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Hong Kong, August 15, 2008 -- The U.S. finished the initial Olympic grand prix jumper competition in first place tonight, after three of the team's four riders went clean. It was nice to see the American squad right up there after the disappointments of eventing and dressage, except that it didn't mean much in the big picture.
Unlike the World Championships, where the first class is key to the medals, in the Olympic format it only serves as a qualifier for the final individual competition and decides the starting order for the first round of the team competition. Got that?
Still, there's cause for happiness, if not elation. All the U.S. horses got into the ring and saw some of the unusual jumps, such as the big red Summer Palace Doors and the Yeat Dang Lung Mun, colorful panels that Laura Kraut made sure she showed to her little Cedric before starting her round.
The locals obviously were wise to the fact that this class was no big deal. For the first time since we've been at the Sha Tin venue, there were more empty seats than occupied places in the stands.
Beezie Madden (Authentic), McLain Ward (Sapphire) and Will Simpson (Carlsson vom Dach) all had clean rounds. Cedric toppled a rail at the last part of the triple combination that started with those Summer Palace doors, and got a single time penalty on the tight time allowed of 88 seconds.
Beezie Madden was very upbeat about the experience for the team, saying, "I think it will give us all confidence."
She noted, "It's nice to get off to a good start. We have some new faces here with Laura's horse and Will's horse."
Switzerland, Brazil and Canada all tied for second with a single time penalty. Germany, favored for the gold medal, was 12th of 16 teams, with each of its riders having at least one rail down and all of them accumulating two time penalties. Why do I think there was a method in this madness and that they were using it as merely a schooling round? The Germans do everything for a reason. They are already two-for-two on the team gold medals in eventing and dressage; they're going for three-for-three.
"I think they took tonight very lightly," said Beezie. "I'm sure they'll look a little different come Sunday and Monday (the team medal rounds). They'll be tough."
In that vein, I asked Beezie if she thought there was more pressure on the jumping team because the other squads did not medal.
"We really want to medal anyway," she told me.
"Even if they had both won gold, it would have been pressure for us to finish off the trio. Any way you look at it, there's pressure," she observed.
The class helped Beezie sharpen her mount.
"The triple was a good gymnastic for him, because he's a bit of an aggressive horse so it got shorter as he went through. The tall skinny verticals are good for him to practice because he doesn't tend to knock them down, but sometimes he'll jump them out of shape with his front end. I thought he did them well tonight, so I was happy."
It's been weeks since the riders have shown, because they've been in quarantine before coming here. Will pointed out that most of what they've done since their arrival is flat work.
"I thought I was turning into a dressage rider," he said with a chuckle.
"Now we get to jump and it feels real good to have that first class under your belt."
Will, I would say, has been more visibly excited about the Olympics than his teammates, all of whom have ridden in the Games previously.
McLain was the lead-off rider and Sapphire looked up to her usual high standard, despite a heat rash skin condition that has also plagued her from time to time in Florida.
"She jumped beautifully, she felt in good form and I felt pretty calm, which was nice, because I've been a little anxious the last week. I can barely put my leg on her. It really was a testament to what a great horse she is," commented McLain, who hopes another 24 hours will have her feeling better.
Like the other U.S. squads here, the show jumpers really seem to be a team, in every sense of the word. Laura Kraut explained it nicely.
By the way, I would confirm my prediction that Canada will be in the medals; they looked really good tonight, though as team member Mac Cone pointed out, "the fight is just beginning." Their Eric Lamaze has a shot at the individual medal. He observed that the ring here has the same footing as the ring in Wellington, and the bright lights (similar to those in Wellington) make it seem like daytime even as it gets toward midnight.
People at the showgrounds were still talking about Brentina's meltdown last night in the Grand Prix dressage that confounded her rider, Debbie McDonald.
The conclusion is that it was just something that scared her. One other horse, from Portugal, was so put out by a "monster" in the arena that the rider decided to retire from the competition.
I talked with Dr. Rick Mitchell, the vet who checked Brentina over, and he filled me in on her physical condition, which some felt was suspect.
Debbie is devastated, but still came over to watch her teammates practice for Saturday's Grand Prix Special. That's being a good sport, something for which she always has been known.
Jim Wolf, director of sports programs for the U.S. Equestrian Federation, was one of the many people who were astounded at what happened to Brentina.
Bottom line: The USEF had no thought of putting a lame horse into competition, as some have suggested; they'd be crazy to do that when they had an alternate ready to go.
I think in the end, we have to accept that it was just one of those things and move on, though that's tough to do when an Olympic medal is at stake.
Next up is the Grand Prix Special, from which 15 riders will be qualified to ride the freestyle next week. Realistically, the U.S. doesn't have a shot at a medal, but just making it to the freestyle is reward enough.
I finally got a chance to see the stables, by the way, and they're really as spectacular as everyone says. If you are going to visit, it's only allowed under heavy guard. Don't step out of line or shoot a photo with a flash. The horses' private kingdom is sacrosanct; please disinfect your hands before entering.
Our escorted group wore special temporary passes that we had to give back at the end of the tour, and they weren't kidding about that. It would be so nice to be able to enter the stables any time to catch riders, but no way.
The stable blocs are air-conditioned. Each large stall has a rubber floor and rubber walls as well, to mitigate the damage if a horse decides to kick out. A special extra-large stall is filled with sand, so horses can roll there if they like. There are rings, paddocks and trails, everything done in top-notch fashion. The horses are getting first class treatment on the Hong Kong Jockey Club property by the Sha Tin racecourse.
Okay, see you at dressage.
Award-winning equestrian journalist Nancy Jaffer is covering her eighth Olympics. Her columns, photos and articles appear regularly on EquiSearch.com.
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