Oliver Townend and Ballaghmor Class Best of Session One in Tokyo

Oliver Townend and Ballaghmor Class. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

In a surprise to virtually no one, Great Britain’s pathfinder rider – also tasked with being second in the ring this morning – Oliver Townend is top of the order aboard his multiple five-star winner Ballaghmor Class (Courage II – Kilderry Place), earning a 23.6 to take the early lead as we officially get underway with eventing here in Tokyo.

It was a test a shade on the conservative side for Oliver – a “very safe test”, as he put it in his post-ride breakdown – but if a safe ride can still net you a 23.6, I’d say you’re doing something right. The judging panel today consists of Ground Jury President Nick Burton at C, Jane Hamlin at E and Christina Klingspor at M, with Christina giving Oliver and “Thomas” the highest overall percentage at 77.27%.

This is the first Olympic Games appearance for Oliver Townend, who has certainly done a lion’s share of work accumulating top placings in making his case for a very deep British team. He’s coming off a third win in a row at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event, and let’s not forget that Ballaghmor Class, who is owned by Karyn Schuter, Angela Hislop, and Val Ryan, won his very first five-star start at Burghley in 2017. With this depth of experience and gumption for getting the job done, his role come Sunday will be a valuable one as one of the first to test the twists and turns of Derek di Grazia’s Sea Forest Cross Country Course.

Oliver Townend and Ballaghmor Class. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

“The pressure bit doesn’t bother me,” Oliver said of this being his first Games and of being the first out for Team GB. “Obviously it wouldn’t be my chosen job in life to be pathfinder, but at the same time the first bit’s out of the way and he’s done a very commendable job, so fingers crossed we just keep the work up through the next three, four days and hopefully see where we end up.”

“We know he’s special and I’m just very grateful for him to do a clear round in there, a very safe test,” Oliver commented. “On my own terms, I’d want a little bit more, but I think a 23 is a very good starting mark for the team.”

“He went in and did his best in conditions that he’s not used to in a stadium that’s very very special,” he said. “You think because there’s no crowd, there’s no atmosphere but these stadiums – a little bit like Kentucky – they create their own atmosphere. Obviously when you’re going in through the tunnel and he doesn’t quite know what’s happening, there’s definitely enough of an atmosphere in there to make it enough of a special occasion to push horses into lacking concentration.”

Alex Hua Tian (China) and Don Geniro. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

It was an emotional moment for Chinese rider Alex Hua Tian, who was the first to go for the first ever eventing team fielded by China – the bit where he earns a 23.9 aboard Don Geniro (Don Kennedy – Gina, by Giorgione) to slot into a very close early second place surely made the moment that much more special. This is the third Olympic tour for Alex – in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro finished eighth individually with this same horse, who is owned by Pip Higgins, Sarah Higgins, Pam Dews and Alex. He was also the first Chinese eventer to compete at the Olympics in 2008, where he also became the youngest Olympic eventer at the age of 18. How does it feel to come back as a member of a team? He’s elated.

“It’s so different,” Alex reflected. “You know, the last two times there were positives and negatives. Obviously, the positives were I had exactly the team that I wanted to have around me, very focused on my own individual performance. But at the same time I felt very much like, you know, in the Athletes Village, and on venue, although we have such a strong community in the equestrian industry and in the eventing world especially, I did sort of feel like…isolated is a bit pathetic and the wrong word…but at the same time you do sort of feel like you’re missing out a little bit on the whole Olympic experience.”

Having a team of riders with whom he’s ridden and been friends with for many years in Bao Yingfeng, Sun Huadong and reserve Liang Ruiji (who has been a teammate of Alex’s at the Asian Games), has brought Alex a lot of pride, not only to represent his country but also of the massive sacrifices and efforts made by all to be here.

Alex Hua Tian debriefs with the team. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

“We’ve really gelled as a team, and I’m just so proud of them, that they’re here,” he said. “They’ve taken so many sacrifices to make it. I think many of the traditional nations don’t understand how difficult it is for them to leave friends and families behind in China, to come here and prepare for the game. And to have that rewarded by being here is wonderful, and I think it’s hugely eye-opening for them but at the same time, in reality, there are minimum expectations which is a wonderful position to be in.”

