James C Wofford

01/12/05

 

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Sydney 2000

 

September 15, 2000    

Greetings from Sydney. I am going to pass along my personal reactions and experiences from the Olympics here in Australia. Don’t expect them to be complete, or even accurate, but I hope you do find them interesting, and entertaining.

First things first. All 8 of our horses, both Team and Individual, passed the first veterinary exam today. If you think event riders get nervous before cross country, you should see them at the veterinary examinations. Riders hate this process, because there is nothing they can do to influence the outcome. So there are plenty of long faces around before they jog, and plenty of smiles after.

            It is amazing how the horses show their personality at the “jog”. Giltedge, Prince Panache, and Custom Made, all consummate pros. They walked in, ears up, strutted up and down the lane and walked out, flat footed. They know the routine, and they aren’t too fussed. ”Just another Olympics, boss.”

             Anderoo and Chevalier, both with a bloom on their coats to die for, trotting with all 4 feet off the ground at once. Hogan’s Hero and Hyde Park Corner, rolling their eyes at the sizable, and knowledgeable, crowd gathered to watch. They both looked like a mule going up a ladder going away from the judges, and both took their jockeys for a ride on the way home, obviously in peak condition.

            The most humorous moment of the day was Nina Fout, warning the ring stewards that 3 Magic Beans could be a little dangerous to be around when he gets excited. “Yeargh, nah worries, Sheila”, said one bushie (as red necks are known down here), just before diving over a crowd control barrier, a micro-second ahead of a pair of hooves. Nina is second to go for the team on Saturday afternoon, and I imagine she will skip the opening ceremonies, so as to be in the saddle early and often on Saturday.

            You wonder about these kids. They want to fly half-way around the world to jump over obstacles that no one has ever seen before, on ground that no one has galloped on, and they can’t wait. An obviously elated Linden Wiesman, bouncing on her toes with a slightly maniac grin on her face, summed it up for her teammates. “I’m ready”, she said. You wonder about these kids, but you gotta love ‘em.

            David O’Connor will captain our team this year. He is an unusual mix of intellect and intuition, and was destined for Olympic medals at an early age. Not many people these days can say that they have ridden across the United States on horse back. Even fewer can say they did it at age 12. No wonder he sits so well in dressage now, he burned off the nerve endings on his seat bones long ago.

            Giltedge is a reliable performer at this level, and that must have been a factor in the selector’s thinking, when they started looking at the list of horses and riders who have no prior Olympic experience. When you are building a team, it is a great comfort to know you have a horse that can finish with a final score under 50. Earlier this year I asked Mark Phillips, the USET coach, if a final team score of 150 would be good enough for a Gold medal.”  I should think it will need to be lower than that”, he replied. (Remember, the top 3 scores count.)

            We can count on David for that sort of performance, as his horses have been training well, and just as important, David is as healthy as he has been in years. He has been plagued by shoulder and rib injuries since ’97 and I think we will see a fitter, more athletic ride from him and that has to be good news for us.

Jack LeGoff, the most successful Event trainer of all time, once remarked that it is as hard to get 4 sound riders to the Games as it is to get 4 sound horses there. If you don’t believe him, just ask Rodney Powell. He was named to the British team, but broke his ankle while walking his Olympic mount through Horsley Park, thus ending his Olympic bid. Walking!

            Certainly, Karen O’Connor is no stranger to the risks of the sport, having had her share of mental and physical ups and downs over the last 25 years. But she could not have a better friend to ride during what will almost certainly be her last Olympic effort. Prince Panache is a lovely dark brown thoroughbred. The description that comes to mind is “genuine”. I think the only thing in the world he is afraid of is that he will not do his best. There aren’t many like him around, and we can thank our lucky stars that he came into the hands of such a superlative horsewoman.

             Prince Panache is too big for Karen, at 17 hands, and he is too old, at 16. Fortunately, no one has told Karen or “Nache”. They have had a good training camp, are both veterans, and both know that, for them, the future is now. On a good day they can finish in the high 30’s.

