It was survival of the fittest, literally, today on the cross-country course at Haras du Pin. Galloping hooves quickly churned the saturated turf into a muddy pulp, exaggerating the physical toll of an already long and hilly track. Despite yesterday’s removal of a one-minute loop late in the course, the heavy going coupled with a true championship caliber course rewarded grit and punished even the slightest mistake — and no one made the optimum time of 10 minutes, 32 seconds.
As the result of myriad falls, retirements and eliminations, at the end of the day only nine out of 16 teams remained intact: Germany (1st, 177.9), Great Britain (2nd, 186.8), Australia (3rd, 226.8), France (4th, 235.5), Netherlands (5th, 238.8), Ireland (6th, 294.3), Canada (7th, 324.0), Brazil (8th, 347.7) and Spain (9th, 263.8).
While there wasn’t much movement at the top of the leaderboard — William Fox-Pitt/Chilli Morning (GBR) moved from 2nd to 1st, Sandra Auffarth/Opgun Louvo (GER) moved from 1st to 2nd, and Michael Jung/fischerRocana FST (GER) moved from 4th to 3rd — cross-country carnage left the rest of it up for grabs. Yesterday’s 3rd place finisher, Jonathan Paget and Clifton Promise (NZL) retired on course, and fellow Kiwi Jonelle Price rode Classic Moet all the way up from 26th to 4th after posting the fastest go of the day.
Comparisons to this year’s Badminton Horse Trials, a sloppy mess that claimed several of the sport’s most experienced event riders as victims, began early. Badminton winner Sam Griffiths (AUS), the fourth rider out and the first of the day to turn in a clear round on his tough mudder mare Paulank Brockagh, drew it himself after finishing: “It’s just like riding Badminton again. I threw my watch out and let her pick her pace.”
New Zealand’s Mark Todd, who came unattached from his Leonidas II, said the course rode to plan — he attributed his spill to not to fatigue but to a lack of unresponsive on course — but still cautioned against speed. “You can’t go quick around it,” he said. “You go quickly, you won’t get home.”
Germany’s Michael Jung, who sits in third place heading into the show jumping on fischerRocana FST, added that it was important to have a good feeling heading out on course: If the horse is too fresh, it will wear out; if it’s too slow, it will lack the aggression to get the job done.
Buck Davidson and Ballynoe Castle RM had the unenviable position of being first out on course, both for the competition and Team USA. As one of the squad’s most experienced horse/rider combinations the placement was a logical choice, but playing guinea pig for a field of 90 has its perils. In this case, no one could have anticipated just how dramatic a drain the course would have on its equine athletes.
The stalwart trailblazers started out strong but Reggie grew visibly tired mid-course. Buck nursed him along until they finally ran out of steam at the third water complex, a technical combination late on the course that had spectators gasping throughout the day as horse after horse scraped its way through — or not. Buck could barely coax Reggie out of a trot on the re-approach, and after two attempts to make it through he called it quits.
“Poor Reggie, he gave me every ounce that he had — he always does,” Buck said. Ever the conscientious horseman, Buck wasn’t willing to push his longtime partner past his limits and risk an accident later on course. “Yes, it’s the World Championships, but he’s still my pet, and he’s still one of the greatest horses I’ve ever ridden, and I would never want anything to happen to him.”
Buck said he doesn’t blame the course and he certainly doesn’t blame Reggie — just mother nature. “I’m really, really proud of him. He jumped perfect, he tried his heart out … I’m disappointed but look, somebody had to go and be first out, and you’re just not really sure what you’ve got.”
All things considered, Buck seemed hopeful: “We’ve got more information for the team, and my horse is healthy and happy.”
Buck’s unhappy result foreshadowed a steady stream of horses and riders who would fall prey to the course, teammates included. Individual rider Sinead Halpin was the next American out of course and while her go wasn’t foot-perfect, she and Tate never gave up and scrapped their way to the finish, collecting one runout along the way. The issue arose at a combination; Sinead says he never got his eye on fence 4.
“The rest was just get-it-done,” Sinead said. Of the course: “You have to fight for everything — you’re on plan B before you know it.” Like Buck before her, Sinead made a smart decision not to be overambitious with regard to speed, giving her horse a strong ride at the fences but letting him set the pace in between.
Hopes were high for veteran Phillip Dutton, the next Team USA rider out, but he and Trading Aces met a premature end as well. He described the course as a test of endurance that was just a bit much for his young horse. “It wasn’t a problem with the fence,” Phillip said. “He’d just had enough of the day.”
Even with no chance of medaling, Team USA continued forging forward throughout the afternoon. Kim Severson, who is competing in her third WEG, ran into trouble with Fernhill Fearless at the last water, where they collected 20, but got through the finish flags. Lynn Symansky and Donner met their match at #16, the Land Rover water complex, and fence #27, a big brush corner, but made it home with 40 jump penalties.
On a bright note: Boyd Martin and Shamwari 4 came through in the clutch to do America proud at the end of the day. He said it wasn’t the smoothest round by far, and he wishes he had pushed a bit harder for time because his horse was full of running at the end, but nonetheless his clear round and time of 13.6 moved him from 17th after dressage to ninth heading into show jumping.
Riders who made it through the finish flags, jump penalties or no jump penalties, were treated to a hero’s welcome.
The top 15 competitors heading to Caen’s D’Or Stadium tomorrow to face off in WEG eventing’s grand finale:
As Buck said, walking back to the barn with a happy, healthy horse is worth more than any medal. Our thoughts this weekend are with Great Britain’s Harry Meade, whose Wild Lone collapsed and died after the finish of cross country, and his team.