July 18, 2015--I didn't expect the Pan American Games eventing to be as exciting as it has become. The U.S. and Canada, I figured, would fight it out for the gold, and after that Brazil would sneak in for the bronze and everyone else would be further down the line.
But after today's cross-country, Brazil has come into contention big time with 136.7 penalties to the USA's leading score of 133. There's a possibility Brazil could claim double gold--though not if the U.S. is playing its best game.
And today, it was. All four riders on the U.S. squad were fault-free: Pathfinder Phillip Dutton (Fernhill Fugitive), anchorman Boyd Martin--or as one announcer here calls him, Martin Boyd (Pancho Villa) and two riders new to international championships, Marilyn Little (RF Scandalous) and Lauren Kieffer (Meadowbrook's Scarlett).
The Brazilians did the same clean sweep of the fences, as Ruy Fonseca, the leader after dressage with Tom Bombadill Too, kept his edge. The rest of the squad is Carlos Parro (Caulcourt Landline), who has trained at length in Britain, Henrique Plombon (Land Quenotte) and Jorge Marcio Carvalho (Lissy MacWayer), who is an anaesthesiologist and rides on the side.
The Brazilians are coached by Mark Todd (did you see his photo yesterday at facebook.com/practicalhorseman?), and he's obviously getting through to them.
How heartbreaking for Canada, though, as it slipped from second to third after British-based Kathryn Robinson -- second individually after dressage -- had a fall at the second fence, the hayracks, with Let It Bee. She blamed herself, but it took Canada from being just 0.7 penalties away from the U.S. down to 22.30 penalties behind Brazil.
Defending individual gold medalist Jessica Phoenix of Canada on Pavarotti is in the hunt in third place, with less than rail separating the top trio.
The course, designed by Australian Wayne Copping, was simply beautiful. A delight to walk, and apparently a delight to ride. Well, that probably applies to everyone except the 10 people who were eliminated, but I didn't get a chance to chat with them.
There were a few falls; I counted approximately five from what I saw and listened to over the loudspeaker (when I could hear it; it was very faint in some sections of the course. But since there was no fence report today (things never run perfectly at these big, one-time competitions), I can't be exact about that. Luckily, however, there were no major injuries.
The course wound round and round, making the best use of the land with its up and down terrain; no real steep hills, more like the moguls you encounter when skiing. The jumps were beautiful and varied, including a "Golden Horseshoe," the Fort York cannons (something out of Canadian history with which I am not familiar), a hay wagon, several mini-barns and two expansive water complexes.
"There was certainly plenty to do out there, but I enjoyed the fact there were a number of options in the more technical combinations, so you could ride the track that was best for your horse," said Marilyn Little, who is second, 1.4 penalties behind Ruy.
"A more experienced rider could get a little greener horse around, but it gave the people whose first time (it was) at this level (the ability) to trade on their horse's experience and find a line that was easiest for them," she observed.
"The course was really built for everybody."
Tickets to the cross-country were sold to only 5,000 people, which I think was very smart. Those of us who were at the World Equestrian Games in France last year remember the traffic jams, the swarms of people, the lack of food and sanitary facilities. I still recall the nice South African man who observed sadly, "They have catering for 5,000 people but they have 50,000 here."
I don't think it was that many, but in any case, it was more than the venue could handle.
That was not the case in Mono, a beautiful rural area bout 20 minutes north of the main equestrian center in Caledon. There was enough food and drink, plenty of portable toilets and lots of parking. Traffic back-ups were minimal.
Everyone was worried about the heat. There were heat warnings and heat alerts. It was the hottest day of the year, in the high 80s during the time the horses were running.
That reading would be nothing special in New Jersey, where I live. But up here, it was a hot topic (so to speak) and practically a crisis. "Sizzling" and "sweltering" were words I heard more than once.
We got all kinds of warnings about insuring adequate hydration, wearing sunscreen and seeking shade. The horses seemed to handle it pretty well, especially since misting fans were available. But don't forget, many of them were from Latin America, so they're used to it.
"It's the same weather in Brazil, so I'm happy," said Henrique of the Brazilian team.
The crowd didn't seem to be much bothered by the heat. The afternoon had a festive feel, but everyone was so, ( I don't know how else to say it) well-behaved. The Canadians I have encountered are unfailingly polite and friendly. They wear their red and white Canada clothing (I saw a woman with a hat shaped like a red maple leaf), and of course cheer loudest for their riders, but they appreciated good jumping and gave everyone applause.
I was impressed at how well many riders from countries that we don't think of as eventing nations did today. There were 18 double-clears, and a rider from Chile, Carlos Lobos (Ranco) is standing sixth. Ecuador's Ronald Zabala, who rides a great deal in the U.S., is 12th, and two Guatamalans, Sarka Kolackova and Stefanie Brand Leu, are 12th and 13th.
The Pan Ams used to be a 3-star, but they are now run at the 2-star level, which helps give everyone a better chance. But I asked Boyd if he thought it should be upgraded to a 3-star again.
Click on the soundbyte to hear what he had to say:
Marilyn emphasized that gold for the U.S. is far from certain.
"It's definitely still a fight," she pointed out.
"Brazil is right behind us and Canada is right behind that. It's going to be a fight until the last horse jumps the last fence."
There's a lot at stake here. The U.S. needs to finish in the medals to get an Olympic berth next year. Canada, already qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympics, wants to do well at its home games, and the Brazilians are trying to prove that they could win their way into the Olympics, despite being qualified because they are being held in their home country.
Here are the links to today's results: http://results.toronto2015.org/IRS/en/equestrian/results-eventing-individual-1-00.htm
I'll tell you what tomorrow brings if you come back and check out my next postcard from the Pan Ams in the evening.