            Joining the 2 O’Connors on the Team of 4 riders are Nina Fout, on her own 3 Magic Beans, and Linden Wiesman, on Barbara and Jim Wiesman’s Anderoo. There must be something in the water around Middleburg, Virginia, as all 4 riders live within 10 miles of each other.

            Eventing is a lonely discipline…riders spend years to develop their skills, they wait until there is a Three-Day Event for them to showcase their skills, and then wait even more years for the right horse to come along. But not many have waited as long, or worked as hard for so little to show for it, as Nina Fout. Her Olympic dreams started over 20 years ago, with her first trip to the North American Young Rider Championships.

            A resounding win in the prestigious Peters Trophy at the Radnor 3-Day Event in 1975 made her the Junior National Champion, and showed the horse world what she could do. But over the years, she has had the most incredible string of injuries to her horses and herself. A crashing fall at the same event several years later sidelined her for 6 months, with serious head and neck injuries. Horses that looked promising turned out to lack the desire, or the scope, or that mysterious quality that makes one horse just a horse, and another horse that rarest of all equines, an Olympic horse.

             But throughout all those years, one thing never changed.  Nina never gave up on her self, and she never let go of her dream. So here she is. And if you ever dream of riding in the Olympics, dream of 3 Magic Beans. He is a thoroughbred, and he looks like one. He is light on his feet, fast, fearless, and has the “look of eagles”. Over the past 3 years, Nina and “Beans” have jumped clean over the biggest courses in the world, Badminton, Burghley, and Kentucky.

 It is a great source of confidence to a rider to know, rather than think, your horse can do it. And Nina knows that her greatest challenge will occur not on the cross country course, but in the Dressage arena. “Beans” is nothing if not competitive, and the bigger the occasion the more competitive he becomes. Nina will be sitting on a powder keg and it is going to take every ounce of her skill to prevent the explosion. If she can get a quiet ride out of him in the Dressage ring, the rest of the week will seem easy to her. An Olympic cross-country course can be Kryptonite to some horses. “Beans” will think it is catnip.

            At 25, Linden Wiesman is the youngest member of the Team, but she has the same strange, almost surreal self-confidence that her teammates display. It is a given that athletes at this level are self-confident, and part of our fascination with the Olympics is to see how well humans can perform under incredible pressure. Linden’s attitude does not come across as “I’m better than you”, but rather “If I get my chance, I know what I can do.”

             Like Nina Fout, Linden is a former Junior National Champion. But for a while it did not look as if she would ever get her chance at the Olympics. First one horse, then another, would get hurt, lose desire, or lack the power for the massive obstacles that an Olympic horse will need. Then, just as things started to come around for her, Linden had a series of injuries that would have permanently grounded a normal person. But if you can shrug off a broken pelvis, followed by a broken femur (the big bone above the knee), then Linden shrugged them off.

             Top-class athletes are quick healers, and Linden was no exception. She was back in the saddle much sooner than the experts predicted, and training as hard as ever. When her lesson was over, Linden would jump down from the saddle with the rest of the students. But when she thought no one was looking, getting down from the saddle was a long, slow, painful attempt to ease an obviously damaged body gently to the ground. I was Linden’s coach during this period, and the only reason I did not take her out of training was my respect for the sheer courage and desire to excel that I saw her display. It is hard to bench an athlete who won’t give up.

            At the same time, Linden had finally developed a horse that had the necessary qualities. Anderoo is a 10 year old, bay, thoroughbred gelding. He is a classy, breedy looking creature, with large luminous eyes, that seem to gaze at the far horizon, in search of fields to gallop over. Of course, with an attitude like this he is a quirky fellow to ride, especially in the Dressage.

 Over fences, he does not take well to being hand ridden, and it took a while for Linden to find out that she had to literally trust him with her life. It is a terrifying sensation for a good rider, to be galloping at a big fence, waiting until the horse decides where to take off. It has not all been plain sailing for her, and I do not think many riders would have had the skill, patience and intuition that it took to get Anderoo to the Olympics. But Linden did, and here they are, ready to ride down the centerline with the U.S.A.flag on their saddlecloth.

