Lexington, Ky., October 7, 2010 -- The U.S., which led the standings for the show jumping team world championship on Monday and dropped to third Tuesday, plunged to 10th place last night as Germany maintained its top ranking to take the gold medal on the firm authority of three clear rounds.
I just shook my head after watching the U.S. disaster at the Kentucky Horse Park. It was reminiscent of the American eventers going from second to fourth last weekend, except this scenario was on steroids.
Who would have believed it? The shattering ending to the evening for the U.S. riders was unthinkable as show jumping got under way, when they went into the competition at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) as the favorites.
Germany, fielding a team that included two women for the first time, was without its perennial strong man, Ludger Beerbaum, and had a championships neophyte in Janne-Friederike Meyer. Meydan Nations' Cup Super League champion France didn't appear in top form recently, and there were no other major contenders on the horizon. This really looked like America's year to move up from the silver medal it won at the 2006 WEG.
It's easy to understand the original air of optimism. The U.S. boasted Sapphire, arguably the world's best show jumper, with two Olympic team gold medals on her resume and a host of victories this year, including the Hampton Classic and HITS $1 million grand prix last month, outings that were supposed to set her up for the WEG. She and her rider, McLain Ward, represented half of the 2008 Olympic squad, along with Laura Kraut and Cedric.
In the end, only Laura could deliver a clean round yesterday. What went wrong?
"We just had a bad night. That's riders and horses," shrugged coach George Morris. "I've been showing horses since 1948 and that's horse showing."
"It's a frustrating sport," agreed Mario Deslauriers, who had been the winner of the speed class as the team fray got under way earlier this week.
The pressure was on him when he followed a disappointing 12-fault round by Lauren Hough aboard Quick Study, who had been successfully campaigned in Europe during the summer. Mario and the 9-year-old Urico first ran into trouble at the triple bar, the seventh of 13 fences, plowing through the rails to the point where the 9-year-old Dutchbred gelding found himself sitting on the ground. To his credit, Mario got the horse up and kept going, losing a stirrup and nearly falling off in the process before getting reorganized after the disaster. He needed to circle, accumulating 4 more faults, to make the next fence, and then had a rail down in the double combination before finishing on 13 penalties, which included one time fault.
A terribly disappointed Mario analyzed the performance that ended his championships outing in 52nd place after being in the lead the first day.
Laura Kraut put in a textbook trip on her little gray dynamo, making up for uncharacteristically weak efforts earlier in the show. The presence of the four-in-hand carriages undid Cedric before the speed class (that's one of the downsides of the WEG, with all its different disciplines) and she had an unfortunate rail in the first Nations' Cup class. Laura handled the considerable pressure beautifully, though she admitted, "I felt like I was going to have a heart attack!"
By the time McLain cantered into the arena, the tension was palpable even on the sidelines, though it was too late for the team. The Germans already had won the best-three-out-of-four scores format with clean trips by Janne on Cellagon Lambrasco, Meredith Michaels Beerbaum aboard Checkmate and Carsten-Otto Nagel (Corradina), and the other medals were accounted for as well. The best the U.S. could have finished was sixth if McLain had turned in a clean round. But he didn't.
The course was nearly identical to what it had been Tuesday, with the exception of the water jump being replaced by the triple bar and an increase in some heights and widths. McLain had the same green Keeneland fence down as he did on Tuesday, when it was located two obstacles after the water, and Sapphire tipped the front rail at the final oxer, 1.51 meters in height and a gaping 1.9 meters wide.
McLain, usually one to face the music, did not appear to speak with the media about his round, but George came and summed up how it went here.
Germany's 17.80 score was a runaway victory. France took the silver with 24.32 and little Belgium, which captured the bronze with 24.70, once again made its presence felt after earning the reining silver (with different horses and riders, natch.)
Unlike the U.S. dressage and eventing teams, which qualified for the Olympics by virtue of their fourth-place finishes, the show jumpers will have to qualify for London 2012 at next year's Pan American Games in Mexico. That bit of unfinished business is going to be a thorn under the saddle of the U.S. federation for the next 12 months.
Next up is tomorrow's competition for the top 30 riders that will narrow the field to the Final Four who will contest the individual medals. Laura, standing 19th, and McLain, 26th, are the only two Americans in the semi-final, but have not a prayer of making the finals, barring a mass crumble of the many riders ahead of them.
The leader after Tuesday's round, Khaled Al Eid of Saudi Arabia, had a rail with Presley Boy and stands seventh now.
Heading the rankings is Rodrigo Pessoa of fourth-place Brazil, fault-free in each leg of the two-rounder with HH Rebozo. That horse was brought along by U.S. team alternate Candace King and is a new ride for Rodrigo. If he makes the final four, it will be familiar territory; he's been there before and won.
The former world champion is followed in the rankings by Belgium's Philippe Le Jeune on Vigo D'Arsouilles (also double-clear in the two Nations' Cup classes), Carsten-Otto, and Olympic gold medalist Eric Lamaze of fifth-place Canada, riding Hickstead with a broken left foot that means he always leans heavily on his right stirrup. Hickstead, he said, has gotten used to it, but that's got to be a handicap, doesn't it?
Others of interest in the top 30 include world number one in the Rolex rankings Kevin Staut of France, who impressed me with his poise and clean-cut good looks during the post-competition press conference. He's riding Silvana de Hus. Japanese rider Taizo Sugitani, whom I highlighted in my last article is 16th on Avenzio 3, and 2006 world champion Jos Lansink of Belgium is 17th with Cavalor Valentina Van'T Heike. He and Australia's Edwina Alexander (21st) and Meredith (18th) were all in the final four at the last world championships. The only one missing is 2006 silver medalist Beezie Madden, who is on the grounds as a civilian. She didn't make the team and of course was wishing she could ride here.
Meredith, a native of California who became a German after marrying Ludger's brother, Marcus, has a new perspective on life since the last WEG, as she became the mother of Brianne Beerbaum eight months ago. Although she is not riding Shutterfly, her indomitable World Cup champion, she continues to make her presence felt.
After the show, we chatted about what's happening with her.
I'll have another article tonight focusing on the driving, which gets under way in earnest today with dressage. The Americans swept presentation (which doesn't count for the medals) with Chester Weber, Jimmy Fairclough and Tucker Johnson finishing 1-2-3 in the assessment of turnout. Sadly, David Saunders, one of the 10 U.S. drivers scheduled to compete, will not take part after two of the Morgans he drives failed to pass the pre-competition veterinary inspection.
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