Cross Country Island Life with Derek di Grazia

Derek talks about the turn and burn happening at the Mt. Fuji Drop – fence 16. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Derek di Grazia has made approximately 16 trips to and from Japan over the course of the last five years as his vision of what we now see before us on Sea Forest Island came to life. Having racked up all those thousands of miles (we hope you’ve got a good travel points card, Derek), he now says it’s a thrill to see the course in the flesh. Unique in its location on an old landfill, Derek and course builder David Evans had their work carved out for them, as the area was filled with trees and had little to no terrain already in place. So after putting on their respective Bob the Builder hats, we now see before us a winding, flowing track that’s got enough undulation to keep us all on our toes and enough letter play at long routes to make anyone’s head spin.

First things first, let’s get the weather talk out of the way. In 2018, an Olympic Test Event was held here in Tokyo to test the logistics of the equestrian competition as well as the ground on Sea Forest Island. Since this was not an existing venue already, it was really anyone’s guess as to how well the project would work out. After testing over a 10-minute track in 2018, and after recommendations from veterinarians and officials, the decision was made to shorten the track to its new length of 4420 meters with an optimum time of 7 minutes, 45 seconds. This event falls during one of the hottest times of year – and boy, let me tell you, if it wasn’t for the persistent sea breeze we might have all roasted or melted, or some sort of combination of both. It’s hot, sticky and humid here, even at 8:30 in the morning when I arrived at the course.

These elements will make for some tough conditions come Sunday morning, so I think the best decision was made to start cross country at 7:45 a.m. to finish before noon. Now, we may also have some rain to contend with as well, as Tropical Storm Nepartak makes it way toward shore. Luckily, the latest forecasts have the storm mostly hitting north of us, though as of right now we’re looking at about a 60% chance of rain and storms on Sunday. Derek describes the soil on the track as a loamy mix, and he thinks that the ground will hold water well should we get the rain in the forecast.

The Mt. Fuji Water at fence 20. This water complex was the only one newly created for this event; the other water areas existed already. Photo by Sally Spickard.

The course for this weekend was built entirely from scratch. The island was home to many more trees than we see now as many were relocated to make way for the course. After this event, the plan is to turn Sea Forest Island into a park. Some of the jumps were built in England (and you’ll see many signature David Evans carvings scattered about – they’re true masterpieces and could go into an art museum all their own!), and there are MIM clips and frangible technology built onto nearly every question. We also saw a few of the new yellow MIM clips make an appearance on some corners – these clips are designed to break at “somewhere around half the pressure” compared to their red counterparts and will be used on corners and angled fences.

The massive design and building project involved grading the land, building up terrain to create more undulation; since this area is a landfill, the builders were unable to dig down into the earth to create terrain, meaning the only direction to go was up. The result? Plenty of terrain on an otherwise flat surface that should create a stiff challenge for these horses and riders – especially when combined with the weather and the tight time.

This photo doesn’t do the backdrop to the Picnic Table at fence 13, so just take my word for it: EPIC. Photo by Sally Spickard.

You’ll notice looking at the map that the track winds back into itself several times over (personally, I’d love to see the map of the 10-minute track as I’ve no idea where you’d make this longer!). Derek says he actually initially designed the 10-minute test track with some flexibility to shorten it, knowing there may be changes that needed to be made. I asked Derek about the final layout, as typically his signature is an open, flowing track rather than one rife with turns and twists. He’s quite clever though, as we all knew, and he’s built the questions so that many of the fences are what will turn the riders around, making them “not make the turns feel like turns”.

Indeed, you’ll see from the aerial view that nearly every turnabout is done with a question right in or very close to the apex. This will help riders gunning for the time, as we all know that a track that forces lots of changes of speed will only eat up the clock more. With the time being as tight as it is, a track that forced a lot of setting up and adjusting may have turned out to be rather disastrous, but Derek has been very clever with how he uses the turns to encourage the riders to continue to come forward rather than urging them to go their brakes.

Fence 12, the Harbour Turn, is another example of a fence that helps the riders turn back around. This question comes off of a fairly blind turn and a steep incline. Photo by Sally Spickard.