            If Linden can score lower than 55 in the dressage, and if Nina can break 60, you will see a thin sheen of sweat break out on the Kiwi’s, Aussies, and Brit’s. foreheads.

             In a funny way, Karen and David’s, and all of our Olympic hopes for a Gold medal rest squarely in the hands of 2 horsewomen who have never ridden at the Olympic level before. We know what Karen and David can do…they have done it before. So all the work and struggle and money and time and injury and success and disappointment, all this comes down on the shoulders of 2 rookies from Virginia. The selectors hope they are ready. I think they are ready. Nina and Linden know they are.

 

September 16, 2000

            Greetings from Sydney. After the first two riders on each team completed the Dressage phase today, the Australian team has a commanding lead. Andrew Hoy, on the gorgeous grey, Darien Powers, has a score of 30.6 to lead the way. Hoy showed his years of experience when he came into the arena in front of a highly partisan and vocal crowd, and held his finger to his lips, asking for quiet. He then proceeded to ride a personal best, and pumped both fists in the air as he left the arena. Needless to say, the crowd roared its approval.

             Hoy’s American-based fellow countryman, Phillip Dutton, on House Doctor, scored 46.6, to give the Australian team a first day total of 77.2. The British team is a not-so-close second, with 94.6, followed by the French at 98.6, and the U.S., on 103.0. The only surprise of the day was the New Zealand team, finishing with 109.6. Two-time Gold medalist Mark Todd scored a disappointing 58.6, on an obviously agitated Diamond Hall Red.

             David O’Connor got the U.S. contingent off to a great start with a score of 44.4. He certainly knows his horse…the judge rang the bell, the crowd hushed and settled back in their seats, in expectation of another patented O’Connor performance…and David halted 10 yards from the entrance, dropped the reins, and patted Giltedge on the neck. He calmly waited while Giltedge rubbed his nose on his foreleg, picked up the reins, cantered a circle and entered the arena as if nothing had happened. The look on Mark Phillips’ face while all this was going on was special.

             But the score made it all worthwhile, and David had the third best performance of the day, just  4 tenths of a point behind Lesley Law, of Great Britain, on Shear H2O. It says something about David’s skill level in this phase, when U.S. supporters are slightly disappointed that he is not in first place after dressage. 

 In 1984 at the Los Angeles Olympics, Virginia Holgate said “When I rode down the center line, I have never felt such a sense of occasion”. (This from a winner of European Championships, Badminton, Burghley, etc.) I imagine that when Nina Fout aimed 3 Magic Beans at the centerline this afternoon, she was thinking, “I wonder if I can keep the lid on him for 7 minutes?” The answer is that not only did she keep the lid on, she scored a 58.6. You have to be fairly pleased with yourself, when you get the same score as Mark Todd.

            This was a big, big, BIG performance from Nina. Now her next two teammates, Linden Wiesman and Karen O’Connor don’t have to play catch up. In Eventing, team work is a funny thing. You don’t pass a baton for this team, but you can do something even harder, and more important. You can take the pressure off your teammates, just by doing your job. And when doing your job means going to the Olympics as a rookie, and riding the best dressage test you have ever ridden, your teammates catch fire.(Seasoned coaches know this…why do you think Olympic veterans such as Mark Todd, Andrew Hoy, and David O’Connor are going first for their teams?)

            So look for some good scores from Linden and Karen tomorrow. Linden won’t win it, but she has been improving daily and if the judges show up in a good mood, she could easily score under 55, and from the look on Karen’s face the last couple of days, she feels that she can go for it. If I were a betting man, I would not bet against a score in the low 30’s for Karen and “Nache”. The Australians have the lead, but it is not insurmountable, there is a long way to go, and we have as good a chance as anybody.

  I went to my first Olympic Games in London, in 1948, and I’ve watched a few since then. One of the most interesting things about that time was the way one could identify rider’s nationality by the way they rode. That is a thing of the past. All these riders sit well these days, and they all look more or less the same, which is to say fabulous.

