The Good, the Bad, and the Weird: Weather is the Worst Enemy

There was plenty of good, bad, and weird going around during the cross-country phase. Like the rest of the world, we had eyes glued to the TV during prime time, with our world-beating journalist Tilly Berendt doing live updates up until the moment that our website crashed. We’re back up and functioning but crossing out little chinchilla whiskers that all systems remain good! In her latest opinion piece, Maggie Deatrick shares some thoughts on cross country day.

Tokyo Bay’s Sea Forest, where eventing cross country took place. Photo via Tokyo2020.jp

I do not have any numbers-based analysis today simply because the online scoring system is not very good and I am not confident in my breakdown of jump versus time penalties as I tried to manually record them while watching. I plan on breaking down the penalties next week once the FEI database updates with their results and will bring you a more nuanced analysis at a future date. If you’re really jonesing for some math, the EquiRatings Instagram is always a good source to get your fix.

Sadly we are going into the bad news first, as we have to address the tragic news regarding the loss of the Swiss horse Jet Set.

THE BAD

Switzerland’s Robin Godel and Jet Set. Photo by Sally Spickard.

The Tragic Loss of Jet Set: The former Andrew Nicholson ride, now piloted by the Swiss rider Robin Godel, was en route to a solid completion for the Swiss team when, by on-grounds accounts, he faltered after jumping through the final water at fence 20 and the screens went up. Although standing on his own, he was transported to the vet hospital immediately where he was ultimately euthanized due to a catastrophically ruptured ligament.

Our thoughts and sympathies go out to all connected to Jet Set, including the rider, owners, grooms and teammates. It is devastating beyond words anytime we lose these tremendous athletes and to do so on the world stage is the worst nightmare of any rider.

The Weather: Much has been made in the mainstream media about how truly difficult the conditions have been for all athletes, not just the horses. Images of triathletes strewn across the ground after their finish line and accusations that the Tokyo Olympic bid and IOC both glossed over true weather conditions this time of year, simply because the end of July is best for TV ratings, have highlighted the issue. Indeed, the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 were held in mid-October, not the end of July, precisely because weather conditions were more favorable.

It was evident across the board that the heat and humidity impacted our equine athletes as well. Many horses looked absolutely drained as they crossed the finish line, despite the fact that the course was shortened to just under 8 minutes off of the originally planned 10 minutes. The Brazilian horse Fuiloda G simply stopped only 3 fences from home and looked in severe distress while Diachello was notably exhausted and masterfully nursed home by the New Zealand rider Jesse Campbell. Many others were visibly out of gas more than a minute from home, and of the U.S. horses, Vandiver particularly seemed to be a bit wilted right at the end. 

Unfortunately, there’s not much that can be done under the Olympic umbrella, with Equestrian being a niche sport with little power to influence either the bids of potential Olympic locations or the IOC. The only thing that we can do as a sport to really prepare for a Games in weather conditions like this is lean on the national federations to insist on sending horses who have proven their fitness in similar conditions. That will not be possible for all nations, some of whom have the bare minimum pairs qualified to even fill a team, but it is perhaps the best we can do.

The Online Scoring System: The Tokyo Olympics result website was fine for dressage but absolutely abysmal for eventing. The live fence scores were difficult to view all fences, and only available for horses actively running. Once completed, any fence breakdown was impossible. Once added to the leaderboard, scores were not broken out by jump penalties versus time penalties, making it difficult to figure out the final breakdown of who had what type of penalty, and the finishing times were not indicated. This last thing is minor and simply keeps us from determining who had the fastest ride of the day without manually recording each finishing time of those who completed inside the time. However, this is the Olympics; Tokyo had an extra year to ask our sport what was important and failed to. A fence report has since been released but the leaderboard itself continues to show penalties for both time and jump in one lump sum rather than broken apart. Oh, and did anyone else have a heart attack when a rider fall for Weerapat Pitakanonda was misattributed to Laura Collett? 

