It's been almost a decade since Captain Mark Phillips took over as the U.S. eventing chef d'equipe and coach, and today at the World Equestrian Games, the time and effort he's put into our team was worth gold. It's only our second World Championship gold, and our first in the WEG, and the feeling as we stood there with the stars and stripes being raised and the national anthem playing was-finally. Finally, our horses all stayed sound throughout, finally our riders lived up to all the promise they've shown, finally all the luck went our way, and the gold was finally, finally, ours.It's been almost a decade since Captain Mark Phillips took over as the U.S. eventing chef d'equipe and coach, and today at the World Equestrian Games, the time and effort he's put into our team was worth gold. It's only our second World Championship gold, and our first in the WEG, and the feeling as we stood there with the stars and stripes being raised and the national anthem playing was-finally. Finally, our horses all stayed sound throughout, finally our riders lived up to all the promise they've shown, finally all the luck went our way, and the gold was finally, finally, ours.
It’s been almost a decade since Captain Mark Phillips took over as the U.S. eventing chef d’equipe and coach, and today at the World Equestrian Games, the time and effort he’s put into our team was worth gold. It’s only our second World Championship gold, and our first in the WEG, and the feeling as we stood there with the stars and stripes being raised and the national anthem playing was-finally. Finally, our horses all stayed sound throughout, finally our riders lived up to all the promise they’ve shown, finally all the luck went our way, and the gold was finally, finally, ours.
However, if the mood seemed a little less than the wild celebrations one might have imagined, that was because we won our medal as much through the mistakes of others than by our own perfection. The course was big and twisty, with lots of fences off of turns, and on related distances. It required an adjustable horse with a big jump, and the cross-country had surely taken a lot out of them. The crowd was also standing-room-only, showing that the Spaniards have clearly caught "the eventing bug," and the crowds unnerved several of the horses.
Amy Tryon put in a great round with only one rail down as the first in for the Americans. It should be no surprise that a woman who works full-time as a fire fighter is tough, but watching her ride Poggio as battered and bruised as she was after her crashing cross-country fall was a real lesson in toughness. Especially as Poggio looked more than ready to run cross-country again, and was pulling her around the course in his usual exuberant fashion.
"My horse was great, as I was a bit stiff and sore today," said Tryon. "I just wanted to finish for my team. I was disappointed with yesterday’s problem, but we’ve been focused on coming in with six horses, and finishing with six horses, and that’s what I wanted to do. That’s when your team mates help you-they pick you up when you are down."
At 16, David O’Connor’s mount Giltedge is the grand old man of American evening, and has amassed a remarkable number of championship performances. His age did show a bit this morning, but this horse is a fighter and a warrior in every sense of the word, and he jumped flawlessly to a double clear, one of only eight today. One wonders if the American team will ever again have such a consistent pair as O’Connor and "Tex," who can be counted on to this degree.
"Giltedge jumped fantastic, as he usually tries to do. He gave me a lovely ride today," said O’Connor. "Yesterday he worked quite hard, but he felt pretty good today."
The Aussies had been breathing down our necks in second place after cross-country, and when Olivia Bunn and GV Top of the Line put in a sparkling clear round the race for gold was on. France was lurking in third, and their first team rider, Didier Courreges and the spectacular jumping Free Style ENE HN, also had a clear round.
David Middleton and Willowbank Jack rode in for Australia, but they are new to the team, and had two rails and three time penalties to give the U.S. a bit more breathing room. Jean-Luc Force and Crocus Jacob ENE HN had three rails and one time penalty to help us breath even easier. Though you never wish any one ill, it was hard to give a small cheer of relief when Australian Stuart Tinney and his little mare Ava, who’d had a brilliant round yesterday, had a heart-breaking six rails and two time penalties. The Aussie team, who had claimed gold in most of the recent team championships would drop to fourth and off the medals podium all together.
Meanwhile, the once-favored British team, who had had three heartbreaking stops on cross-country yesterday, had been steadily putting in clear or four-fault rounds to keep their medal hopes quietly alive. After Tinney’s rails, and a fabulous clear by sixth-placed Jeanette Brakewell and the scopey chestnut Over to You, it was clear things were going to be close.
Kim Severson-Vinsoki and Winsome Adante had been the stars of the cross-country day, with the fastest time of the day. But the big bay looked a bit ragged this morning, and as he lowered three rails, the race for gold started to get tighter.