            Back in the States, the real fans are going to be going over the scores and saying “ Are those judges smoking something stronger than cigarettes?.” The average score today was about 15 points better than it would be at Kentucky , Badminton, or Burghley. That is not a function of bad judging, but of really good riding. The standard is very high, and we are seeing the results of it. These riders sit like Kings and Queens, their horses are on the bit and they are really moving. There was been a refreshing lack of caution in the ring today. These riders have been training for a long time, and they are ready to show it off to the crowd.

    And that’s another thing. This crowd knows what it is watching. Little murmurs of appreciation or dismay run through the crowd as each horse and rider perform. The crowd has come from all over the world because they love horses, and they are getting their money’s worth.

 It is hard to just watch the horses, when the people watching is at such a premium. What would you give to listen to General Jack Burton, Sally O’Connor, and Capt. Jack Fritz (all International judges) comment on the scores? Or watch Hamish Lachore, the organizer of the Burgie Horse Trials in Scotland, in the middle of the Japanese contingent, chatting away. Talk about two people separated by a common language. At least he wasn’t wearing a skirt.

“Let the Games begin!” Are you kidding? The only games around here are being played at “Panthers”, the casino nearby. These Olympics are about as professional as you can get. You may have noticed a lack of direct quotes in my comments. That is because if a reporter is not accredited, the athlete is not allowed to talk to them on the record. The quotes are reserved for the sponsors; I mean major media, i.e. NBC and accredited press. It gives new meaning to the old line about money talks.

             But the Aussies are trying to do things right. Got a transport problem the day before the opening ceremonies?  Just have the Australian government call out the army, for extra bus drivers. Got clay soil at the proposed site for the equestrian venue? No worries, mate, just grade a 5 mile long track, bring in sand and shavings, seed it, and then water and mow it for three years.

Americans feel at home here in Australia, where there is a breezy informality. The Aussies are laid back without being lazy, and are having a grand time showing their country off. They are big sports fans down under, and every Australian rider who comes in to the ring does so to the accompaniment of this strange Antipodean war-cry…”aussie, ausSIE, AUSSIE!” If you hold your nose, and think “olly olly oxen free”with a rising inflection, you will get a pretty good approximation of it, just 20,000 times louder.

            Sydney obviously has a no-high-rise policy. There are no tall buildings outside of downtown, which lends a very human, livable feel to the area. The architecture is a strange mixture…English cottages, with red tile roofs…sort of San Diego with tea and a twang.

            Eventing has its moments, but the real risk sport around here is ducking the kangaroos on the roads after dark. The U.S.E.T.’s Jim Wolf has already had one kangaroo “kamikaze” his rent a car, and the story goes that another team got a little too much Foster’s lager in it’s eye, hit a ‘roo with their car, thought it needed medical attention, threw a jacket (with an athlete’s credentials in the pocket) over it, and turned around to see the ‘roo, and the jacket, bounding into the bush. Sort of a down under version of the dog ate my homework.

 

September 17, 2000

Greetings from Sydney Strong performances by a newcomer and an Olympic veteran moved the U.S. team into 3rd place after the conclusion of two days of dressage. The Australian team total of 112.6 keeps them in first place, followed by Great Britain with 115.2, and the U.S. with 125.4.

How close is the competition? If one Australian does not go clear on the cross-country course, and the other teams are error free, it could drop the Aussies into 4th place. I saw Andrew Hoy, the Aussie team captain and best placed rider to date, after the scores were posted and he looked like a man with a lot on his mind. Remember Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, watching the posse chasing them? “Where do they get these guys?” That’s Andrew.

             The second day of dressage started at 9:30 am, and by 10:00 two riders had posted scores in the low 30’s. Pippa Funnel of G.B. got a well-deserved 32.0 on the powerful and elegant Supreme Rock, and Stuart Tinney lit up the stadium with Jeepster, for a score of 36.0. Jeepster was obviously fit and on the edge throughout the performance, but Stuart gave him a tactful ride, while the crowd held its breath. As he turned down the centerline for the final time to finish his test, international dressage judge Sally O’Connor murmured “this place is going to erupt”. She was right. It did.

