September 14, 2002 -- What a day we've had, with so many highs and lows that I'd hesitate to have my blood pressure taken right now.
The USA is leading the eventing standings at the World Equestrian Games, but the squad took quite a trip to get there. Though John Williams is now number one in the individual rider rankings (a high), Amy Tryon, who has worked so hard to get here, suffered quite a fall in her first championship outing (a low).
Taking all that in stride requires practice. Jim Wolf, the U.S. Equestrian Team's chef de mission here, described cross-country day as being "like a military operation. Everyone is multi-tasking, but there's no duplication of effort. Everyone knows their job."
Following Jim's analogy, you can say that the U.S. eventers won the battle of the cross-country over a route that fought back. The outcome of the war itself, of course, must wait until tomorrow's veterinary check and the show jumping phase.
But Mark Phillips, the USET coach for nearly a decade, described this team as the best he's had in that time. And they certainly looked it over Michael Tucker's layout that thwarted many of the world's finest riders.
The famous Hoy family had an awful day. Bettina, who rides for Germany, turned in a brilliant 20.80 score in dressage. That lead went down the drain when her mount, Woodsides Ashby, had a refusal two fences from the finish line at The Brush. She is the only member of the German team, which was expected to be a factor here, who is still in the competition.
Things went worse for her personable husband, Andrew, a lynchpin of the Australian team. He fell at the fifth fence, a Trakehner, with Moonfleet, and had to be taken to the hospital with a concussion and leg injuries. (He's okay, we're told.)
Now Australia, second behind the U.S. by 15 points, is without the luxury of a drop score. The Aussies probably are wishing they had chosen Phillip Dutton for the team, instead of having him ride here as an individual on House Doctor, since he's standing second, 3.8 penalties back of John.
In fact, the U.S. is the only team besides fourth-place Britain that had all its members finish cross-country. World Champion Blyth Tait of New Zealand ended his defense of the title in the second water jump, where Ready Teddy fell, and New Zealand's team medal hopes went with him.
Obviously, the day didn't lack for drama. But the biggest moment for the U.S. probably was Kim Vinoski's brilliant trip on Winsome Adante. Kim had been tabbed for championship teams before, but something always intervened to keep her home.
This time, she was so superstitious about finally being a participant that she didn't put her USET patch on her dressage coat until an hour before her test, when Karen O'Connor sewed it on for her.
It was a pressure situation for Kim, the last person on course here at Garrapilos, a government horse breeding installation in the hills about a half-hour from downtown Jerez.
O'Connor, the lead rider, found out while he was on course that the studs in Giltedge's shoes were insufficient. So the horse was slipping and came home with 30.40 time penalties.
The Olympic gold medalist's reconnoitering of the layout, however, gave good information to John Williams. He set out on Carrick with the right studs, though without his spurs, which he forgot. Never mind. John, like David, jumped everything but did it faster, earning only 2.8 time penalties.
All was looking good until Amy fell at the Euro combination, a little less than halfway around the 30-obstacle course. Her horse, Poggio II, took off but was captured by an intrepid spectator. Although she was in pain from what she described as a bad bruise on her hip, Amy remounted and completed the course.
"I wanted to finish for the team, in case something happened to Kim's horse," she said before going to the hospital, where she was checked out and released. Amy was disappointed about her mishap, but shrugged, "It's part of riding. What are you going to do? A fall happens to the best of us."
Her 157.20 penalties, however, made it crucial for Kim to be on the money. In fact, Kim was told she had only 35 seconds of leeway; if she was any slower, the USA would not end the day in first place.
She rode mostly to orders, taking the long way in a controversial water jump where the footing had deteriorated during the day. The only time she veered from Mark's instructions was going right at a spot where he told her to go left, but it all worked out.
She was only six seconds over the 11-minute, 37-second time allowed, putting the USA first, and making Mark proud.
"This is not the last time you'll hear of Kim, trust me," he said.
We had a moment's heart failure, though, when a mistake in printing the results showed Kim had been charged with 20 penalties for a refusal (another low). A conversation with officials straightened that out, Jim Wolf told me, and we could all breathe again.
Just as impressive as Kim's performance was John's place at the top of the heap. He's modest and soft-spoken, but you could see how much he enjoyed what he achieved today.
Asked if he thought he would be number one after cross-country on his Canadian-bred mount, John said, "I guess I would have considered it was possible, but not probable."
He's not a real big name, but he did compete in the 1991 Pan American Championships and was second at Rolex-Kentucky this year. His background as a course designer undoubtedly gave him insight into how to handle the challenge here.
"The course designer was determined to slow us down," he maintained.
Some riders didn't like the course, contending the constant turning in combinations meant they had to interfere with their horses too much, constantly adjusting them.
Darren Chiacicchia, however, who is riding as an individual, had a beautiful trip with RG Renegade, whose effort was marred only by a single refusal. Darren compared the route to a preliminary course, a statement many others who fared worse than he did undoubtedly would dispute.
The focal points of the layout were the two water complexes. The scenery up here isn't much, to put it bluntly. We saw mostly rocks on the way to the venue, and the dominant color definitely was brown.
The water complexes were the absolute highlights of the course and drew a good portion of the crowd of 30,000 who turned out to watch the horses and picnic on the grass. The first water jump was spectacular to look at. Horses climbed up a steep hill, popped a log at the top, and then slid down into the water, where they jumped out over a two-part bounce if their riders chose the short route.
The second water complex had horses jumping in over another log. No one chose the short route, which would have taken them across an over-turned boat. Instead, they went up a bank and over another boat before exiting over a bank and a bounce.
I had my own cross-country challenge today. For some reason, the bus driver parked in an area where the only exit was under a fence. So all of us media types crawled through, dragging our cameras and computers in the dirt. Then I encountered a stone-lined ditch that barred my way to one of the obstacles on course, so I jumped it. After that, I (unwisely) climbed up the side of a hill to get a better vantage point for a photo. I know how David felt when his horse slipped.
Want to know my score? I had no falls, but I was slow.
Oh, and by the way, in case you haven't figured it out, we didn't get rain after all. It seems the weathermen in Spain are as wrong as they are at home.