August 30, 2014 -- Call him William the Conqueror, returned to Normandy for a different kind of battle.
The always exceptional William Fox-Pitt triumphed over gummy ground this afternoon on Chilli Morning to move into the lead for the eventing individual title with 50.3 penalties.
The overnight leader after dressage, Sandra Auffarth aboard Opgun Louvo, dropped to second, on 52 penalties after accumulating 16.8 time penalties, but there is less than a rail separating the two, as well as defending world champion Michael Jung of Germany, third on Rischerrocana FST (52.3).
Tomorrow's show jumping should be quite the contest, with William's great rival, Andrew Nicholson of New Zealand aboard Nereo, fifth with 52.5 penalties, and Andrew's countrywoman Jonelle Price fourth on the same score aboard Classic Moet. Jonelle, who added only 4 time penalties, won the tie because she was closer to the optimum time (and it was the fastest of the day).
No one was able to make that time, after days of rain had turned the footing at the national stud into a muddy mess.
It took William's vast experience to put in a round that was sufficiently careful to avoid problems, but still quick enough to be competitive, accumulating 12.8 time penalties.
"It was the hardest terrain I’ve ridden, because the ground was very soft and the course demanding, but Chilli gave me a lovely ride. There are not many eventing stallions who would keep trying for you like that and I’m very proud of him," William said.
The pleasure of seeing so many well-ridden rounds was diminished by the death of Harry Meade's ride, Lone Wild. I saw the horse take the last fence and cross the finish line, looking just fine. But after Harry dismounted, the 13-year-old Irishbred gelding collapsed and died. He had 26.4 time penalties and was in 24th place.
"The ground conditions played no part in what happened to Wild Lone," said a saddened Harry.
"This is his sixth 4-star event; he hadn't missed any work, he was as fit as any horse I have had as a 4-star and he gave me a wonderful ride cross-country," Harry continued, saying the horse felt "extremely comfortable during the ride."
"I’m obviously devastated, but I want to say that I thought the course was a very good test and I would be very sad if anybody was to draw any incorrect conclusions that the tough, testing nature of the competition in any way contributed towards what happened."
A post-mortem will be done to determine the cause of death.
Designer Pierre Michelet's hilly route demanded ultimate fitness, even after conditions dictated that it be cut from 6,500 meters to 5,982 meters and 33 obstacles from 35. The optimum time was reduced by one minute to 10 minutes, 30 seconds.
The U.S. team, which looked as if it had medal possibilities, was eliminated after Buck Davidson (Ballynoe Castle RM) and Phillip Dutton (Trading Aces) pulled up their mounts near the end of the course after they tired. I know how they felt. The surface was tricky to navigate while I was carrying all my equipment, and I was more tired than usual at the end of the day after the effort of making sure I stayed upright on the slippery footing.
The only U.S. team members still in the fray are Boyd Martin and Lynn Symansky. Boyd is ninth with Shamwari 4 on 59.9 penalties with 13.6 time penalties. Good for Boyd--he suffered a broken leg earlier this year and worked hard to get back in shape for this ultimate test.
"I was thrilled with Shamwari 4," said Boyd.
"He is a new ride for me; he's a real trier. My plan was to set out a little steady and then see how much horse I had at the end. In hindsight, I should've gone a lot quicker at the beginning, because he was full of running at the end."
Lynn had two refusals and is 50th on Donner. Kim Severson, riding Fernhill Fearless as an individual for the U.S., is 32d, while Sinead Halpin, also riding as an individual wound up with a refusal from Manoir de Carneville and stands 42d.
There was company for the U.S. in its misfortune. New Zealand also was eliminated as a team, after Mark Todd gave up with Leonidas II and deposed Burghley winner Jonathan Paget pulled up Clifton Promise early in the game and will go to the Burghley 4-star next week.
The cross-country day was sold out, with 50,000 tickets printed and crowds swarming all over the vast grounds overlooked by the stud farm's chateau. But the crush caused major problems, involving everything from traffic to toilets. It took my bus more than three hours to get from Caen to Haras, twice the normal time. Ditto the return trip. The narrow roads winding through cute French towns are picturesque, but they couldn't handle the load.
The same could be said of preparations at the course. There were scores of people in food lines, and portable toilets were in high demand. Some wound up using compost-type toilets, where flushing involved throwing in wood chips.
I met a man from South Africa who had brought his family to the competition and was disappointed.
"It's pathetic," he said of the organization or rather, the lack thereof.
"Its as if they're catering to 5,000 instead of 50,000."
Because of the traffic, many people saw only half of the cross-country competitors, or less, leaving them disappointed and angry.
As is usually the case at this WEG, there was little in the way of directions or knowledgeable people. Where to pick up the bus was a mystery, and directions were hard to come by. There are a few well-informed volunteers. Others will do what they can, which is little, and many are not fluent in English.
The situation casts a pall over the Games in a lovely location, but not planning sufficiently for traffic problems is incomprehensible, especially since it was obvious what would happen.
It was very similar to what I encountered at endurance last week, though since the crowd there was smaller, problems were not as conspicuous.
On the plus side of endurance, I'd like to share comments by Meg Sleeper, a U.S. rider who did not compete when it was decided it would be best for someone else to fill her spot. That was Jeremy Olson with Wallace Hill Shade, the only U.S. entry to finish.
But Sleeper trained with the team in Normandy and had a wonderful experience.
"Today was spent negotiating getting the horses out of the venue (and the mud required that many vehicles had to be pulled out with a tractor), so that took most of the morning and packing took the remainder of it. There was so much congestion getting in and out of the venue that many people were parking on the road.
"One of the homeowners nearby offered to allow us to use his driveway to park when he saw us waiting in the traffic jam (it could fit about 10 cars, so nearly all our vehicles). We offered to pay him, but he refused basically saying it was because of the Normandy invasion. We gave him USA hats and shirts.
"It is so overwhelming and heart-warming to hear these stories and see the many statues in the region with plaques to commemorate the 50 year anniversary of World War II. Tonight, we all had dinner together and the owner of the restaurant got up to say his mother survived because of the U.S. invasion."
While we get so involved in what we're doing here at the WEG, it is important to remember the role that this area played in the drama of the war and it's wonderful that the people here remember those who helped them.
I'm exhausted. It was a tough day. I'll be sending my next postcard tomorrow, as the eventers move to d'Ornano Stadium for their show jumping.