only 10 years old, about four-foot nothing, and maybe 50 pounds in wet Spandex. So she comes up to Jim Wolf, who is in charge of all the disciplines here, and says "Mr. Wolf, can you ask them if they can raise the roof here in the stadium?" You need to know that the bleachers and ring are permanent, but the roof has been put in so that the vaulters and reiners don't have to worry about the weather. So Wolf goes off to the nightly Chef du Missions' meeting last night and asks them to raise the roof, because our vaulters are so strong and getting so much loft in their tosses that they are going to hit the ceiling otherwise.
Welcome to the 21st century, where even 10-year-olds know how to talk trash and get inside their competitors' heads. It is working so far... last I heard we were in the lead for the vaulting compulsories!
I had a chance to get out and look at the cross-country course and nobody feels like they are wasting their time here. It is big overall, and technical in places. Every course has its own feel, and this has a very country, natural feel, even though it is on the outskirts of Aachen. It is on a working farm, so as you walk out to the start, you go past several paddocks full of horses, who trot up and down just beyond the electric wire, obviously enjoying the company and all the buzz from the other side of the street.
The dairy cows in the barnyard don't pay any attention, as they are too busy chowing down on the fresh silage that has overwhelmed your olfactory nerves by now. That stuff is strong over here! It is probably a good thing I did not bring my Labrador, Nacho, over here, as he would have been on those barnyard ducks like Martha Stewart's parole bracelet, and the Organizing Committee would have airmailed both of us out of here by now.
They have obviously gone to a lot of trouble with the cross-country course. The galloping track is grass, but it has been graded, re-seeded, rolled, aerovated and otherwise primped within an inch of its life. I couldn't help but think when I saw all the work that has gone in to things here that one of these upper level courses is kind of like K-Y jelly... not many other uses for it. I know, I know, I'm a sick man. (Cue insane laughter sound track here) Keep reading, I promise to behave.
The course starts out with the usual big, easy galloping fences, and the first real problem comes at #4 and #5, which are big off-set hedges. The white flag of #4 barely overlaps the red flag at #5, so your horse has to hold a severe right-to-left angle here, but these horses handle stuff like this every day, so there should not be much trouble. After this you gallop across the road into the main park where you cut through the eventing arena and jump #6 and #7, two big tables, on a sweeping right hand curve. You immediately leave the main park back across the same road. The course will come back this way later on, so between #7 and #8 you gallop over a bridge with a tunnel underneath it. The bridge takes you to #8, and later on the tunnel will take you to #30 and #31. Stay with me here.
The course runs slightly downhill to the coffin at #8ABC. They call it the "Soers Canyon" for the name of the farm here, Soers. There is a big log with a good sized drop, quite a forward stride to a big ditch, then two strides up to another log at C. It is big, but again these horses won't think much of it.
The jumps at #9,#10 and #11 are quite big, but straightforward. The first water complex is #12ABCD, the "Seaside Resort Soers." You jump a cabin at a slight left-to-right angle, take four strides and jump a 3'6" rail down into water. The drop here is maximum, at 6'6" and the water is probably 14" deep, so there will be a considerable feeling of "Welcome to the National Football League" when you land. You don't have time to think about things since you need to keep your horse on his line, take four strides, jump up a big bank out of the water, take one stride, jump a narrow cabin on top of the mound in the water, gallop down a ramp back into the water, back on dry land, and finally jump a narrow fence at #13.
None of these obstacles at #12 and #13 are extraordinary in themselves, but they are hard, even by World Championship standards, and there is a lot going on in a short space of time, so I expect the first serious problems to happen here. I suppose there might be the odd refusal before that, but pressure makes riders do dumb things, and you can't fix stupid.
After this, you swing uphill, and the course becomes physical for the first time. You are going to be climbing uphill for the next 800 meters, and the jumps will start to take their toll. The Hay Rack at #14 is big and slightly uphill, but easy. The Normandy Bank at #15ABC, is very big, and the space between the ditch-and-upbank at A, and the narrow log at B is built for a short bounce. You need a Goldilocks pace here--not too fast, not too slow, but just right. Too slow, and you can't get up the 3'9" bank with a 6' ditch. Too fast, and you will carry too far into the bounce before the narrow log, and you will have a stop, or worse. The narrow log at #15C comes up quickly, and if you are patting yourself on the back when you jump A and B, you will be kicking yourself if you don't pay attention to the last fence here.