“I think it makes the whole thing far more meaningful, you know you’re not just riding for yourself, you’re riding for your country, but when you’re riding as part of a team for your country just makes it so much more tangible,” he continued. “I think beforehand, it was very much personal glory and for China, whereas now you’re sharing that with three other people.”

Alex’s mark of 23.9 with the now-14-year-old Hanoverian gelding will be a big improvement on this pair’s previous Olympic score of 28.4 (a 42.4 in the former scoring system), a testament to the fine tuning and additional experience that came in the intervening years between Games.

“I was really pleased with (Don Geniro) because he’s not good with a camera, and there are five around the arena,” Alex said after his ride. “He was quite nervous the first arena familiarization, and he just gets so tricky when he’s hot. Second arena familiarization was better, and this time I really felt like he was looking, and it perhaps helped lift him a little bit. But he really tried to stay with me which I’m very proud with. He had one little spook on that right medium canter, which he always does for some reason in that right medium canter. He’s always looking to spook at something and fifty percent of the time he changes, so I was really pleased. Annoyed that I haven’t beaten Oli though!”

Alex has been set as the pathfinder for China, and he hopes the earlier start time will serve “Don” well before the temperatures climb too high. “Don isn’t the most blood animal in the world – he was always going to find the heat hard, especially with that level of intensity of course – and so I think for me personally, I really didn’t want to go last,” he said. “And I think with the possibility that it might still be very hot on Sunday it suits me to go first, and give them as much of a chance as possible. And the team, you know our other two team riders a great horseman, really good riders sat on damn good horses but I think, hopefully, if I have a good ride it’ll give them the confidence to go out there and attack it.”

Julia Krajewski (Germany) and Amande de B’Neville. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Setting up in early third position on a score of 25.2 are German pathfinders Julia Krajewski and Amande de B’Neville (Oscar des Fontaines – Perle be B’Néville, by Elan de la Cour), an 11-year-old Selle Francais mare owned by Julie and Bernd Heicke. Julia has had “Mandy” in her stable since she was six, joining her string after starting her career as a show jumper. This is also a first Olympic Games for Julia, who got her first taste of world championship competition as a member of team Germany at the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games with Chipmunk, who is now in Tokyo with teammate Michael Jung.

“Dressage is not her main strength,” Julie laughed in the mixed zone. “And I find the tests quite difficult for our horses. It is quite intense. And she has been super rideable in walk, and she was a little bit distracted once…but she was back with me straight away, good flying changes, concentrated. So I’m happy!”

Julia says “Mandy” has been a bit of an “underdog” in her stable, having had other top horses like Chipmunk and Samurai du Thot in her program as well, but the mare has a lot of heart and try and she’s really stepped up to the plate in recent seasons. “She’s very mare, very princess or queen,” Julia described. “She’s always really willing to perform, and especially this year…it felt as if she really stepped up. Sometimes it’s when they sometimes feel they’re the number one in the stable.”

Despite being the first out for the team, Julia’s staying cool under the pressure. Without having a drop score, she acknowledges that the pressure is there to perform, but her spot in the draw will allow her to watch a few rides before setting out herself. “We all have to perform and that’s fine for me,” she said with a true German sense of laser focus.

Kazuma Tomoto (Japan) and Vinci de la Vigne. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

The home team Japan also sent their first rider down centerline this morning, tapping Kazuma Tomoto and Vinci de la Vigne (Esterel des Bois – Korrigane de Vigne, by Duc du Hutrelas first to go. Believe it or not, Kazuma has only been eventing since 2016 – he originally started off as a show jumper before transitioning to eventing. He’s now based in the UK and works closely with William Fox-Pitt, who’s traveled to Tokyo this week to help the team out.

“(William) always gives me a great idea, especially in the championships or Badminton or big events,” Kazuma said. “He has understand everything for big events, how to relax or how to fix horses, how to recover. So he really helps with this.”

