From inside the Rio Games: Judge Marilyn Payne’s view

By Nancy Jaffer
Aug. 28, 2016

You saw the Olympic eventing from Rio on TV or the live stream, but Marilyn Payne lived it as president of the ground jury, and she had quite a different view.

It was, of course, serious business, but also an adventure to be part of the world’s biggest sporting event.

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Olympic eventing judge Marilyn Payne and her daughter, Holly Payne Caravella, at Holly’s Gladstone fundraiser to take Outfoxed to Burghley. (Photo copyright 2016 by Nancy Jaffer)

Marilyn shared her experiences last weekend at Beval Saddlery in Gladstone for a fundraiser for her daughter, Holly Payne Caravella, who is riding Never Outfoxed in this week’s 4-star Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials in England. (Those who wish to give her a check can make it out to Holly Payne Caravella and send it to P.O. Box 59, Gladstone, NJ 07934. Or click on

While Holly got a U.S. Equestrian Federation grant to bring her other top mount, Santino, to the 3-star Blenheim Palace International Horse Trials the week after Burghley, she was on her own to pay Fox’s way.

So her mother, who is part of the syndicate that owns the 10-year-old thoroughbred, stepped up to talk about her time in Rio.

As soon as she arrived in Rio, Marilyn found herself in the Olympic mode. Standing in a 100-person line waiting to go through customs, she found herself chatting with the person ahead of her, who happened to be the chief judge of gymnastics.

“You think dressage has a problem? We had a lot to talk about,” she told her audience with a smile.

Marilyn, who runs Applewood Farm in Califon, attended the test event in Rio last year, when none of the radios worked. Just as dire, volunteers from Brazil who said they spoke English couldn’t even communicate the simplest messages, such as the need to call for an ambulance.

“It was a disaster,” recalled Marilyn.

Another disaster hovered at the Olympics during the rehearsal for handling the cross-country phase, just five days away, when the radios died within 10 minutes and the practice had to be suspended.

“They had to get a whole new set of radios,” Marilyn reported.

After the experience with the 2015 test event, officials from other countries (who could speak English) had to be flown in, with airfare and lodging paid for by the cash-strapped Rio Games.

Marilyn and the other officials lived in Olympic housing, where shortcomings included the choice of food and meeting the challenge of taking 30-second showers before the plumbing situation was resolved.

There was one thing the judges didn’t have to worry about. They took a bus from their accommodations to the venue, and found armed guards everywhere (the Deodoro Equestrian Center was on a military base). So security–a key issue discussed any time the Rio Games were mentioned–wasn’t a problem.

“We felt very safe,” Marilyn reported.

Talking about the first horse inspection, Marilyn said it was “entertaining” to see all the different team fashions, especially those of the Swedes, whose female riders wore “a ballooning yellow outfit” tied at the waist with something resembling a rope.

“We were like, `Oh my gosh. Okay, got to look at the horse,’” she chuckled.

In the dressage phase, everyone was waiting to see the performance of Germany’s Michael Jung and Sam, the defending champion partnership from the London 2012 Games and the hot favorite to take the title again.

Marilyn said Michael had a good ride, “but it wasn’t the best ride.”

So the thought was, “Wow, this is going to be a cool competition. Somebody else might win the gold medal.. But then came cross-country.”

While those who just wanted to get around could take optional lines that would leave them with time penalties, anyone seeking a medal had to try the more difficult direct routes.

Most teams put their best cross-country horse first, and “we lost a few,” meaning they were eliminated, Marilyn noted.

What Marilyn called THE obstacle, was actually two numbered fences, the Malmesbury Cottage table fence and a gate. The direct route involved jumping a corner of the “building,” then taking between three and five strides to  a gate. By the time the second horse of each team went out, “coaches started getting smart,” she said, having their riders go the long way and making a time-consuming loop before the gate that enabled a better approach.

“You want to get the team around,” explained Marilyn.

After the USA’s Boyd Martin finished in the first group, teammate Clark Montgomery had to withdraw because his horse didn’t want to play. So Marilyn was watching intently from her vantagepoint in the control center as the US team’s third rider, Lauren Kieffer, who was having a great round, until she galloped toward the cottage and gate.