The Technical Eliminations: In the end four pairs received technical eliminations, three of whom completed the course and were much, much later listed as eliminated due to missing an element of an obstacle. According to the official fence report, Louise Romeike (SWE) with Cato 60, Janneke Boonzaaijer (NED) with Champ de Tailleur, and Malgorzata Cybulska (POL) with Chenaro 2 all received technical eliminations later in the day at fences 18B, 18C, and 14C. Merel Blom (NED) and The Quizmaster were also technically eliminated at 8C but were not pulled up until the approach to fence 19.

This many technical eliminations typically results when the lettering system is too complicated; while this is the Olympics and competitors should be expected to know their route options inside and out, two of the four riders have considerable experience under their belt. To see this many technical eliminations at this level is a result of a lack of clarity in the options. Additionally, the fact that three of the four riders completed the course and the fourth took ten fences to pull up is a failure on the part of the officials. In this weather, horse health was very much at stake and all of these horses could feasibly have been re-routed to the European Championships next month if they had been pulled up.

If the lettering was sufficiently unclear that the officials were unsure themselves if these riders had been eliminated and therefore were reluctant to pull them up in case they were wrong, then the lettering was too complicated and should have been addressed by the officials prior to the start of cross-country.

THE GOOD

Laura Collett and London 52. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Team Great Britain: The Brits came into this weekend as the heavy favorites, then left the door slightly open for the Germans after slightly underperforming in dressage. We’re literally talking about a point or three from each rider, but it adds up – and suddenly it looked like the Germans were in with a chance for gold. Team GBR put that notion to bed on cross-country day by adding no penalties across the board, with all three of their riders finishing clean and inside the time. They are ahead by four rails of the second-placed Australian team on a set of jumpers that combined has only one occasional rail. Unless something catastrophic happens, they’ve all but tied up first place. 

French anchor Karim Laghouag and Triton Fontain. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

Team France…: France went into Rio with high medal hopes and delivered with a team gold. This time, they came in with a younger, greener team with horses more on the cusp of experience rather than in the midst of it. The loss of Birmane under Tom Carlile before dressage was a huge blow to their medal hopes, and yet the three riders have risen to the occasion. All three finished with a total of only two time penalties between them, putting them in bronze position only 0.9 penalty points behind Australia in silver. 

…and French Breeding: Also notable is how many Selle Français horses are being ridden across the board now, and how well-suited they seem to be to the hot environments. Of the ten Selle Français horses ridden by team riders (as opposed to individual riders), eight were clear cross-country and nine finished within seven seconds of optimum time, with the sole exception being a horse ridden for Japan who incurred a stop. Three of the seven horses who were clear inside the time were Selle Français, and five of the top ten individual placings headed into stadium are mounted on French-bred horses. (Andrew Hoy’s Vassily de Lassos is registered as an Anglo-Arab, not a Selle Français, but was bred and produced in the French system.)

Andrew Hoy and Vassily de Lassos. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

Teams from the South Pacific: Ok, 5 of 6 pairs on Teams NZL and AUS are based in England, but these riders all continue to be a testament to the strong eventing tradition that originates in both countries. Both teams finished with three clear rounds from three riders, with Australia clocking in two of three riders inside the time (including the fastest clear of the day from Andrew Hoy) and with only seven seconds of time from their third rider, while the Prices from New Zealand combined had eight seconds of time. Although Jesse Campbell had to nurse home a flagging Diachello, he did a masterful job of managing the horse’s performance through the final minute, minimizing the damage on time penalties while keeping the horse’s energy into account.

Julia Krajewski and Amande de b’Neville. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Julia Krajewski and Amande de b’Neville: Julia has not had the easiest time of it since her last appearance on the world stage iat the 2018 WEG; first, her world-beating talent Chipmunk FRH was sold and secured as a ride for fellow team rider Michael Jung, then earlier this year, her father passed away and she was forced to retire her long-time partner and 5* winner Samourai du Thot after he lost an eye. While a one-eyed horse can indeed compete at the top levels, an adjustment period is usually required and at this late stage in his career, she felt it was unfair to ask it of him. So she came into this Games far from assured from a team slot with her young Selle Français mare, who has not yet started a 5* event. Now she finds herself in the silver medal position, the sole German rider to go clear across the country.