Kazuma said he had to work a bit to keep Vinci de la Vigne, a 12-year-old Selle Francais gelding, relaxed, noting that he’s not the biggest nor the softest mover, so coaxing a performance worth a 25.9 and early fifth place was a pleasing result. “I tried to make him more relaxed. That’s my job,” he said. “So it was really good. He was really good to talk to you, (that) helps him relax.”

Kazuma at least got a small cheering squad this morning! Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

As for riding for the home team – in a stadium sans home spectators – Kazuma says it’s a great honor, but perhaps a tad bittersweet. “Really shame there’s no spectators here especially for us, Japanese riders, and my family or friends,” he said. “But still, we got so many message or message card, so we can do it.”

Felix Vogg (Switzerland) and Colero. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Completing the top five early on are Switzerland’s Felix Vogg, who earned the best Swiss eventing dressage score (26.7) in 37 years aboard Colero (Captain Fire – Bonita, by Bormio xx), who was actually his third string horse for these Games. And Colero, a 13-year-old Westphalian gelding by Captain Fire who is owned by Jürgen Vogg, is perhaps the most experienced horse on Felix’s string, having been his World Equestrian Games partner in 2018 and also his partner for a sixth place finish in Kentucky in 2019. Talk about depth!

“I think he’s not a bad choice,” Felix laughed. “Everyone would like a third horse like him!”

“He was just perfect, he didn’t do any mistakes,” he said of Colero’s test. “When there was something you can criticize it was me,” Felix said. “I missed a little bit the last change, but from the beginning to the end he was like he should be. I could risk more, I could do a little bit more but I didn’t do it.”

North Americans Reflect on Their Rides

Doug Payne and Vandiver. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

First up for Team USA this morning was Doug Payne aboard Debi Crowley’s Vandiver (Windfall 2 – Visions of Granduer, by Mystic Replica xx), a 17-year-old Trakehner gelding. This is the first Olympic Games for Doug, who put his hand up to be the first one out for the U.S. and earned a 33.0 to sit in 12th place after the first session.

“Honestly of all the three phases this would be the toughest for him, but I think he put forth a great effort,” Doug said after his ride. “And that’s all you can ask for, so it’s exciting to finally get that through and on the next. There’s always, in looking back, stuff you’re going to try to improve in years to come, but for where he’s at now I think it’s probably about as good as we’ve got.”

Doug noted that “Quinn” has been bitten by the anxiety bug a bit in the past, for example in Kentucky earlier this spring. Having the extra time to settle in here to this venue in Tokyo has been a benefit, and Doug says his horse was about as settled as he’s ever been going in. “I think it’s a credit to the facility here and we’ve been here long enough that he’s been able to see it all,” he said. “He stayed settled, rideable. He’s the most genuine creature out there so like he tries his best all the time and for that you just have to be thankful for.”

It’s a special time for owner Debi Crowley, who also bred Vandiver (three cheers for U.S. breeders!), as she’s gotten to come to Tokyo with her husband, Kevin, to cheer on the team – no doubt a memorable time for all in the Payne camp this week.

Colleen Loach and Qorry Blue D’Argouges. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Our sole Canadian representative, Colleen Loach with Peter Barry’s Qorry Blue D’Argouges (Mr Blue – Hardie du Bourg, by Count Ivor), a 17-year-old Selle Francais gelding, sit in the top 15 after the first session, earning a mark of 35.6. Colleen acknowledged that she would have hoped for a bit better of a test, but she’s happy to have the test in the books and the ability to look forward to the next task.

“Honestly, I was hoping for a little bit better,” she reflected. “We’ve been schooling a lot better, but it is what it is. I think we were lacking a bit of sparkle and a bit of impulsion. Maybe the weather. We were here for quite a long time before the competition starts and I think everybody starts to get almost a bit dull.”

Carrying the torch for Canada after the last-minute withdrawal of Jessica Phoenix and Pavarotti, Colleen says it definitely adds a bit more pressure to the situation, but she commended her fellow rider for her sportsmanship and support. “I’m just gutted for Jess, but she has been such a good sportsman through this. She stayed to help me and she’s really supportive.”