When she saw Lauren aiming for the direct route, Marilyn’s reaction was an anguished “`Nooooo.'” “Unfortunately, she said, “the direct route didn’t work out.”

Lauren’s horse cleared it in front but caught it behind and slipped on landing, going down. That put the U.S. team out of the running, with only two riders left to compete in the next day’s show jumping.

Michael Jung went the direct way at the table/gate combo, and it was “picture perfect,” Marilyn said. She estimated six tried the direct way, and three didn’t make it.

The tricky moment for the USA’s Phillip Dutton’s came at a brush fence, where Mighty Nice barely missed being off the edge. The judge at the jump called it in to the jury as a refusal.

The cliffhanger way he took the fence “was unbelievable,” said Marilyn, noting the jury watched the instant replay several times.

Mighty Nice’s “hind end did not jump the fence,” Marilyn noted, but because the horse’s head, neck and shoulders cleared the obstacle, the effort was counted as bona fide, since that’s all the rules require. Phillip went on to take the individual bronze.

Questions such as that were easily resolved by the ground jury because not only did they see instant replays of the TV camera shots when requested, but there also was additional footage of a head-on view of the horses available to them, so they could determine whether they jumped through the flags at a fence.

Judges also have the task of stopping a horse they feel is unfit to continue.

In the show jumping, which was held over two rounds for the team and individual honors, Marilyn had a great view as Michael Jung claimed his second gold medal.

“I’ve got to get his signature,” she decided.

By the time she came down from the judges’ tower, Michael was leaving the press conference and likely on his way to a celebration.

Marilyn cleverly blocked his departure, rushing up to say, “Michael, congratulations.” She just happened to have a purple pen, so how could he say no when she handed it over and asked him to sign her hat. That was sold for $255 at the fundraiser, with Holly’s husband, Eric Caravella, acting as auctioneer. He is darn good at that job, also bidding up a little doll of the Olympic mascot, Vinicius (a blend of Brazilian animals) for $205.

After eventing concluded, the eventing judges scribed for the Grand Prix dressage judges (Marilyn sat with Gary Rockwell of the U.S.)

While she does judge pure dressage in the U.S., she doesn’t judge the discipline at that level.

“You’re right there, watching these amazing horses and hearing these amazing scores. I never heard so many 9’s and 10’s in my life.”

Eventing dressage drew more of a crowd than Grand Prix dressage, Marilyn said.

In my view, that was because Brazil had no chance at all in GP dressage, which is not popular in Brazil, while the eventers had a shot at a respectable finish.

Before her mother spoke, Holly talked about Outfoxed and how she got him. She saw a video of the thoroughbred learning to swim, with a teenage girl in a bathing suit on his back. He stepped into water and with a few little kicks from his rider, he struck off as the bottom of the lake dropped away and he was paddling nicely.

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Holly Payne Caravella and Never Outfoxed. (Photo copyright 2016 by Nancy Jaffer)

Holly’s reaction?

“Oh my God, it’s a 4-year-old who will do that?” It clinched the deal and she bought him sight unseen with her mother. The thought was, “Let’s see what we’ll get. If he’s awesome, we’ll syndicate him. He was awesome.

“I knew right away he would be a 4-star horse. There are not many in the world you get on and instantly know, `This horse is going all the way.’ He had all the heart in the world with all the athletic ability. Within the first year of owning him, I decided I was going to keep him.”

She syndicated him and he has proven her original assessment correct by running twice at the 4-star Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event.

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Holly Payne Caravella and Never Outfoxed at Rolex Kentucky this year. (Photo copyright 2016 by Nancy Jaffer)

Burghley is, she noted, “kind of terrifying,” but Fox is the horse on which to try it.

“If you point him in the right direction, he’s going to do it for you. This is an amazing opportunity.”

Holly said she has been “overwhelmed by people contacting me saying, `I want to donate something, what can I give you?’”

Although Holly’s in England now, she’s still collecting money to pay her Burghley bills. To learn about another Jerseyan, Meg Sleeper, trying to pay for a competitive goal, go to

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