Few things in the Rio Olympic eventing competition have played out exactly as planned, but one important medal did, with individual gold going as expected to the (insert your own superlative here, fabulous is mine) Michael Jung of Germany and his stalwart mount, Sam.
They defended their title from London 2012, becoming only the third back-to-back winners of eventing Olympic gold in the history of the Games. They both are excellent in every phase and an incredible pleasure to watch.
Interestingly, Sam was Michael’s second choice for Rio. I was surprised at Rolex Kentucky when he told me Fischer Takinou was his first option for the Games, but after that horse got sick, he was back to 16-year-old Sam. And Sam, he had told me a year earlier, is his favorite horse.
And now everyone could see why. A doll in the dressage, even though he wasn’t first in that segment, he added nothing to his score through a tremendously influential cross-country course, a challenging first round of show jumping today and then the final round of show jumping, finishing on 40.9 penalties.
Despite a pole down and 2 time penalties, France’s Nicolas Astier and Piaf de B’Neville took the silver on 48, while the USA’s Phillip Dutton earned his first individual medal, the bronze, after six Olympics and two team golds for his birth nation, Australia.
Phillip wasn’t aboard the team’s first choice for him. But when Fernhill Cubalawn had to bow out, Happy (as Mighty Nice is known) was there to fill in. With a rail in the individual jumping, his score was 51.8, just ahead of Australia’s Sam Griffiths and Paulank Brockagh (53.1).
Sam’s countryman, Christopher Burton on 9-year-old Santano II was second after dressage to Britain’s William Fox-Pitt and Chilli Morning, but moved up to first after cross-country as a refusal and time dropped William down the ranks to 22d. Chris was first after cross-country and third after this morning’s first jumping round, but two poles pulled in the afternoon landed him in fifth place for the final standings.
Double clear today put miracle William (recovered from a critical head injury suffered last year) into 12th place. It wasn’t the medal the British rider had sought, but still, who would have thought he’d even be competing in Rio after an accident from which a lesser man would still be recovering?
Boyd Martin, the only other U.S. rider coming through to show jumping, dealt well with a tired Blackfoot Mystery, an ex-racehorse who did others of his former profession proud. He wound up 16th with two poles in the first round this morning and three this afternoon. Boyd and the horse are a good match; they both gave all they had to give.
Mark Todd of New Zealand, the last person to win back-to-back eventing gold (1984 and 1988 with Charisma), was in sight of a medal after cross-country, but dropped to 11th after four rails with Leonidas II in the team jumping, where his nation gave up its medal hopes. At 60, he was hoping for a medal. That obviously didn’t work out, for him or the Kiwi team, but he made a terrific comeback in the individual round that put him seventh.
At the Pan American Games last year, I was impressed by Brazil eventing team member Ruy Fonseca’s sportsmanship when he lost gold with a knockdown by his horse, Tom Bombadil, at the last fence. Today, he did that one better. When Tom stopped at a jump and bumped down a rail, Ruy tumbled over his head. Unfazed, he stood, smiled and cheerfully replaced the errant pole in the cups. Cool guy.
Guilherme Jorge, who will design the grand prix show jumping courses later in the Games, made the route shorter for the second round today (these horses have done a LOT of jumping, after all) and the time allowed was more lenient than in the morning.
I will be keeping an eye on Grand Prix dressage starting tomorrow, so follow my comments on Twitter.com@nancyjaffer and return to nancyjaffer.com for another story in the On the Rail section.