The climb becomes steeper at this point, and the Bullfinch at #16 will ride very big, but you should be going at a racing pace and good horses won't be bothered. The Produce Stand at #17 is big and gorgeous, but should not be influential. If you have ever been here, you know that this is the highest point on the course, and when you look back, you realize you have been galloping uphill fast and jumping big fences for a couple of minutes straight... if you know what you are doing, you will give your horse a breather here.
The Fallen Tree at #18 is a trap for the unwary. You have turned downhill after #17, and are picking up the pace, but the ground falls away over your horse's left shoulder, you will have to deal with a light-to-shade problem and there is a bit more of a right handed turn needed to get ready for the narrow opening than some might assume. One or two riders will regret this fence after they run past it the first time, but experience is what you get right after you needed it.
The Hedges and Corners at #19AB are quite a test of accuracy. You jump a maximum hedge (4'7") at a slight right-to-left angle at A, take five strides, and then jump a white flag corner at B on a right-to-left angle, which is exactly what you don't want to do at a white flag corner. If your horse is not straight and honest here, your weiner is schnitzeled. I haven't made too much of a thing about it, but all the complexes have long routes through them. Most of the riders will ignore them, as they are very long, and involve a lot of twisting and turning.
After the Hedges and Corners, you take six strides, and jump a log at #20. It is a plain fence, but the ground falls away in a sneaky fashion, and you need to be careful with this one as you are going to get there a bit sooner than you might expect.
You then have a long run over to #21, the Trakehner, and then around a turn, and slightly uphill to the Sunken Meadow, #22ABCD. This involves 3'6" rails, one stride, down a 3'9" drop into a sunken road, one short stride to a 3'6" wall, then two forward strides to a brush box at D that is 3'6" high, 6'6" spread, but with only a 4' face on it. This is like the Sunken Road at Rolex this year, but on steroids.
The second water complex is at #23, the Eifel Village. This is a pretty simple jump, just a table in the water. But remember the first water at #12 and #13? The question there was first of all, to jump from dry land to water... then water to dry land, then gallop into and out water and jump. Now at #23, you are asked to jump from water to water. Remember this, because you have another water jump to go later on, and the question will be different still. But I don't want to get ahead of myself, and I'll come back to this in my summary.
After #23, there is very big hedge at #24. The landing is level, but you are going up hill until you get to it, so your horse has to be brave as well as scopey here, since he can't see the landing until he takes off. You land, take two strides, jump an identical hedge at #25A, then run downhill and jump a red flag corner, #25B, on an extreme left-to-right angle. This is a mirror image of the problem you dealt with at the Hedges and Corners, #19AB. The problem back then was to hold a right-to-left line, and now here at #24 and #25AB the question is to hold a left-to-right line. Note the mirror image problems that course designer Rudiger Schwarz is posing through out the course. You will hear more about that in a minute.
The Countryside View is a simple table at #26, and then you turn downhill back toward home for the last time.
The third water complex at #27 is the only place where I think the course designer might have crossed over the line a bit. There is an extreme right-to-left angle over a 3'9" wall, landing on a down slope to a 3'10" rolltop into water. Note that a different question is asked of the horses here, to jump and land on dry land with water in view, take a stride, then land in the water, gallop and turn, come back onto dry land, curve left on a six stride line, and finish over a big rolltop at #27C. If I had to get through this complex, I would probably go the long way in, which involves an extra turn, but does not carry the risk I feel when contemplating the fast route.
I caught up with Lucinda Green at this point when I was walking around, and she had much the same opinion as I did, that it might just be that little bit too hard. When I walked on, she was still parked in front of the fast line with a very sour look on her face. I hope I am wrong, but the medals may very well be won and lost here.
No matter what happens, you have to gallop on toward the finish line. The course crosses under itself here by the simple means of going through a tunnel. You galloped over it on your way to #6, and now you pop out of the tunnel to find #29, the Water Trough, just after a left handed turn.
