Karen O’Connor and Mr Medicott

The 2012 Olympic three-day event cross-country is now one for the record books, and what a day it turned out to be. A longshot rider from country never even close to medal contention (Japan) was in first after dressage, and the course took away his short-lived glory. It hatcheted experienced riders with world-class performance resumes (Hawley Bennett-Awad and Gin & Juice, among many others).

It showcased the true horsemen, (Mark Todd on green Campino, veteran Andrew Nicholson and brilliant Nereo, Karen O’Connor on the horse most unsuited to this course, Mr. Medicott).  It slapped around the green horses and riders  to the world-class level (nearly all the individual country riders) and sorted out the field to the relief of those who were worried the three-day might become just a dressage race.

That’s what us horse people might characterise the Sue Benson-designed cross country course. If you weren’t a horse person, or understood much about equestrian sport — you might have different words to describe what you saw; the chat rooms and lists are full of words like “distressing”, “carnage”, and “awful”. Not sure where eventing might go from this — while the course was exciting and did what it was supposed to do, it might have been just a touch brutal on horses, with 40 efforts over the 10 minute, 3 second optimum time.

Here are the facts: 9 were clean (many more than the 2 predicted.) Of 72 riders, 15 eliminated – 14 from falls, and one from stops. There were no retirements. About 17 horses had stops. So over 30 horses were not clean on the course,  over a third of the field.  The footing appeared to get more and more slippery as the horses cut up the turf throughout the day, making the last days’ riders have that much more difficulty. Experienced riders went as close to the ropes as they dared. Watching the live feed, the one aspect missed was the immense crowd and noise; we could hear some of it when Zara Phillips was on course, however, and it sounded like it might have been just shy of deafening.

The first rider of the day, Boyd Martin, on Otis, went clear but with time faults, and it was clear that the time would be hard to get. In order, the “big three” eventing nations sent out riders – England, New Zealand, Australia – and surprisingly failed to get around some pretty big names. Clayton Fredericks (AUS), Sam Griffiths (AUS), Camilla Spiers (IRL), Michael Ryan (IRL), as well as three Canadian riders – Peter Barry, Rebecca Howard, and Hawley – hit the Greenwich turf. The absolute brilliance of Karen O’Connors ride however gave hope, and the British hit their marks with the next two riders, Mary King and Nicola Wilson, as did the Germans. Ingrid Klimke put on a clinic with her 15-year-old horse Butts Abraxas as did Caroline Powell and her 19-year-old Lenamore.

The Japanese gave a jolly good show, but their overnight leader, Yoshiaki Oiwa, tipped off on the downhill skinny just before the arena castle jumps, and felt the gold evaporate; how disappointing it must been. I always feel sorry for Zara Phillips, because of the pressure on her as a member of the royal family, but she must thrive under it — her go was phenomenal and High Kingdom answered every question. She was one of the few under the time.

The middle American riders, Tiana Coudray and Will Coleman, each had mistakes that proved costly but not eliminating; Tiana’s horse ran out at 3b, and she put her foot down and in no uncertain terms explained to Ringwood Magister that his job was to go where she put him, and the round was spectacular from there on out. You could almost watch the horse grow as she put to fence, after fence, with positive riding and forward attitude — even with a stop she ended up with only a few time penalties.

Twizzel took a look at the huge drop of 20b and said, “maybe not”, and it cost 20, but went well overall. It was up to Phillip to put in the text- book clutch ride, which he delivered on yet another horse green to the world level, Mystery Whisper, ending with a bit over just 2 time faults. Meanwhile the Swedish were taking no prisoners. Linda Algottson’s sister, Sara Algottson-Ostholt, had a beautiful trip to end up tied for first with Ingrid Klimke. Michael Jung made up for dressage pulling up to fourth for Germany.

Tina Cook answered the call for Great Britain, and Ludvig Svennerstal answered for Sweden — clean rides. Another clean German ride from Sandra Auffarth (finishing in 8th) and the team race was now Germans first, Great Britain in second, the Swedes pulling in at third, New Zealand fourth (on the outstanding riding of Mark Todd at the bitter end of the day) and the United States in fifth.

Really superb rides by lesser known competitors — in 48th, Ronald Zabala-Goeschal on Master Rose for Ecuador, and in 37th,  Nina Ligon for Thailand on Butts Leon — were slow but clear; both train in the U.S. The pride that Jessica Phoenix must feel for her great jumping Exponential (now in 28th slot). Just to give everyone an idea how hard it this course was — William Fox-Pitt stands in 22nd place!

Unusually influential fences seemed to be Fence 3a-b, offset black verticals that were reminiscent of the bandstand fences in the historic park. At steep angles with decoration inbetween, it took out several riders, including Carl Bouckaert for Belgium, Hawley, and another, and was the source of several jumping penalties. The waters seemed to ride pretty well, but the downhill skinnies were tough for everyone.

On to show jumping today!