"I was very happy with my horse," said a clearly disappointed Severson-Vinoski. "That wasn’t the round I wanted. I think the ring got to him today as it did in the dressage."
Finland’s Piia Pantsu had also put in a strong performance, and her scopey little bay Ypaja Karuso didn’t let up today. He jumped brilliantly in places, though still lowered two fences on the challenging course. She was followed by the veteran Frenchman Jean Teulere and the youngster Espoir De La Mare who jumped well to drop only one rail. Australian Phillip Dutton had been moved off his team and was riding as an individual, but had been the highest placed Aussie throughout the weekend. Though he would still finish as the highest placed Aussie, he would drop to 6th with three rails down.
The crowd held it’s breath as John Williams cantered slowly in to the ring. He had two rails in hand, but just two. The big chestnut clocked the first fence, and the rail fell. Then he hit the second fence and the crowd gasped. He needed to not so much as whisper on another fence to keep his first place, but he couldn’t do it, dropping another two before his round was over, and dropping to fourth. He patted his horse, but he was surely disappointed.
"The horse did a wonderful job today," he said. "he felt quite tired today, more so that he has at competitions in the past, which is a new feeling for me to deal with, but he kept trying, so I was delighted with him, and happy the team did so well."
For several minutes the fans, reporters and riders alike calculated in their heads, trying to determine if the U.S.’s seven rails would keep them in front. In the end, it was clear they would, as the U.S. took the team gold with a score of 175.4, France moved up to take the silver with a 192.40, and the British, whose cause looked lost last night, snuck in to take the bronze ahead of the Aussies. To add to the Aussies heartbreak, the difference in the two team scores was less than one point-199.0 to 199.4
In the individual standings, Jean Teulere of France would take the gold, with the lone British star Jeanette Brakewell taking the silver, and Piia Pantsu of Finland taking the bronze. Williams was fourth, Severson-Vinoski sixth, O’Connor tenth, and Tryon in 45th. The two individual competitors, Gina Miles on McKinlaigh and Darren Chiacchia had mixed results. Miles had a fabulous clear round with only two time penalties on the big chestnut, who is sure to be a great horse for the team in the future, to move in to 25th. Chiacchia had an unfortunate repeat of his show jumping troubles from Rolex this year, lowering 9 jumps and adding 8 time penalties to drop to 35th. Chiacchia had also survived a nervous moment this morning when R.G. Renegade was held for re-inspection at the jog, though he was eventually passed.
"I was very happy with the test this morning," said smiling Teulere. My horse usually jumps well, so I was very pleased with him."
Teulere is a charming man with an infectious smile, and he seems the sort of rider who you hope becomes world champion. A member of the French team for more than 20 years, he works hard in his training business, and brings his horses along himself.
Espoir De La Mare is a Selle Francais gelding by a Thoroughbred stallion named What A Joy. The horse is only 10, young by most event horse standards, but even more remarkable given that he didn’t begin eventing until he was seven. The horse’s owners purchased him because, after dabbling in other sports, the horse showed the temperament and personality of an eventer.
"This was his first championship," said Teulere. "So he has a promising future."
Teulere had a choice of two horses to ride in these games, and he surpised many of his countryman by choosing the less-experienced Espoir De La Mare.
"It’s true that it’s his first big test," he said. "But he always showed great skill, and in his last three or four competitions he was great. When we thought about strategy for these games, we thought we could go for an individual medal with this horse because he is such a good jumper."
Brakewell was equally pleased with her placing, but was surprised to find herself the lone Brit on the podium.
"I’m usually up here with my team," she said. "But to be here as an individual today is fantastic. The horse was absolutely great this weekend, and to move from 6th to 2nd is unbelievable."
Pantsu seems at first an unlikely medallist in these games-she is Finland’s only championship-level eventing competitor, and her horse is competing in his first CCI****, but she had previously ridden to top ten finishes in several championships aboard her former powerhouse mounts Uppercut and Cyna, and Ypaja Karuso had proven he could win a three-day event by taking top honors in Germany’s Luhmuhlen CCI*** in 2001. The horse is a marvelous athlete, and Pantsu gave him a thoughtful ride throughout the event to bring home Finland’s first equestrian world championship medal ever.
