September 2, 2014 -- The U.S. show jumping team pulled into third place as today's opening speed leg wrapped up at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games but the squad is hardly poised for the medals podium yet.
Though the speed round was difficult enough for many of the riders, I suspect it will be put in the shade by tomorrow's Nations' Cup effort devised by former French show jumper Frederic Cottier. The French are leading on 2.08 penalties, with Sweden on 3.01, the U.S. on 4.72 and Germany right on the Americans' heels with 4.82, but it's a good bet that you can expect reshuffling by tomorrow night with the leaders so close.
The medals aren't awarded until Thursday, when the top 10 teams will return for another round.
Aside from the scores, the competition was amazing because it included riders from every continent. There are 21 teams, running from Egypt through Qatar to Australia and Spain, as well as individuals from such exotic locales as Turkey and Morocco -- places not generally associated with what fairly recently was a Eurocentric and North American sport.
Show jumping is the last chance for the U.S. to take a medal in one of the Olympic disciplines at this WEG, after the dressage team wound up fourth and the eventing squad failed to finish. Falling short of a medal, a consolation prize could be qualifying for the 2016 Olympics, with spots going to the top five teams.
The U.S. show jumping contingent here is considered to be particularly talented. McLain Ward, the pathfinder, said it may be the best squad since the 2008 Olympics (where they won gold) or perhaps even before that.
"We have a team on paper that should win a medal this week," he stated. But it still has to prove itself, and the riders set out to do just that in d'Ornano Stadium.
"It's a very fine line between winning and eighth. As the sport grows, it's getting to be a finer line. You had to take a bit of a risk today," said McLain, who had a rail down with an eager Rothchild at the brown "Puits and Pigeonnier" fence. The description of the fences, written in not very fluent English, said this obstacle related to "a great architectural panel of wells and pigeonholes" in the Normandy countryside. Then there's he bit about the Sainte Clara Quent jump, named for a fifth century saint who "was drown, feet tied to a branch and head in the river by some raiders."
Enough of that. Listen to McLain talk about his round.
Toppled poles added 4 seconds to the time of the round, so the knockdown cost not only McLain, but also Kent Farrington, who went later in the day with Voyeur and pulled a pole at the same fence. The U.S. plan was to shoot for a time in the 77/79-second range, which both riders hit, but the knockdowns put them 22d on a time of 82.13 and 18th (81.02) respectively.
McLain noted the course "walked soft, careful; very careful, but not big. There's a wide range of levels on the first day, and that's probably reflected in some of the scores," which went up to 131.64 seconds with the addition of the knockdown penalty. There were 153 starters, but only 143 finished. A series of falls took out some good riders, including Brazil's Doda de Miranda (go to www.facebook.com/equisearch for a photo) and Belgium's Jos Verlooy.
Kent was chipper about his round with the very reliable Voyeur. Listen to what he had to say.
Lucy Davis, a 21-year-old Stanford University student making her international team debut, was going well with Barron until he crashed through the grayish/greenish Etretat wall, named after an artsy tourist town in Normandy. A good number of horses took issue with this obstacle, and many riders walked their mounts by it to give them a good look before they started.
I worried that Lucy would be unseated by Barron's dive, but she hung on and kept going. Lucy wound up 69th and was the drop score for the team.
Here's how she analyzed her problem.
However, there was a happy ending because anchor Beezie Madden came through, as she so often does, finishing fourth with Cortes C, clean in 77.34 seconds. She definitely rode to orders, and her horse was exemplary. I wondered, though, whether going last and having the fate of the team resting on her round was particularly stressful. Though I shouldn't have asked; I can't think of any times in my experience with Beezie when she hasn't been cool and calm.
Here's what she said.
Interestingly, with all of the world's greatest riders competing today, the class was won by 19-year-old Bertram Allen of Ireland on the splendid gray mare Molly Malone in a time of 77.01 seconds, just ahead of the home side's favorite, Patrice Delaveau on Orient Express (77.l8) and Belgium's Gregory Wathelet with Conrad de Hus (77.33).
Not that Allen is anyone to be taken lightly, despite his age. After all, he won the Dublin grand prix last month. Of his trip here, he said, "It was a good solid round. I didn’t quite expect to be that fast and I’m surprised to be in the lead. I didn't go all out to risk it." He noted that this is another level beyond winning at Dublin, which made it even more amazing that someone with his lack of mileage could do as well as he did.
The architecture of the course was quite interesting, promoting Normandy. Most impressive was the miniature of Mont Saint-Michel, the abbey/fortress that's about 90 minutes away. I took photos of it during the endurance competition; if you want to see what it looks like in "real life," go to www.equisearch.com and look for the endurance story.
When riders talk about big fences, they often say they were jumping houses. Today, they nearly were, because standards on two fences were replicas of the half-timbered buildings you see around here.
Jumps were flanked by a cart full of apples (Oh, I just thought, "don't upset the apple cart" is very apropos here) and giant replicas of apples and pears speak to the orchards of Normandy that produce the raw material for cider and Calvados, the potent apple brandy that is one of its most famous products.
Can't wait to see what they come up with tomorrow. Be sure to return in the evening for my next postcard.