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Hong Kong, August 17, 2008 -- I've decided to nickname these Olympics the Bizarre Games. They have featured a whole series of unfortunate occurrences. Start with the two top French eventing mounts not being able to compete, go on to Debbie McDonald's mishap with Brentina and the misbehavior of the world's best dressage horses, Salinero and Satchmo in the Grand Prix Special, to name a few.
As of tonight, you can add some more items to the list: Beezie Madden of the U.S. team had her first refusal ever with Authentic and the German show jumping team, favored for the gold, just fell apart. Here's a hot news flash: The Germans may have won eventing and dressage handily, but they're not taking all the team golds at this venue. Surprise--they're not infallible after all.
At the same time, there's some good news, at least for those involved: The U.S. is tied for the lead on 12 penalties with Switzerland after Day 1 of the Nations' Cup, and the USA's McLain Ward is tied on 0 penalties with Canada's Eric Lamaze for first place in the individual standings.
One thing I would say, however, given the track record here in Hong Kong: Don't polish your medal before it's hung around your neck.
The sassy course tonight, courtesy of co-designers Leopoldo Palacios and Steve Stephens, was beautiful but tough. The scenic features included one of those Dancing Lions, whose antics we have been treated to here and at the run-up to the Games, yet another version of the Great Wall of China and a Dragon Boat.
The route started with a difficult stretch early; the wide water jump coming at number 4 off a bending turn from two verticals. It was followed by the most delicate bright red Moon Tong He Hang vertical that required riders to compress their horses quickly. Then there was a very forward triple combination near the end. I was saying "whew" at the end of every round, and I didn't move from my seat!
McLain, the first American to go, aced it and gave everyone hope for his nation's fortunes that turned out to be well-founded.
The Germans, meanwhile, started on the wrong foot and continued that unlucky dance. Christian Ahlmann had 8 faults with Coster, followed by Marco Kutscher with 13 on Cornet Obolensky. Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, favored for the individual gold with Shutterfly, toppled one rail while her brother-in-law, Ludger Beerbaum and All Inclusive, dropped two fences. As Meredith watched Ludger, her face showed despair; she doubled over as if in pain before getting herself together to meet the press.
"We were everything else but great," said Ludger, who perhaps had been the most confident of all before today.
"We need to get accustomed to the idea that the medal is gone."
Marco summed up the situation most concisely: "Today was a disaster." He had problems at the water and then noted about his horse, "He did not want to go to the fences...and then he started running into the fences. So I had three down in the end."
Meredith was mystified at her adopted nation's reversal of fortune. A California native who became a German when she married Marcus Beerbaum, Meredith expressed the surprise we all felt.
The Germans barely made the top eight (tying with Australia) to qualify for the second Cup round Monday. But McLain warned against getting overconfident that the Germans are totally through.
Over-confidence may have been what did in the Germans. They treated the first show jumping competition last week as a schooling round, and rolled up faults. There were two schools of thought on this: One said they knew what they were doing and there was a method in their madness. The other said they were already in trouble. Number two is correct.
The faults they had last week are expensive, because they count toward a rider's qualification for the individual finals, in which everyone will start from zero. Meredith, for instance, the highest-ranked German in 26th place, had six penalties in the first round and four last night for a total of 10. That's not insignificant.
Beezie is worse off than Meredith, despite a clear round the first day. As she was putting in a copybook round and turned toward the triple last night, Authentic started shaking his head, something he sometimes does, she said. Let her tell you about it.
So poor Beezie, with a refusal, a knockdown at the triple and time faults, stands 29th on 11 penalties. While many had picked her for an individual medal, McLain is certainly her equal. Don't forget, they were teammates with these same horses on the 2004 gold medal Olympic team and the 2006 silver medal World Equestrian Games squad.
Here, they are backed by two good horse/rider combinations. Laura Kraut had a clean trip with Cedric until she had a knockdown at the last fence, the Dragon Boat liverpool.
"My horse is the greenest one," she said. "I didn't want to let the team down."
Will Simpson had a foot at the edge of the water with Carlsson vom Dach and a rail at the triple for 8 faults. It looked as if that were going to be the drop score until Beezie rode. Who would have thought it could turn out this way? And how many times have I said that here?
Back to the team standings, Switzerland was a big surprise to me. They have good riders, sure, but two of their best, Marcus Fuchs and Beat Maendli, are at home for various reasons. They're making quite an effort and definitely could hang in there for a medal.
Sweden is third with 13 penalties, only one back from the leaders, while Canada, my pick for team bronze, is tied for fourth on 16 penalties with Great Britain. The latter was without anchor John Whitaker after his Peppermill was found to be stiff all over, almost as if he were tying up, but not exactly. So he didn't go tonight and it's likely he won't go tomorrow, which makes the country less of a threat since it no longer has a drop score.
The Netherlands and Norway are tied for sixth on 17 penalties. Brazil, which was right up there after the first day's round, self-destructed when Pedro Veniss on Blanc de Blancs fell as his horse plummeted at the troublesome Cutting Paper Art oxer, the next-to-last fence on course.
Another Brazilian, however, defending Olympic individual gold medalist Rodrigo Pessoa is still very much alive, and all by himself in third place on a single penalty with Rufus.
So, the stage is set for Monday's second and final round of the Cup. You know it will be exciting--that seems to be the only thing that's guaranteed at this Olympics.
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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