October 1, 2010 -- Whether they are at the top or the bottom of the list after the last two days' eventing dressage, the riders at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games all say the same thing about their three-phase competition: "It isn't a dressage competition."
By that, they mean that tomorrow's cross-country will make a huge difference. Everyone to whom I've spoken has the same respect for the course devised by Michael Etherington-Smith. They know that this is the crucial segment. Sunday's show jumping may juggle the standings a bit, but it is the cross-country here that will decide who is ahead going into the home stretch.
Germany leads on 114.3 penalties, ahead of Great Britain (128.5), Sweden (131.2), Australia (131.8), Italy (135.9), and New Zealand (138.3). The U.S., meanwhile, is seventh of 14 teams on 140 penalties after a series of less-than-lustrous dressage tests. Ironically, Becky Holder, who is riding as an individual rather than on the team, is the highest-ranked American, fifth on Courageous Comet, a 14-year-old thoroughbred ex-racehorse whose gray coat enhances his special beauty. She had a lovely test, worth just 39.3 penalties, in what is usually a strong suit for her.
She was understandably happy after finishing her ride.
You had to go down to 18th for the next-best American, Karen O'Connor, who has been riding here since 1976 when she competed at the fledgling horse park on her Connemara, Erin's Shamrock.
Karen, marked at 44.8 penalties to finish in 18th place with Mandiba, said he was put off by the crowd in the stadium, which filled quite well considering people were paying to watch eventing's least-exciting phase.
Mandiba, an 11-year-old Irish sporthorse, was her ride in the Olympics two years ago. He spooked leaving the ring as the crowd applauded.
The last of the Americans to compete was two-time Olympic team gold medalist Phillip Dutton, who earned those honors when he rode for his native Australia before becoming an American citizen.
Phillip looked quite dispirited when he came out of the ring after a 48.2-penalty test on Woodburn, the 14-year-old New Zealand thoroughbred.
The test was uneven. He got 9s for his extended canter, for instance, but 3s and 4s for his final collected canter with a flying change. That put him 32nd.
Buck Davidson (Ballynoe Castle RM) and Boyd Martin (Neville Bardos) who competed yesterday wound up 29th and 36th respectively.
The Germans are favored to win here, and they certainly are living up to expectations so far, though "it's not a dressage competition."
The leader is Michael Jung, with 33 penalties on La Biosthetique-Sam, a Baden-Wurtenburg 10-year-old. The other team members are seventh, eleventh and thirteenth.
I spoke with Frank Ostholt, a German who is riding as an individual and stands ninth with Mr. Medicott, about his country's rise in the sport.
Remember the unfortunate elimination of Grand Prix dressage rider Adelinde Cornelissen of the Netherlands earlier this week when her Jerich Parzival had blood on his mouth? It turned out to be nothing but a tiny dot of a cut on his tongue, but that was enough to end her medal quest.
The same thing happened today to a less-prominent rider, eventer Karim Florent Laghouagh of France. Judges spotted blood on the mouth of his mount, Havenir d'Azac, and waited awhile to see what it was, thinking it might just be part of a carrot. But it wasn't. As it was near the end of his test, they let him finish, then told him the bad news. According to Laghouagh, a veterinarian examined the horse and said it was nothing, that the horse had just bitten his lip. The rider's chef d'equipe went to appeal, but there is no appeal from this decision and besides, the judges stopped marking their sheets at the end, so there wasn't any going back in any case.
Eliminating the Frenchman was "a hard thing to do," Judge Marilyn Payne said, but noted there was no latitude in the rule. It's a rule that a number of people think requires a second look and perhaps some refinement.
One difficult situation that has been avoided was a plan to have the horses who pass the trot-up on Sunday before show jumping palpated by veterinarians and tested for hypersensitivity. Remember Sapphire at the show jumping World Cup finals and how that turned out?
Chefs d'equipe were not happy, to say the least, complaining loud and long about doing this for the first time at a championships. The FEI dropped the plan. Katrin Norinder of the FEI said there needed to be more education about the procedure before it could be instituted. Competing, it seems to me, is getting very complicated.
I spoke with U.S. coach Mark Phillips to get his take on the situation.
Switching to a happier topic, one of the interesting landmarks on the WEG scene is the Maker's Mark Bourbon Village, the headquarters for hospitality. It's really a giant, upscale tent, but what a tent!
Want to try it? If you have $600 to spare for a day's pleasure, it's yours. There's live entertainment, an incredible buffet with all kinds of salads, sandwiches, substantial entrees, cheeses, etc. and some Kentucky specialties, such as "hot brown" featuring ham and turkey on bread with a creamy cheese sauce (one Kentuckian with whom I chatted cheerily called it "an instant heart attack") or Derby pie, sort of an upgraded chocolate chip cookie. You'll find several bars (bourbon is featured, of course) and high-end (what else?) boutique shopping. Don't forget the outdoor patio overlooking the cross-country course. It's so nice you won't want to leave, and why should you? All the action is transmitted on flat screen TVs, so you can follow your favorites while sipping some Maker's Mark.
If you lack the cash for a day pass, you'll have to stand in line with the common folk for pizza or a variety of fast foods, including a burrito for $11.75. Yikes!
There are parties all over the place during the WEG, at the Horse Park and around Lexington, but I'll bet few are as much fun as the Rolex bash at Gainesway Farm, a few miles from the park.
Rolex always holds a party there during Rolex Kentucky, but this one was quite different. It drew a very international crowd, from show jumpers Meredith Beerbaum and Rodrigo Pessoa to Aachen director Frank Kempermann, all with their spouses. Of course all the big WEG-related names were there: John Long of the USEF, Rob Hinkle who oversees the mechanics of making WEG run and Kentucky Horse Park Executive Director John Nicholson, as well as many others. It was nice to see them relax (there was a dance floor and everybody was out on it; another difference from the Rolex Kentucky party.)
Bea and Derek di Grazia were among the couples feeling the music (great tunes, they again played my favorite, "Meet Me in Montana," the theme for Craig Schmersal's Mr. Montana Nic at reining).
Derek is the new "it" guy for Rolex Kentucky, taking over as cross-country course designer from Mike E-S, who is retiring from that job after the WEG.
Tonight's dressage freestyle (a complete sell-out) finishes late, which means my postcard won't be up until tomorrow morning, so don't lose hope. I'll be reporting on cross-country tomorrow evening.
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