Remember those mirror image problems I mentioned earlier? Remember #18, where the course curved downhill to the right, with a narrow faced jump, and a light to dark factor. Well, here you go... the exact problem, but in the other direction, and two miles later on into the course. Here at #29, you deal with the light to dark first, as you come out of the tunnel, then a turn to the left which will be sharper than it walks because your horse is tired now and a little sluggish in his steering, and the jump is just that little bit more narrow than you remember it was and you are in a hurry because you have a chance to make the time at the World Championships and... "How'd I miss that dang thing?" Winners have medals, and losers have excuses.
The last two fences, #30 and #31 are fly fences, and should pose no problem if you have gotten this far.
So what do I think overall? I think the same thing that I did this spring when I walked Rolex. This course is big, and it is hard, and it is going to get harder as you go along. There are several reasons for this. First of all, modern cross-country course design is frozen right now. There have not been any new developments in design for the past eight or 10 years. The main reason for this is the ever-increasing emphasis on safety. If a designer tries something new or different, and it doesn't work, he gets run out of town on a rail. Look at what happened to Mike Tucker, the designer at the 2002 World Equestrian Games in Jerez, Spain. He designed a very big, old-fashioned, square course, which took judgment, skill and a sober attitude towards the time and speed element. What happened? The riders all tried to make the time, turned their horses over, and blamed the course designer for their short-comings! I don't blame the designers for being conservative at all. If I were still designing courses, I would be doing the same thing.
But the result of this is that when riders walk a course, they are seeing the same sort of fence that they have seen all spring and summer. Familiarity in this context doesn't exactly breed contempt, but it does lead to a certain amount of complacency, an "Oh, yeah, that fence is just like the so-and-so at Badminton" sort of thing. Thus riders tend to forget that while a problem is obvious that doesn't mean it is no longer a problem. You still have to provide the right answer.
In addition, the new short format is not the slam dunk that some of the riders thought it would be. We have merely exchanged one kind of stress for another. It is ironic that the Germans, who were behind the movement to change to the short format, are now scratching their heads and saying "Gottfordammerung" or whatever it is that they say when they get what they asked for, but it isn't what they wanted. Some of the German riders are having some success right now, but they are doing it on Thoroughbreds and Irish Sport Horses, not old-fashioned warmbloods.
Again, the emphasis on safety has led designers to use complicated complexes to try and slow the riders down. This works for as long as it takes for the riders to jump the complex, but then the riders sprint away from this complex because they know they are behind the clock, and they have to make up time on their way to the next complex, and so on and so on until the horse is fatigued. By this time these complexes start to get too complex for the average world class horse, if there is such a creature, and, well, you start to see things unravel. We saw the process at Rolex, and I think we will see the same thing here. I would predict that the entire field will jump the first 10 fences clean, and then the penalties will increase exponentially as we go along in the course.
Finally, this course is hard because it is designed to be hard. It is a very subtle course in many ways, with the endless repetition of mirror image questions, and minor details that are suddenly not so minor when you are going too fast on a tired horse. The one thing you can be sure of is that if your horse has a hole in his education anywhere, this course will search it out and expose it.
Don't get me wrong, I think there will be plenty of clear rounds, and if we don't get any more rain (don't forget those Britney Spears wannabes... I haven't!) there should be between seven and 10 clear rounds inside the time. But if it rains, like Keb' Mo' says "thass a 'hole 'nother thing!" This is new turf, and it won't hold up to heavy traffic.
Just as an aside, this is yet another reason that I disagree with the current trend towards making courses more and more narrow: when you have heavy rain, you no longer have a level playing field, because a narrow fence forces every horse to jump off the same piece of ground. If it gets muddy, this is an obvious disadvantage to the horses that go late in the day.
Anyway, life ain't fair, so you gotta get over it and get on with it. Friday is just around the corner, and I have to look into my crystal ball, to see who I think the winning teams and individuals will be. I am cheating a little, as by then I will know what the dressage scores are, but you gotta take every chance you get. In the meantime, I need to take me some of that all-purpose brown nerve tonic and get on with it. Have a good night, and I'll talk to you tomorrow.
BTW (that's computer-talk for "By The Way"--pretty cutting edge, huh?), if my luggage ever gets here, and I am not too computer-challenged, I will try to post some photos of the cross-country course tomorrow... but no promises. When that nerve tonic gets in your eye, there is no telling what happens next!
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