Digging deep at Rio: we’re back in the game!

New Zealand's eventing team is poised for medal glory, after a tremendous cross-country day at the Rio Olympics

NZL-Clarke Johnstone (BALMORAL SENSATION) during the Cross Country for the Equestrian Eventing (Interim-=7th). Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Centro Olímpico de Hipismo, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Monday 8 August. Copyright photo: Libby Law Photography
Clarke Johnstone and Balmoral Sensation were foot-perfect (Image: Libby Law)

Gutsy and focused cross-country riding from Sir Mark Todd, Clarke Johnstone and Jonelle Price has seen New Zealand’s eventing team climb from despair to delight today at the Rio Olympics.

Despite just having three riders live in the competition – with the unlucky elimination of Tim Price – we have climbed from a depressing sixth after dressage to a fantastic silver medal position, just 4.5pen behind Australia, who are also down to three riders.

It was an utterly nail-biting, thrilling, exhilarating and exhausting day of cross-country that saw the powerhouse of international eventing, the formidable German team, fall by the wayside, along with the valiant sides from Great Britain, Ireland and the USA.

New Zealand’s team hit “rock bottom” this morning, team anchor Jonelle Price freely admits, after Tim was eliminated for a fall when his horse, Ringwood Sky Boy, slid over on a sharp turn taking the long route between fences 23 and 24. Up until then he was having a cracker of a round.

“We’d taken the dressage [performance] very hard… we were really down and out… and then we got slapped in the face with Tim’s fall this morning,” she explains. “It really was time to dig deep and try to believe we were still in the game. We had to mentally believe we could do it – it’s the Olympics. You don’t come here for half measures, and we were able to rally and dig out of that.”

Did they ever! Sir Mark lead by example, a super clear with just two time penalties on Leonidas II, and he is now in fourth place individually.

Sir Mark Todd and Leonidas II are in fourth place individually (Image: Libby Law)
Sir Mark Todd and Leonidas II are in fourth place individually (Image: Libby Law)

“My horse was brilliant all the way around,” he says. “I was under instructions from the team, I had to get around clear, so I had to play safe where Tim had tipped up [and take the long route]. That probably cost the few valuable seconds.”

Mark grins and admits he nearly disobeyed. “I was coming into the fence thinking, ‘Do I disregard orders and go straight?’ but I thought I’d better behave myself!”

‘Leo’ is very fit, and Mark says he certainly didn’t feel tired. “Every time I asked him for a bit more effort, he had it there – in fact, I had a bit of trouble stopping him at the end!”

He and Mark have a solid track record in the all-important final phase, and so must be considered individual medal prospects, should one of the three in front have a rail.
“Touch wood he’s normally a very good jumper, and hopefully tomorrow he will come bounding out in fine form.”

Clarke Johnstone couldn’t stop beaming after his foot-perfect round on Balmoral Sensation, also clear with only 4.8 time penalties. “I’m absolutely buzzing, thrilled. Everything went exactly to plan.”

Normally a cool customer, Clarke confesses he was nervous and feeling the pressure beforehand, though was buoyed by the vocal New Zealand supporters. “Terrified! There’s so much pressure. Normally, you’re riding for yourself and you don’t want to let yourself down, but here we’re riding for New Zealand and with poor Tim having that fall early on, we couldn’t afford a mistake.

“And my horse has been feeling flat all week; even in the stable today he was a lot quieter than normal, but as soon as I got on him, he lit up. Warming up, he was jumping out of his skin and in the start box literally raring to go – I knew he was really on the job.”

Right behind them! New Zealand team supporters (Image: Libby Law)
Right behind them! New Zealand team supporters (Image: Libby Law)

Clarke too took the alternative at fence 23/24, again under team orders, but went straight through everywhere else.

He says fence 6, the troublesome double of corners, “rode as big as it looked.”

“It was really big and in your face, but my horse is a fantastic jumper, really genuine. If you put a jump in front of him he will jump it.”

Clarke and ‘Ritchie’ made the first water and the last water in particular – which had caused a lot of problems and caught several major scalps – look like a pony club track.

“He’s straight and brave, has a long stride and is not remotely afraid of water, so I was confident there. And he finished full of running. He’s not the fastest horse in the world so you have to go flat out, but he pulled up amazingly well.

“His show jumping record is fantastic, and I will hope not to be ruining it tomorrow!”

So it was then all up to Jonelle, who was one of the last riders out on course with Faerie Dianimo, and she had no option but to get home if New Zealand’s team hopes were to be saved. And she didn’t get off to the best of starts. “She was a bit spooky, and I didn’t have particularly good jumps over fences 1, 2 or 3; I was slightly down on my first minute and we just scraped our way through the first water! I then gave her a bit of a stick across the bum and said, ‘Come on, we’ve got to get into this’, and she was pretty good from then on.”

