Allentown, N.J., July 14, 2004 -- The final outing for the short-listed Olympic eventing hopefuls on July 13 was a long day, but at the end of it, the ones you expected to come through in grand style generally did just that. Kim Severson and her true partner, Winsome Adante, shone in exactly the way I (and everyone else who knows anything) thought she would.
The two-time Rolex Kentucky winner was unfazed by the pressure, putting in yesterday's best dressage test with 40.2 penalties (then working to improve future scores afterward by practicing with guidance from the judge, U.S. dressage team chef d'equipe, Jessica Ransehousen). After that, Dan easily galloped over a 3-star-level cross-country course, which tripped up several other contenders. He then had only one rail down in a show jumping setting that buzzed with atmosphere under the lights, electrified by the excitement of hundreds of spectators who crowded eagerly along the rail.
While the show jumping caused problems for many of the contenders, it did look like 3/4 of the gold medal 2002 World Equestrian Games team had a ticket to Athens after an action-packed 12 hours at the Horse Park of New Jersey. The selectors aren't making their choices for the five-member team and five back-ups known until July 16, however, after they talk to each other and the veterinarians some more. But John Williams (Carrick) and Amy Tryon (Poggio II) also distinguished themselves, finishing second and third behind Kim in what was scored as a combined test (dressage and show jumping). As you would expect, selectors kept track of who did what on cross-country, but it did not figure in the placings.
The outing was not a selection trial, something chef d'equipe Mark Phillips emphasized when we talked about it, which meant it was hard to say who definitely put themselves out of contention. Instead, it offered a way for selectors to take one last look at the 15 short-listed horse/rider combinations.
Mike Huber, chairman of the U.S. Equestrian Federation's International High Performance Eventing Committee, noted, "It's not a matter of one through five (in terms of placings). Many of the horses have not been out since [Rolex] Kentucky. We want to see them on an even playing field. It's always easier to observe them in the same circumstances. You're looking at current form, and they need to run somewhere."
Kim conceded she was a bit "rusty" after a layoff.
I could have been happier with his dressage test," Kim said as we chatted about the way Dan went. "He was not as focused certainly as he was at Kentucky or he has been. It surprised me. He was super yesterday (in practice). I rode him kind of forward but I think I paid for it a little tiny bit in the ring there. There was something funky about today."
Oh, I just realized I haven't set the scene for you, so you can visualize the setting for the outing. The Horse Park is about an hour south of the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation's Gladstone headquarters. Set a few miles off the New Jersey Turnpike in a semi-rural area on state-owned land, it's a facility that over the last two years has been coming into its own, offering international-level dressage, driving and eventing competitions. It will be holding its first 3-star event in 2005.
One of its best features is its footing. The ground stayed good (if a bit slick) despite the fact that it poured the day before the outing, though the right studs in the horses' shoes were required to handle it properly.
So how do our team prospects look after the outing?
Pretty good, except for one thing. The jumping under lights part showed more work is needed as the time for improvement is growing short. Julie Richards on Jacob Two Two was the lone rider faultless in the final phase, finishing fourth overall. At her husband's urging, she had practiced jumping at night under the lights before she left her Georgia home. In addition to Kim, John Williams and Abigail Lufkin on Kildonan Tug (who had big problems cross-country) were the only ones who managed to get by with just a single rail down.
Others that you didn't expect to experience trouble wound up with double-digit penalties, including Stephen Bradley on the Russian-bred From (who had a picture of a dressage test and scored eight for his half-passes, then was very impressive cruising around cross-country); Darren Chiacchia on Windfall, considered by many a lock for the team, and Amy with her other horse, My Beau. I know some selectors think My Beau would be a better match for the situation in Greece than the more high-strung Poggio, but Beau had 20 penalties in show jumping: Ouch!
What were the reasons for the problems in the final segment? Riders cited their unfamiliarity with riding under lights as they will in Athens for the final round that decides the individual medals. They also cited the presence of the crowd practically in their faces, instead of separated from the action as they are at Rolex. Horses also were tired, as Darren noted, pointing out that Windfall's five toppled poles "were more rails in one round than in his whole career."
Olympic individual gold medalist David O'Connor had three rails down in show jumping after being 11th in the dressage with Outlawed, a horse he has been training for about six months. He had no mishaps cross-country, but came in last overall among those who finished the outing. Outlawed was ahead of only Nathalie Bouckaert's West Farthing who retired after a refusal and rails in the show jumping (on the heels of refusals cross-country), and Kim's second horse, Maguire. He showed his inexperience by stopping twice at the same fence on cross-country and was withdrawn.
Outlawed has never competed at the 4-star level, which is how the Olympics is rated, so David knew going into the outing that he was not one of the favorites to make the squad now that his top mounts of prior years have retired.
David, who said he would retire from team competition after this Olympics, is accepting of the situation, though he feels Outlawed could handle the Games.
"If he's asked, I think he'll do a good job, but there are quite a few horses that have more training and are going well," he said. "If they feel that their other riders are strong enough that they don't need us, that's the way it is."
When I considered after Rolex who had a chance at the team, I always included Abigail, whose impressive third-place finish in the Kentucky 4-star seemed to indicate big things for her. But the outing could put paid (as the British say) to her hopes. She had a dismal 61.2-penalty dressage test and then got into trouble at the four-element water complex on cross-country.
After jumping over a log and landing shallowly into the water, she headed for the next obstacle, an "island" of corners with a plywood chimney in the middle.
"I went for the two (strides) but the more prudent thing would have been to hold for three," said Ab, who got two-and-a-half strides and wound up crawling over the island, then jumped up on a second island and smushed its chimney.
Ab wanted to jump the whole thing again (you're allowed to do that under this format) but Kildonan Tug had lost a shoe, and she walked back to the stables instead.
"I honestly don't know what they'll do with it," she said, as we talked about how the selectors would view her day, though her show jumping at least let her end the evening on a good note.
I caught Mark Phillips after the competition and asked him to sum up the day for me from his viewpoint. He pointed out, "Show jumping's not our strongest phase, and unfortunately, tonight did nothing to dispel that feeling."
Although show jumping trainer George Morris was on hand to help last night (I loved the cross-discipline assistance involving George and Jessica) and also will be assisting in Athens, dramatic improvements probably aren't forthcoming.
"You can only do what you can do in the time you've got to do it," as Mark pointed out.
The show jumping results didn't change his opinion that we're big-time medal contenders along with the British and the French, whom he singled out. I would add the Australians, who have won the team gold three times in a row, not to mention Andrew Hoy and Phillip Dutton, as well as the dark horse New Zealanders, who can't ever be counted out with Blyth Tait and Andrew Nicholson in their ranks.
"We've got a good group, but this modern sport is a tough sport," Mark said, referring to the fact that there have been so many changes, even in just the last year or two. "Everyone's learning how to do it, not just us. The show jumping is bigger than it used to be and more technical than it used to be and everybody in the world is trying to come to terms with how to do that. We've got to get better."
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