             Later in the day Great Britain’s Ian Stark, on Jaybee, got a 39.2, and Germany’s Ingrid Klimke, daughter of the legendary dressage Gold medalist Reiner Klimke, showed that she knows a thing or two about it as well, with a score of 36.2.

            The U.S. supporters had come to see how our mixed team of veterans and newcomers would measure up against the best in the world. Was this the best team we could field, or had the selectors missed something?   

            As it turned out, the only thing missing from Linden Wiesman’s dressage test today was a halo. Her score of 48.4 is already the best she and Anderoo have ever done. Then take in to account that she is a rookie. Traditionally judges do not give rookies the marks they deserve, so you see why experienced observers who watched her test felt she should have scored at least 5 marks better. But that is part of the game at the Games, and Linden just smiled and shrugged when her score was announced. Hopefully, in 20 years at some other Olympic Games, she will get the benefit of the halo effect. But for now her supporters, while mildly disappointed with her score, are elated with her performance.

            So the stage was set for Prince Panache and Karen O’Connor, the final combination for the U.S. An average ride wasn’t going to get it done for the team. There had been too many superlative performances by other nations. Only something extraordinary from Karen and “Nache” would do. And so Karen and her gallant giant, as they have so many times over the years, turned in the performance the team absolutely, positively had to have. And what a performance! Her score of 32.6 was good enough to move the team into third, only 12.8 behind the Australians.

    There are 21 marks given in this test, from 0 to 10. There are 3 judges, so that makes 63 total marks. Karen’s lowest mark, her LOWEST mark, was a 7. Most riders would kill for a 7. But one of the hallmarks of a champion is consistency, so there you have it.

    I cannot remember ever seeing a team go to the Olympics and have all 4 riders score a personal best. Horses just don’t work that way. But here we are, in third place after the first phase of competition, with a real chance at winning. I don’t know who I am prouder of… Karen and David did what superstars are supposed to do (that’s why they are superstars). Nina and Linden stepped out onto the world stage for the first time, and only rode better than they ever have in their entire lives. No one knows what is going to happen tomorrow, but so far, so good.

            Before the real fun starts tomorrow, I want to tell you a little about the cross country course. The course designer, Mike Etherington-Smith, has a problem. He has to test the best without eliminating the rest. So he has designed a course with that in mind. When you leave the start box on this course, you had better bring your brain along. This thing is big AND technical. That’s the way it is supposed to be at the Olympics, and that’s the way this one is. The first thing I noticed about the course is that there is a lot of rise and fall in the terrain. This means that whatever you build will ride just that little bit harder, and be just that little bit more tiring for the horses.

            The first part of the course tends uphill, and Mike has given the riders a few simple fences to get into their rhythm, if you consider 3’ 11” by 5’ 9´simple. I’ve seen condominiums smaller than these things. Probably the first problems will occur at 7a&b, the Boorooborongal Brushes. These are 2 ditch and hedges, set about 100 degrees from each other. It will take a brave horse, to jump on an extreme angle over 7a, take two strides uphill to 7b, and jump again. If your horse tends to swerve either way, you will be better off to jump them as separate obstacles. The time lost turning right handed downhill and then coming straight back uphill to the second element is no match for 20 penalties for a refusal.

            After a simple “fly” fence (that means you should jump it on the fly), there is a long downhill run to the first water jump at 10 and 11abc. There is an evil, symbiotic relationship between crowds, water jumps, and course designers. Water is always a problem for horses, because they never know how deep the water before they jump into it. Course designers know this, so they tend to build some thing special here. Crowds know they will see something special at the water jump, so Pemulwy’s Waterhole will draw the biggest crowd on the first half of the course.

             I don’t think they will be disappointed here. Picture a massive log, set about 3’7” high, followed 12 feet later by an identical log, that has a 6’ drop behind it, landing in 9” of water. You then take 4 or 5 strides and jump a corner, taking off and landing again in the water.

              Remember the part where I said the riders had to take their brain along? This is what I was talking about. If your horse lands short and weak, you had better take 5 strides. If you land long and strong in the water, you had better kick for 4 strides. Either option will work…but if you land and just sit there, fat, dumb, and happy, then you will get to the corner at 11c on a half-stride, and there’s no hope for you…you will have a refusal.