Colleen has experienced the Olympics from a different perspective as well, having groomed for Peter Barry and Kilrodan Abbott at the London Olympics in 2012. This is her second Olympics, having competed as a part of the Canadian team in Rio in 2016. Competing this year as an individual has a bit of a different flavor. “Going to a team competition it’s very different,” she explained. “You’re not making decisions so much for yourself, you’re thinking about the team. Not in this case, I’m an individual, so it’s a little different anyways, but it is helpful to know how it works.”

Lauren Billys (Puerto Rico) and Castle Larchfield Purdy. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Last out for the North American contingent of riders this morning was Puerto Rico’s Lauren Billys with her own Castle Larchfield Purdy (Karistos – Hallo Purdy, by Hallo), a 19-year-old Irish Sport Horse gelding. Their score of 39.9 for early 17th place was a bit higher than what she would have liked to earn but, as she shrugged her shoulders, that’s how the cookie crumbles sometimes.

“It’s a big arena and he was relaxed, and I thought I did all the movements accurately and did what they were asking, so I thought he was good,” Lauren said.

Lauren and “Purdy” are longtime partners, and they’ve had their fair share of challenges – a colic that nearly took Purdy’s life, a fire that nearly destroyed their home base – which makes Lauren all the more grateful to be here for her second Olympic Games with her heart horse.

“I have a lot of gratitude towards him,” Lauren said. “I was thinking about that today. We are clearly meant to be here, there are plenty of reasons why we shouldn’t be here – he almost died in 2018 and we survived a fire last year that nearly burned our home. I wouldn’t want to be here with anybody else. Today and this week is a celebration of our partnership together. He’s an older guy, but he’s pretty wise and experienced by now.”

“It’s a different feeling this time, it’s a feeling of familiarity,” she said of her second Games appearance. “It’s still intimidating and intense, but at the same time I know what it feels like now and I know we’re capable so it’s a good feeling to have.

Lauren has ridden for Puerto Rico for her entire international career, having changed her nationality of register in 2009. It’s a huge honor for her to represent her heritage, and at the same time she says she does feel a bit of the weight of being an individual for a smaller federation. “Sometimes, yes, to be fair I think it’s harder to shine as an individual,” she said. “There’s not as much of a buzz behind you, and I think that sometimes individuals are viewed as weaker riders or programs, so I feel a responsibility to say ‘screw that’, you can do it any way you want to it and it’s anybody’s day on a given day. There’s also just a lot of general logistical responsibility in terms of getting here. I work my tail off to provide enough money for my family and also for me to be able to compete here, so it’s a responsibility at home as well as on the international stage.”

Bea di Grazia sends Lauren Billys some good cheer ahead of her test. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Lauren has been a student of Derek and Bea di Grazia for many years in her home state of California (though not recently, of course, with a required withdrawal period to avoid any conflicts of interest), so she’s harkening to her many lessons with the course designer through the years, saying she knows what Derek would be telling her in terms of how to ride the track come Sunday. She also works with Beth Perkins and Volker Bromman at home. “I walk the course thinking, ‘what would Derek say’?,” Lauren said. “I think there is a misconception that when we train together that we’re in this amazing cross country field – we ride in an arena no bigger than a short court when I go to his house, so it’s really all about your lines and I think that is the truth when you go out there.”

Now that I’ve somehow written 3000 words just from the morning session, I’ll leave you to digest the information overload now as we look ahead to this evening’s schedule. To avoid the hottest parts of the day, the dressage has been split with a big break in the middle, and we’ll resume at 5:30 p.m. with India’s Fouaad Mirza and Siegneur Medicott, who will be making their much-anticipated Olympic debut.

I’ll be back with probably another 3000 words later, if you can stomach it, as well as a wrap-up of all the cool side stories I’ve collected from the mixed zone, some more photos from Shannon Brinkman Photography, and much more from Tokyo. If you’re looking for more to catch up on, don’t miss Tilly’s Form Guide to each horse and rider, our Ultimate Guide to Tokyo Eventing, and our live updates from this morning’s session.

Thank you so much for following along with us. Go Eventing!

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