"He’s only a 9-year-old, so I was very pleased," said Pantsu of her mount. "He was a little tired this morning, but he did some good work, so I am happy."
If there was a shadow lying over these games, it was the fact that right before the start of the WEG, the International Olympic Committee had released a report naming eventing as one of the Olympic disciplines it was considering axing to make room for new (and it should be noted, non-equestrian) sports. The main issue, according to the IOC, had to do with the expense and difficulty of building and staffing the exhaustive speed and endurance day. One suggestion being discussed is making the Olympics in to a CIC format, rather than the current CCI. The CIC format is more like a tradition horse trial (no roads and tracks or steeplechase phases, only the cross country), requiring much less land, staff, and other expenses to run. It is hoped that the fact that thus far, the eventing has drawn the largest crowds here will help convince the IOC that there is something here worth keeping.
"We are thrilled to be here today and this weekend, and we have to enjoy it now," said reigning Olympic champion O’Connor. "And hope that it gets the sport in a light that the IOC wants to keep us. I’m sure we will be successful-too many people love horses, and horses competing, and us competing with the horses."
"I hope the FEI (the international governing body of horse sports) will fight hard to keep us in the Olympics," added Teulere. "We have to be open to the use of the CIC to solve the Olympic dilemma, and I hope the FEI pushes that. Eventing should stay in because out of the three sports, it requires the best training, and riding, and horsemanship overall."
OK folks, prepare for me to get a little emotional now. I’ve never been to an international championship before where the U.S. has won gold, and I have to say, it’s completely incredible. Standing there, watching the flag go up, and the national anthem play, and the other nations saluting it raising goosebumps on your arms, and brings tears to your eyes. And after having been around the eventing world for a while, I can say that there are no four more deserving of the accolades than our team. Williams is one of the hardest working men in the sport-in addition to his riding, teaching, and training business he’s a course builder and designer with a master carpenter’s license. He’s brought Carrick along since the horse was three, and his success are a product of the hard work of himself and his wife, Ellen.
O’Connor has become the face and voice of American eventing, and he deserves it after many years of working his way up through the ranks. He is eloquent and driven about his sport and his horses, and watching him kiss and hug Giltedge today would have warmed even the coldest heart. Tryon is as hard a worker as there is-in three days she is due back in the states on duty in her firehouse-and her story of finding Poggio on a pack line in the mountains and bringing him to this level is almost a fairy tale. Finally, Severson-Vinoski is one of the most gracious and genuine women you will ever meet. She has made horses the center point of her life, and every one of them grows and prospers under her careful guidance and watchful eye. These are the good ones folks, true horseman in every way, and it’s wonderful to see them rewarded thusly.
I also have to say it was a lot of fun to see the French do so well. As I grew up training with two Frenchmen, who are like second parents to me, I feel a certain joy and affinity for them. And, it’s always fun and glimpse of our sport’s military past to watch the team members from the prestigious military academy of the Cadre Noir riding in their uniforms. Also, one of the French horses, Free Style ENE HN, is by an American Thoroughbred Stallion named Hand In Glove, who was lived in my home county in California. I had been at a barn he was at when I was younger, and remember him as an enormous and elegant black horse with a kind eye. After some time as an eventer and dressage horse, he found some success in the jumper ring with a rider named John Charlebois before he was bought by the French government to stand at the national stud. It was very exciting to see his son here, who is as spectacular a jumper as his father was.
Additional Note: It’s midnight here in Jerez, and the Grand Prix Freestyle has just concluded. I won’t be writing an entire report now, as it’s just too late, and your trusty reporter needs some sleep to be coherent. So, I’ll be writing a brief recap now, and a full story in the morning between loops on the endurance ride. The results are Nadine Capellmann and Farbenfroh take the gold; Beatriz-Ferrer Salat and Beauvalais take the silver, and Ulla Salzgeber and Rusty take the bronze. What these results don’t explain is the terrible injustice done to the American competitors Debbie McDonald and Lisa Wilcox by this judging panel. Brentina and McDonald were truly breathtaking tonight-everything that a freestyle should be and more. And Wilcox put her best foot forward, showing why she’s ranked with the best in the world. And yet, they finished 4th and 5th. The American spirits, so high from earlier today, have dimmed, and it’s a bit dark under the stars and stripes here in Spain. With that, I’m out until tomorrow.
English Content Editor