July 11, 2015 -- It was raining personal bests at the Pan American Games today, as the U.S. and Canada battled not only for the team gold medal, but also for a ticket to compete in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Canada was ahead after its first two Small Tour riders, Chris von Martels on Zilverstar and Brittany Fraser aboard All In, put in stellar performances to earn those personal bests. Chris was marked at 75.028 percent to stand fifth individually, while Brittany's 76.105 percent has her in second place.
I've watched Brittany closely in recent years because she, like Chris, is coached by Ashley Holzer, and I've done a number of stories on Ashley. I remember at the Royal Winter Fair several years ago watching an exhibition by Brittany and Ashley's goddaughter, Lindsay Kellock, with Ashley narrating and speaking about the promise they showed.
So here I was at the Pan Ams, interviewing Brittany in her first senior championship. Listen to what she has to say.
In the difficult position of being his nation's pathfinder, Chris had a fluid ride the made the most of Zilverstar's lovely gaits. Chris understandably was all smiles when we talked. Here's what he had to say.
The Canadians miss having Ashley on a team, she was definitely a star. But for her part, she has a different focus because she loves to teach. She told me once about her wish, "to pass the torch in a way that I can be part of. That brings me a lot of joy."
The Pan Ams are mixed Small Tour and Big Tour, with the Grand Prix riders getting a 1.5 percent coefficient boost. That's key for a team, and it didn't help Canada when one of its Grand Prix riders, Megan Lane on Caravelle, became the drop score. (The best three out of four count for team placings.)
Megan was eighth with 70.900 percent, not a terrible mark, but her absence from the calcuations for the total meant Canada lost its extra 1.5 percent. It has 226.071 percent to the USA's 230.504. The U.S. Small Tour riders, Sabine Schut-Kery on the energetic Sanceo and Kimberly Herslow on Rosmarin, both had mistakes, but nothing too major.
Sabine said her miscount in the lead changes every four strides could be blamed on pilot error. She wound up with 71.790 percent for seventh place and the drop score.
Kim had a problem at the initial halt, when Rosmarin stopped, then started up and stopped again. In retrospect, she thought she just should have trotted off, rather than continuing the halt, but you know hindsight is 20-20.
Her score of 76.184 was also a personal best, and good enough to put her third. It was a special occasion for Kim, because it is her last Prix St. Georges with Rosmarin, since he will be moving up to Grand Prix after the Games.
Although Canada led once the Small Tour riders finished, the USA's big guns moved in to change things around during the Grand Prix portion of the program. Steffen Peters, number seven in the world, and Laura Graves, number eight, made it a new game.
Laura had a mistake in the one-tempis that kept her score at a mere 75.080. I'm smiling as I write that; it's a score most riders would envy. Verdades looks great after two months of training with Debbie McDonald in Idaho. As Laura finished her ride, Debbie began jumping up and down in excitement on the ringside kiss-and-cry stand for coaches and relatives.
Poised as always, Laura explained how "Diddy" is so happy to be at the Games. He's obviously a horse who loves his job.
In the end, it came down to Steffen, as it almost always seems to do. Shortly after Canadian Belinda Trussell was marked at 73.440 on Anton, Steffen rode into the ring with Legolas and a mission to perform the test that could put the USA on top. But as I watched him go around the outside of the ring, I could see that Legolas was lit up. Master horseman that he is, however, Steffen tamed him and brought him into the ring in the nick of time to start his test. But I'll let Steffen talk about it.
He did an amazing job to wind up with the highest score of the day, 77.240 percent. Here are the results of today's competition.
Although the venue is attractive, with a club on one long side of the ring and seating on the other three sides, the stands were never full. In fact, as the day went on and the sun beat down ever hotter, they understandably emptied out. The spectators who did appear were, not unexpectedly, partisan to the Canadians. U.S. fans were not present in abundance; the huge cheers were reserved for the competitors with the maple leaf emblem on their coats.
It is an exciting competition; such a shame that it is not being televised or shown on live stream. While the U.S. was dominant today, tomorrow could well be another story, as the U.S. and Canada continue to battle it out for a trip to Rio with competition at Intermediaire I and the Grand Prix Special.
The nation that doesn't win gold could still go to the Olympics as a "composite team" if individuals are high enough on the international ranking list to form a squad. It's not an ideal way to be part of the Games, but it's better than nothing. What a pity that two teams cannot qualify from this Games. Although many people are not aware of the Pan Ams (lack of TV in the States likely contributes to that) they are huge, with 41 nations represented and 36 sports.
Be sure to look for my next postcard tomorrow night, when I'll tell the rest of the medal story.