Everyone said Frenchman Pierre Michelet’s cross-country course would make a difference in the Olympic eventing standings and boy, did it, just as it had in the 2014 World Equestrian Games.
It was a real Olympic cross-country course for the first time since the 2000 Games in Sydney. There was nothing soft about it and plenty of thrills and lots of spills (but happily no serious injuries) along the winding route at the Deodoro equestrian center in Rio.
Favorites, both teams and individuals, fell by the wayside. The last water was highly influential, as many riders had trouble managing a straight enough line to take a second brush there, or on the way out to jump a narrow frog, which had yellow strips painted on it at the last minute so it would be more visible to horses.
The USA’s Clark Montgomery, who looked going into the Rio Games as if he had a shot at an individual medal with Loughan Glen, found himself on a horse who wasn’t interested in going cross-country today and retired after refusals that showed the horse’s mindset all too well.
Then his teammate Lauren Kieffer had a twisting jump at a vertical gate with Veronica, and both hit the ground. Neither was hurt, but for a second I flashed back to Veronica’s former rider, Karen O’Connor, who broke her back in an eventing career-ending fall with that mare.
That finished the U.S. for team medals, but pathfinder Boyd Martin had only 3.2 time penalties with the thoroughbred Blackfoot Mystery to hover in sixth place on 50.9 penalties, not too, too far from the podium. Then six-time Olympian Phllip Dutton rode brilliantly as anchor of a team that no longer was in play to bring Mighty Nice home with 3.2 time penalties as well for a score of 46.8 in fifth place. The most dramatic moment of his ride came when he lost his stirrup as “Happy” jumped sort of sideways over a brush. But Phillip persisted, got the stirrup back and nearly made the optimum time.
Australia leads with 150.3 penalties, little more than a show jumping rail ahead of New Zealand (154.8) while France is third with 161. But the Aussies and Kiwis have only three riders still in the game, so no drop score. Even more important, they are out as a team if one of their horses fails the Tuesday morning trot-up. France, third with 161, still has four riders participating.
Germany, favored to take the gold again, has only three riders with the elimination of former reserve rider Julia Krajewski after three refusals. They are on 172.8. Britain dropped to seventh with 252.1 penalties as overnight leader from dressage, William Fox-Pitt, dropped from first to 22d after a refusal with the stallion Chilli Morning. It was the end of a fairytale for William, who struggled back from what could have been a career-ending head injury and seemed in line to realize his dream of an Olympic individual medal.
Australia’s Christopher Burton moved into the lead with Santano II, adding nothing to his dressage score of 37.6. Ditto defending gold medalist Michael Jung of Germany, clean on his dressage score of 40.9 with Sam and 14 seconds under the optimum time to boot. France’s Nicholas Astier also was fault-free to stand third with Piaf de B’Neville.
New Zealand’s Mark Todd, the two-time Olympic individual gold medalist (1984 and 1988) had two time penalties for 46 total in fourth place. On paper, Phillip and Boyd don’t have an ideal shot at a podium spot, but with the horse inspection yet to come, and show jumping course by ace grand prix jumping designer Guilherme Jorge yet to come, never say never.