September 30, 2010 -- Thump. That's me coming back down to earth after seeing the best Grand Prix dressage horses in the world yesterday and watching eventing dressage today.
Both competitions are called dressage, but there's a world of difference between the two. Grand Prix dressage is an art in itself; eventing dressage is a means to an end. It's what you have to do to get to cross-country.
Things have changed in recent years for eventers, because dressage has taken on more importance. It used to be that they could fumble their way through dressage and move up on cross-country. In this era, you likely won't have a chance to win if you're out of the top 10, though on a tough cross-country course (and the WEG's promises to be tough) it is possible for those a little lower down in the rankings to move up.
Germany, the favorite for the gold, started out just the way we expected on the first of two dressage days, in the lead with 83.8 penalties. Ingrid Klimke stands second on Butts Abraxxas (41.30 penalties) and Dirk Schrade is fourth on Gadget de la Cere (42.50). Okay, so if Ingrid was second, who was first?
That would be another German, Simone Deitermann, riding as an individual (her score of 36 on Free Easy NRW doesn't count for the team) in her first world championships. I asked why she wasn't on the team; she responded she was happy not to be because she needs the experience. Simone works half-days as an accountant, then spends the rest of her time riding her horse, a 13-year-old Westphalian bay gelding.
The U.S. (96.5 penalties) stands fifth, behind the Germans, Australia (91), Sweden (91.70) and Britain (93.2). Our riders today were Buck Davidson on Ballynoe Castle RM (11th with 47) and new American citizen Boyd Martin on Neville Bardos (14th with 49.50).
Buck has quite a legacy going for him. His father, Bruce Davidson, brought the 1978 world championships to the Kentucky Horse Park after winning the title in 1974 in England. That's how it was done in those days; the winner's country had the right to stage the next one. It's a different world with the WEG handling the championships, but 1978 was the start of the Horse Park's rise and led to what we have here today. There's a lifesize statue of Bruce on Eagle Lion by the entrance of the stadium where Buck rode today: Talk about pressure!
Buck was happy with his ride and already is looking ahead to cross-country on Saturday. Here are his thoughts.
I stopped to talk with Kim Severson, who spent today measuring the cross-country course (twice) for Coach Mark Phillips. Kim was on the team but had to withdraw because her mount, Tipperary Liadhnan, is suffering from cellulitis. I was told she handled the difficult situation beautifully, and can confirm that from our conversation. A three-time winner here at Rolex, she understands the ups and downs of this challenging sport and seems to be taking this "down" in stride, volunteering to help the team from the ground however she can.
William Fox-Pitt of Great Britain has to be one of the favorites for the individual title, since he won the Rolex Kentucky 4-star here in April on Cool Mountain, the horse he is riding in the WEG.
He said of the 10-year-old, who is in his first championship, "When I was here in the spring, it didn't enter my head he could be coming back in the autumn. He's come a long way."
Gracious as always, William chatted away about his thoughts going forward, as he stands well-positioned (for the moment at least, since there are some big names to come tomorrow) in third place with 42 penalties.
Mike Etherington-Smith, who has done the courses for Rolex for years, as well as the Olympics, has produced his final design here as he retires from laying out his creative routes.
He wanted to make sure riders who had been coming to Rolex in the past didn't have an advantage, so "the jigsaw has been slightly reconstructed" with different start and finish points that will lead to different lines between the fences.
"One of the challenges I have is to come up with a track to give opportunity to those stepping up for the first time to have the opportunity get 'round and not scare the living daylights out of them," he said. That means "There's plenty of Plan B out there," said Mike. He was referring to creative long ways around at the fences, which invite the more experienced riders to gallop straight through, trying to make the 11-minute, 14-second optimum time.
Going the long ways, "I reckon even I could get around this," he said, adding slyly that he might fall off a few times in the process.
The old Head of the Lake is now The Land Between the Lakes (Mike says he doesn't name the jumps, that's someone else's responsibility) and it's quite a complex, with more fences and more options than usual. A lot of the old trees have come down, which will provide better sight lines for spectators. It's one of four water obstacles, which are among plenty of difficult problems.
"It's a big course, no question," he noted. "There's a lot to jump."
Eventing wasn't the only action in the Horse Park today. The individual reining medals were decided, with Tom McCutcheon of the U.S. taking the gold on Gunners Special Nite with 228 points, while his teammate, Craig Schmersal won the silver on Mister Montana Nic (223). Duane Latimer of Canada, the 2006 world champion, earned the bronze on Dun Playin Tag (222.5.) He beat the USA's Tim McQuay on Hollywoodtinseltown by 0.5 points.
Speaking of points, here's a point of interest: Tom's horse is owned by Sara Willeman, well-known in the hunter/jumper world, who took up an interest in reining about five years ago.
There could have been another American on the podium if fate hadn't intervened. Shawn Flarida, first in the team competition on RC Fancy Step, had a stirrup break early in his run coming out of a spin. He touched the saddle horn (trying to get his balance, I guess) which cost him five points. He finished the run, but as chef d'equipe Jeff Petska pointed out, it's tough enough to do it right with two stirrups, let alone one. Shawn finished 21st and last with a score of 207.5 points.
The Alltech Arena was packed to the brim with screaming fans, adding to the excitement of what the reining manager said was "probably its (reining's) biggest week in history."
Eventing dressage continues tomorrow during the day, while the night offers the dressage freestyle. My money's on Totilas, but it will be interesting to see whether the Spanish horse, Fuego XII, moves up into the medals. Let's hope the USA's Steffen Peters and Ravel can get another medal to go with their bronze from the Grand Prix Special.
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