Kazuma Tomoto and Vinci de la Vigne. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

Kazuma Tomoto and Vinci de la Vigne: It’s been no secret that the Japanese have been gunning hard for this Olympics, and with much success lately, there was perhaps a bit too much pressure in the team overall in their home country. However Kazu, who started eventing only in the last few years after switching from show jumping, is a beacon of light for the Japanese program, which will hopefully continue to receive investment after this Olympics. Paired with the Selle Français horse previously ridden by Astier Nicolas of France in the 2018 World Equestrian Games, Kazu made the course look like nothing. They now sit in fifth position and within a rail of the gold medal. As a pair they’ve only incurred one rail, so are in a strong position to put pressure on those above on the ranks. An individual medal for Kazu would justify all his sacrifices and give the Japanese a reason to continue investing in their program.

THE WEIRD

Alternate Routes: Earlier in the week, course designer Derek di Grazia revealed that while doing the design, he took into consideration the weather conditions and wanted to make sure that the alternate routes weren’t turning horses around in circles. Considering the weather conditions did in fact have a huge impact, this was a well-considered choice. However, in practice, the alternate routes all had very minor impacts on time and were therefore utilized extremely consistently across the board, making a significantly easier course for the well-established countries. Amongst the Big Six countries (AUS, GBR, GER, FRA, NZL, USA), only one horse incurred jump penalties for a disobedience. 

The coffin in particular was notable as only two riders, both of the Russian Olympic Committee, attempted the direct route, both having stops. With the ‘long route’ not only placed directly next to the direct route but also notably lacking even a ditch element, every other pair in the competition chose to go to the alternate. In the end, time penalties seemed more to depend on the condition of the horse and their ability to handle the weather and less on the rider’s choice to employ alternate routes.

Michael Jung gallops away from 14B; the rail dropped a split second later. Photo from Jarno Debusschere via Instagram.

Frangible Penalties: Over and over, we saw the frangible corner at 14B break. Sometimes it clearly prevented the pair from a serious fall, but on at least a couple of occasions, the rail appeared to break from a lighter tap on the hind end. The frangible penalties were applied across the board to whomever the pin fell for, which has traditionally been the process. 

But surprise! One thing that appears to have gone by the wayside is the appeal process for pairs who lightly tap a fence, as they might during show jumping, and have the rail fall. In 2019, the proposed rule changes for the 2020 rulebook were discussed, with the primary focus being on the controversial flag penalty. Under the radar flew the removal of any clarifications to the frangible pin penalty and as of 2020, the FEI rules now read that the 11 penalties will be applied to any change in dimension of the fence with no qualifications regarding strength of hit.

This is the third time this year that the application of a frangible has had a hugely significant impact on the top placings of the biggest events; without a frangible penalty, Tamie Smith and Mai Baum would have finished second at the Kentucky 5*-L and Michael Jung and fischerWild Wave would have won the Luhmühlen 5*-L. While fischerWild Wave was unmistakably saved by the pin at Luhmuhlen, Mai Baum’s penalty was debatable due to hitting it with his hind end on the way down and by all reports, Chipmunk FRH’s penalty was extremely suspect and would have certainly been removed under the previous wording of the rules.

Without the frangible pin, which reportedly fell several seconds after Chipmunk FRH completed the fence, Michael Jung would be leading the standings heading into the jumping phase. At this point, it is clear that the application of 11 penalties again needs a further look to keep the cross-country phase from turning into a showjumping-style ride.

Doug Payne and Vandiver. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Team USA: Clear rounds with single digit time penalties from each pair is an accomplishment for the USA; an American team hasn’t finished a team with three clear cross-country rounds at an Olympic games since Athens in 2004. (We came close in London when there were five members on a team in 2012, but ultimately one of our three clear cross-country rounds did not pass the final horse inspection.) We’ve had trouble with this, too, at World Equestrian Games, failing to complete a team at the 2014 World Games and moving into the stadium in 2018 with only two clears. So this is a step in the right direction – if still slightly underwhelming, particularly since our riders were by far the most experienced at Derek di Grazia courses than any other team. 

Hopefully tomorrow will continue to be a step in the right direction as we continue to develop our equine depth and experience to hopefully take the next step at 2022 WEG in Pratoni and contest for a medal, while simultaneously obtaining our Olympic slot in Paris.

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