As for the time? Derek says he thinks we’ll see very few rounds clear inside the time – “maybe three or four”, to be exact. With six jumps coming in the first minute of work, there’s a lot to do early on and if you’re not up on your time off the bat, you’ll be chasing it the whole way around. Team USA chef d’equipe Erik Duvander echoed this sentiment, noting that riders will have to be very smart about the lines they choose – and take all the straight routes – to have a shot at coming home inside that optimum.

As is typically kosher for the Olympics, where we invariably see a wide range of riders with a wide range of experience levels, alternative options frequent the course. This is one of my favorite things that Derek noted during our walk: he designed the options to be as horse-friendly as possible. “A lot of the long routes are basically just outside lines all the way around,” he explained. “If you’ve gone to many events you’ll see a lot of times long routes will wind the horses around, and we didn’t want to do that here because with the hot weather, once you start winding horses around it makes them more tired. And it’s better to keep the horses going in the hot weather. So this is why again, in the thinking of the design, that we wanted to try to create the long routes that were going to be longer but we wanted to keep the horses going and not be turning them around in circles.”

Derek explains the Dragonfly Pond at fence 11. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Not to say the long routes are “easy”, though. As Erik noted, “you still have to jump all the big jumps” and even in the long routes there is much to do. Derek has simply given the riders a bit more time in between each fence to have time to organize themselves. What will be key here, though, is ensuring that each rider knows exactly what their options are. Derek’s done a bit of clever letter play here, creating the long and short routes with letters that will limit the options a rider has if things go against their plan. Each rider will need to know exactly what option they have, both if they plan to take a long route and also if they jump into a direct route and have trouble.

“I think with the Games, we have this new format with three people so I think it’s going to change how things are done and strategies,” Derek said when asked how the long routes might be utilized. “Riders will have to be very aware of what they can do. I think the long routes will be used. Especially the way the three person team is now I think it really depends on the strategy of the different teams and where they’re going to want to play it a little more safe and take a little bit more time. I think each team is going to have their own plan. Time is going to be quite a factor on the course, and so for the teams that think that they have a crack at a medal, to me I would think they’re going to be taking the straight routes initially because of the time, but then from there who knows.”

The track has several quite steep inclines built into it, which might serve a rider with a strong horse well early in the course but will more likely require that much more planning and management of energy, especially as they progress. Though this is a shorter track, it will most likely feel much more like a 10-minute run when factoring in the heat and humidity. There are several longer galloping stretches where you may be able to make up a second or two – notably one sweeping gallop turn after fence 6, a nice stretch complete with great views of the harbor if that’s your thing between fence 11 and 12 and another decent gallop stretch between fence 13 and 14 – but as I mentioned earlier with the first minute being so intense there really won’t be a lot of places where you can truly get caught up if you do get behind.

The view from Mt. Fuji – Derek says it’s about 1.80 – 1.90 meters. Don’t look down! Photo by Sally Spickard.

As we tick closer and closer to (finally) getting underway, Erik says things are getting quieter, more intense inside camp USA. This, he says, might be his favorite part – the narrowing of the focus. “For me, what I really enjoy is this sort of tail end of it when the focus narrows down,” he said. “The riders are feeling it as we’re getting closer now. It’s a narrowing of the focus and they’re shutting down everything else around them and they’re getting quieter.”

Erik says he’s spent time crafting individual plans with each rider, ensuring they each have a say in what the game plan is – “it’s a team effort,” he explained. He said the team is feeling confident after their initial walks around the track, and the sense is that they’re all ready to get the show on the road, so to speak. “I must say, in our camp the horses are going as well as they ever have and I’m very happy with our preparation,” he said.

I’ll get a better chance to catch up with Phillip, Boyd, Doug and Tamie tomorrow as the team will be holding a press conference. We’re fairly limited on how much contact we can have with the riders, but I must give a big shout to the US Equestrian press team as they’ve made things smooth and simple in terms of communications.

Just some more epic views. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Tomorrow we finally get underway with the first horse inspection at 9:30 a.m. JST. Unfortunately, I don’t believe the jog will be live streamed, but I’ll be keeping you up-to-date on Twitter/Instagram and will have a full jog report and Team USA catch-up for you all tomorrow! Thanks for following along with us – and major props to Tilly Berendt and the team at home for keeping things chugging along.

Go Eventing!

To view the course fence by fence, visit CrossCountryApp here. Below you’ll find an assortment of snaps taken during our walk today, including some epic views from various points around the track.

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