Jonelle Price and Faerie Dianimo: (Image: Libby Law)
Jonelle Price and Faerie Dianimo were confident and determined after a wobbly start: (Image: Libby Law)

Though going clear and under time would have propelled New Zealand ahead of Australia, Jonelle was sensible to take the long route at 23/24, and also a bit of a loop to the frog skinny at the final water, finishing with 8 time penalties.

“I chickened out a bit at that last water! A clear round was definitely the order of the day, and it [going straight] felt a bit chancy. I think it was the right decision – we are in the hunt, back in the game, and that’s the important thing. It’s good to redeem ourselves a little after phase one.”

Jonelle and her gusty little ‘Maggie’ are perfectly suited, being as mentally as tough as they are physically and athletically talented. And though the pressure must have been almost debilitating, it didn’t show, and she was thrilled with her mare’s performance.

“She’s got her own fashion… she fights for the bridle, she twists and screws a little bit, but she’s very good at holding a line and she’s careful and she’s very determined to get to the other side, so I have the utmost faith and confidence in her to get the job done.”

Everybody had said that Pierre Michelet had built a true championship track, and so it proved beyond any doubt, with a total of 16 eliminations, including five falls, plenty of runs-out and stops, and some surprising victims including reigning World Champion Sandra Auffarth of Germany, who clocked up 20 jumping penalties for a run-out. She was originally given another 20 for what appeared to be a run-out at fence 4, but appealed and won.

Dressage leader William Fox-Pitt was another to falter, when his stallion Chilli Morning ran past one of the skinnies in the influential Ski Jump complex, and crossed his tracks attempting the alternative.

There were also some perhaps surprising successes, particularly Australia’s Chris Burton who is now sitting in gold medal individual spot on the breathtaking Santano II. He cheerfully admitted after dressage that he wasn’t exactly confident he’d get round, due to the horse’s inexperience. In fact Santano, who being by Sandro Hit was bred for pure dressage, had only done one three-star, and the direct routes on this course were four-star all the way.

Chris Burton rode like a magician today (Image: Jane Thompson)
Chris Burton rode like a magician today (Image: Jane Thompson)

The horse started out a little greenly, but such was the beautiful and sympathetic ride given to him by Chris, that he visibly grew in confidence, and by the time a couple of the harder combinations were behind them, it was poetry to watch. Home clear, and under time. He was just one of three to achieve this, alongside Michael Jung (GER) and Astier Nicholas (FRA), who both had outstanding rounds, and as a result are sitting second and third.

“He far exceeded my expectations. I didn’t expect him to go so fast – I’m going to enjoy today, and tomorrow – whatever!”

The beautiful Santano II was bred for pure dressage (Image: © Hippo Foto - Dirk Caremans)
The beautiful Santano II was bred for pure dressage (Image: © Hippo Foto – Dirk Caremans)

Chris’ teammates Sam Griffiths and Stuart Tinney provided exemplary backup, both of them clear and adding just a few time faults. Shane Rose, unfortunately for him, pushed a little too hard and his horse CP Qualified ran out of gas at the final water, where three stops resulted in elimination.

Tim Price and Ringwood Sky Boy were having a cracker round until their unfortunate slip (Image: Libby Law)
Tim Price and Ringwood Sky Boy were having a cracker round until their unfortunate slip (Image: Libby Law)

Results, Rio Olympics eventing, after cross-country:

Individual: Christopher Burton (AUS), Santana II, 37.6, 1; Michael Jung (GER), Sam FBW, 40.9, 2; Nicolas Astier (FRA), Piaf De B’Neville, 42, 3; Mark Todd (NZL), Leonidas II, 46, 4; Phillip Dutton (USA), Mighty Nice, 46.8, 5; Boyd Martin (USA), Blackfoot Mystery, 50.9, 6; Carlos Parro (BRA), Summon up the Blood, 51.3, 7=; Clarke Johnstone (NZL), Balmoral Sensation, 51.3, 7=; Sam Griffiths (AUS), Paulank Brockagh, 53.1, 9; Mathieu Lemoine (FRA), Bart L, 53.6, 10. Jonelle Price, Faerie Dianimo (NZL), 57.5, 13.

Team: Australia, 150.3, 1; New Zealand, 154.8, 2; France, 161, 3; Germany, 172.8, 4; Netherlands, 238.6, 5; Sweden, 243.1, 6; Great Britain, 252.1, 7.