October 5, 2010 -- The rest of the world is catching up to Europe, the U.S. and Canada in show jumping. For timely evidence, just look at the top 12 individuals after today's competition at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
The leader is Khaled Al Eid of Saudi Arabia on Presley Boy, one of the best horses in the world. And number 12 is Taizo Sugitani of Japan aboard Avenzio 3. There's only a single American on that roster, McLain Ward, who dropped from number two yesterday to ninth today after toppling a rail with Sapphire this afternoon.
A former world champion, Rodrigo Pessoa of Brazil, is second individually on HH Rebozo, the Mexican stallion who was brought along by Candace King (the U.S. reserve rider here) before being sold to Hunter Harrison for Rodrigo earlier this year.
Rodrigo knows that his Saudi rival is the real deal, and proved it a decade ago at the Sydney Olympics, where he won the individual bronze and made history for the Middle East.
"He's an unbelievable rider, he has a lot of feeling," said Rodrigo.
"He is a very, very tough competitor. There's no doubt about it that he's a serious contender to go all the way."
The Saudi, who moved up from fifth place yesterday, made a victory lap of the ring after clearing the 1.9-meter-wide oxer that was the final fence. He skipped the fist pumps and galloped around without his reins, repeatedly cupping his hands and putting them near his face.
I wasn't sure what that meant, so I asked a competitor from Qatar. He told me Khaled was thanking God with that gesture.
Otto Becker, coach of the German team, noted that "there's riders from countries that 10 years ago you would never expect they would ride a clean round. Everybody is a lot closer and it's harder for the bigger nations to stay in front. To get a medal, you need an optimal week with the team. Otherwise, you have no chance. The others are too strong."
I have been impressed about the way riders from nations that are not part of the equestrian establishment have been trying and trying over the years to improve. Although a number of countries are buying top team horses from other nations (Presley Boy, for instance, previously was with the Mexicans and ridden by Jaime Azcarraga) those who purchase the horses are riding them with skill, not just their wallets.
I have seen great improvement in Japan, which has been a perennial also-ran. I think Taizo Sugitani's clean round today was a demonstration that the hard work is paying off. There were so many cheers for this 34-year-old athlete after he left all the rails in place that I knew it was more than just the Japanese contingent that was appreciating his effort. He's ranked 335th in the world, but this is his fifth WEG and I think it's an example of how important it is to be persistent in horse sport; nothing in this game comes fast or easy. The son of a riding stable owner, he trains with the well-known Dutch show jumper Henk Nooren and says his ambition is "to be one of the top riders." His teammate, Daisuke Fukushima on Weldon D, also had a clean round earlier in the day, but the team's two other riders had major faults, keeping the nation in 14th place.
And of course, there's Sandor Szasz of Hungary, so far off the radar screen that it was amazing to see him sitting next to two of the best riders in the world, Mario Deslauriers and McLain Ward, in third place after the opening speed round of the show jumping. Unfortunately, Sandor had two rails today and dropped to 55th, but it was nice that he had a moment of glory and represented all the countries that so rarely get the spotlight.
In the team standings, the U.S. went from first to third after no member of the team had a clean round. Lauren Hough (Quick Study) and Laura Kraut (Cedric) each had single rails. Lauren had the unenviable job of going first in the class, only to find that Conrad Homfeld's course rode a lot differently than it walked.
Lauren also had a time penalty, and that often makes all the difference. Without it, the U.S. would have been in the lead. But she shouldn't feel like the Lone Ranger. Eric Lamaze of Canada, the 2008 Olympic individual gold medalist, had no jumping faults with Hickstead but one time penalty. His country is fourth; it would have been second without that penalty. Although to be fair, I must mention that another Canadian, John Pearce, also had a single time penalty with Chianto. I remember from the $1 million Pfizer grand prix at HITS, a time penalty also kept him out of the jump-off.
Laura improved on her performance of yesterday, when she had two rails, but she had thought she could go clean.
Yesterday's leader, Mario Deslauriers (Urico) wound up with a knockdown and a hoof on the tape at the water. He missed his original turn in the arena, which had everyone wondering.
Anchor rider McLain Ward, second yesterday with Sapphire, also had trouble with the water, albeit in a different way than Mario. He rode so strongly to the water (which was bigger than it was yesterday) that two fences later, he got a bit tight to an oxer and had it down. He and I talked about today and what might happen tomorrow.
Germany now leads on 17.80 penalties. Can you believe that Meredith Michaels Beerbaum had the drop score of 8 faults with Checkmate? I imagine she's missing her star, Shutterfly, who stood her in good stead at so many championships over the years.
Second is Brazil (18.49), while the U.S. has 18.69 and Canada,18.93. That's all so close, really down to 10th place, which means it's anybody's game for the team medals. They will be decided late tomorrow night over virtually the same course the competitors jumped today at the Kentucky Horse Park.
The only differences will be that the water jump is going to be replaced by a fence, since the lights reflecting on the water could cause problems. And Conrad, praised by competitors for being "brilliant" said he would adjust some fences. That doesn't mean he's going to lower them.
Conrad described his efforts here as "a narrowing-down process" that decreases the big field by increasing the level of difficulty.
"I want to congratulate Conrad," said U.S. coach George Morris, Conrad's trainer from long ago.
"This is more difficult than the Olympics, because you have the quantity with the quality," said George, referring to the fact that there were 118 starters yesterday.
I'm staying in the same hotel as the Australian team, and it seems to me that every night they have a party; they certainly know how to have a good time. But tonight it was a real celebration: They qualified for the Olympics by finishing first in their division today. That is, while they stand seventh overall, they are ahead of New Zealand, Japan and the Eastern Europeans (I know it was controversial when the EE's got put in the same league, but please don't make me go there now. I'm too tired.)
Another goal was to make the top 10 teams that will jump tomorrow night. (Oh, can you believe this? The WEG has added another session tomorrow afternoon for all team members whose squads have not qualified for the second round of the team competition and for individuals who aren't among the first 10 set to go in the evening show. Just what they needed, something else on the already jammed schedule.)
Back to Australia. This is the end of a long, difficult saga, so let me explain. Australia doesn't have scads of top show jumpers like the U.S. does. Their top four were head and shoulders above all the other candidates, so they decided to bring them here and not fly a fifth horse as a reserve.
Then a key horse, the Selle Francais Niack de L'abbaye did not get a negative test result for glanders, a disease that was used for biological warfare in both World Wars, according to Australian chef d'equipe Stephen Lamb. That didn't mean Niack had glanders, it was just a freak result. But he couldn't get into the U.S. with it.
Retesting ensued, with all kinds of problems; blood samples were lost, time was ticking and the other team horses took off without Niack. Stephen called for help from a number of expert vets, and they responded to help him make his case.
"I had some sleepless nights," Stephen admitted, but then it all came together.
Though Niack arrived later than planned, he was in time to start yesterday with rider James Paterson-Robinson. He had the drop score then, but his effort today with a single rail down helped secure the team placing. James was kicking himself, though, noting that without that knockdown, the team would be standing second. That's how tight things are.
James is the stable rider for Ger Poels Horses in the Netherlands. He has a combination Dutch and Australian accent; now there's a combo you don't often hear. Anyway, I was thrilled for the Australians, who have a real sense of accomplishment. The rest will be gravy.
The jumping for team medals tomorrow night will finish very late, so don't look for my postcard until the morning of October 7. In the meantime, be sure to check out my photo gallery that includes highlights of the first week of the WEG.
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