It was a solid but unspectacular start for the New Zealand eventing team today at the Rio Olympics. They currently sit in fifth place in the team standings, with Germany and Australia first and second. Sir Mark Todd on Leonidas II is in seventh place, on 44pen, at the conclusion of the first day of dressage, with Tim Price on Ringwood Sky Boy in 13th position, with a score of 47.7pen.
The drama was actually more in the media centre, where NZ Olympic Committee press attache Diana Dobson was just inches from a stray bullet that went through the big marquee, leaving a hole in the side, and a very shaken media crew.
All this happened not long before Sir Mark Todd went into the arena, and for a while the New Zealand media looked like they would not be able to get out to get the quotes, as we were in lockdown under the main grandstand (with concrete walls rather than plastic ones).
The competition didn’t stop, however, and the security risk was soon reduced. We were then able to see Sir Mark do a good test with an excited Leonidas. He did well to settle the horse. Leo was the first horse in the arena after the break, and he was a bit distracted by the activity grooming the arena.
“Yes, he got a bit excited, wasn’t really focused, and so in the beginning the trot work was a bit tense. It could have been worse, but he got better as he went, relaxed, and I thought the canter work was pretty good.
“Of course, you always want a better score, but under the circumstances I thought it was okay. You have to ride the horse you have underneath you.”
Mark says he heard there was a stray bullet around, but wasn’t at all concerned about his own safety.
Sir Mark says that the cross-country track is the hardest Olympic course he has seen since Los Angeles way back in 1984. “Those corners at No 6 – that’s the fence that has everyone scratching their heads. And the last water, especially with that frog at the end, is tough. The corner of the house to the gate [fence 23/24], I don’t like that -I think it will be messy to ride. But the going is fantastic, it is beautiful ground.”
William Fox-Pitt has the lead after a truly lovely test on the supremely elegant Chilli Morning, who looked lean and very fit but remained composed throughout for a score of 37pen. William was very humble in his comments afterwards. “He is capable of a very good test, and I didn’t want to let him down. It felt lovely but there are lots of good ones to come. It’s a good start. I hope I don’t let him down in the jumping.”
He, too, is wary of the cross-country. “It is the biggest Olympic Games course I have seen, and I have done a few [this is his fifth]. If I can do him justice, we should be fine.”
William was also asked about his preference for wearing a top hat rather than a helmet, especially given his recent head injury. “I have always worn a top hat. It is part of the dress and is important to me.” He says he’ll happily obey the headwear rules if they are changed, though, and he does expect them to be at some stage.
One of the other journalists was concerned that Chilli Morning looked a bit skinny. Many of the horses are very lean, but William is not at all concerned. “He lost some weight on the journey over here. He’s skinny enough but I have never lost an event because of a skinny horse.”
William’s comeback after such a significant injury has been nothing short of spectacular, and if he does manage to be still in the front at the end of the competition, it will be a very popular win. He acknowledged how much support he had received from many sources, especially from within the sport. “Our sport can have sad stories. No one likes sad stories. I’m okay. I’m a good example that we can do it. It is a great sport, and there is great camaraderie. We all wish each other good luck. Michael Jung wished me good luck. We all know it could be a good day or it could be a bad day.”
Luckily for William, today was a good one for him.
It was also a good day for Australia’s Chris Burton, who is sitting second on 37.6pen on the beautifully-moving Santano II, but the horse is relatively inexperienced, having completed just one three-star, so it will be interesting to see how he handles such a tough cross-country track.
The German team is – unsurprisingly – in the lead at this early stage, with their first two riders, Michael Jung and Sandra Auffarth, sitting third and fourth on 40.9 and 41.6 respectively.
The onlookers were a little surprised that Michael’s horse, the usually impeccable Sam, had one fairly major ooops, breaking in the counter canter. “It was just a little misunderstanding. It was not because he was nervous or not concentrating,” Michael explained patiently to the waiting media. “He was asking, ‘Is that a flying change or not?’ It was just a little miscommunication. But he was good to ride and gave me a very good feeling. We had a mistake and I hope it is our last mistake!”
It’s a little strange to realise this is just Michael’s second Olympics, as it seems he has dominated the sport for such a long time. Compared to London (where he won individual and team gold) he agrees that this cross-country track is tougher, but that the fact it has more space will make it easier to ride in a good rhythm.
Meanwhile, Ryuzo Kitajima from Japan rode his test today on Just Chocolate, the NZ-bred and -produced horse, and scored 57.7pen for 29th place.
We talked to him after the test. “I made some mistakes; flying changes not good. I’ve had Chocky for four years now. This is my first Olympics and my first four-star. The cross-country is very difficult; there are many difficult combinations. He is a good cross-country horse, he has a big heart.”
So, to recap the team situation after the first two riders, Germany is in front on 82.5, Australia second on 83.9, the Brits are third on 84.2, France fourth on 85.4 and New Zealand is sitting fifth on 91 – but it’s very early days and we think very few riders will finish on their dressage scores when the medals are handed out.