            There is a long way around the complex, but it is really long, and the first few riders will be testing their luck here. This combination is very similar to the second water jump at Kentucky CCI**** three years ago, and most of the riders think that while this one is bigger, it is doable. 

            There is a long gallop to settle you into a rhythm again, then another complex, the Abbotsbury Farmyard, #13abcd. Again there is a long way around the farmyard, but most of the riders will jump 2 right handed corners, with 2 strides in between. It is easy, once you know how.

            After a long down hill run (the first on the course), you come to the second water jump. The Devil’s Back Billabong, # 15abcde, is a big log with a drop in to water, 4 strides to an up-bank, bounce over a log back into water, 4 strides across the water, up a slope and out over a ditch and hedge. Oh, did I mention that the ditch and hedge is a little narrow, right where you want to jump it?

            Whenever you see that many letters after a number, it means Mike Etherington-Smith has been burning the midnight oil again. Of course, there is a long way around, but it will take forever, and by this time, you might as well keep coming on a straight line. When you land after this little exercise, you need to listen to your horse, as you have done a lot of jumping, and he may need a breather. If he is ok, away you go, but if he needs to catch his breath, this is the place to do it.

             The next few fences are big, but designed to be ridden at the gallop. So the next problem fences are #22 and 23abc, the Orphan School Seats. You and I would call this combination a sunken road, and indeed it is based on the sunken road complex at Kentucky. This would be a hard jump anywhere, but it is extra hard at this point in the course.

            You jump a chair, take a stride, drop down into a sunken road, take a stride there, jump up a bank the same size, take 2 strides, and jump another chair at quite an angle. The technical part here is that horses tend to jump too big jumping down, and they tend to wander when you jump up. So you have to have them under control, which is hard to do, considering all the downhill galloping you have just done. That’s why you do all that dressage, so that they will still listen to you when they get their blood up. You have to get it right here…too slow, and you will have a refusal going in…too fast and you will miss the last part of #23c.If it was easy, everyone would do it, right? The alternate route here is safe, but once again very slow.

             There is no let up now, because 24 and 25, the Providence Haysheds, pose the same question as #23, but on the other side. The danger at the Orphan School Seats is that you can run past them to the right. Here at 24 and 25, the danger is that you may run left past the second of the two houses. The angle here is acute, but possible, with one stride in between. Think Badminton’s Luckington Lane with a green tin roof, and you’ve got it.

            The final problems will probably occur at # 28ab, Vinegar Hill. This is very similar to the Quarrys at Badminton and Kentucky, with a big drop going in and a bending line to a narrow fence at the top of the hill coming out. It isn’t anything you haven’t seen before, but it is big, and late in the course.

            Then it is quite a long climb up hill over big, but simple fences, to the last fence, #32, The Hellenic Omega.

            It is a hard course overall, but very fair, and very jumpable. So the competition will be won not just by the jumping, but by speed. I am going to stick my neck out and predict that between 5 and 7 horses will make the time to finish with their dressage scores. If a couple of those horses are ours, we will definitely move up in the placings.   

 

September 18, 2000

Greetings from Sydney. The Australian team maintained their lead after the cross country phase of the Olympics, with an over night score of 114.2. Great Britain is close on the Aussie’s heels, with 127.0, and New Zealand moved up from 5th to 3rd, with a two day total of 151.2. Falls and time faults moved the U.S. team down to 4th place, with a score of 160.8.

            On a picture perfect day, 55,000 spectators watched as  4 Australian riders turned in rides of near perfection. All four jumped clean, and had a grand total of 5 seconds over the time. That’s 5 seconds total, spread over the nearly 20 miles of cross country course that these riders covered today. Andrew Hoy set the tone for the Aussies with a smooth, flowing round, and finished with his dressage score of 30.6. His teammates soon followed, and when they had all finished, it was clear that Australia is poised to win a record breaking third consecutive gold medal.

            When asked about his team, Australian Chef d’Equipe Wayne Roycroft said” I’m really pleased with our program. We have about 60 riders riding regularly at the upper levels, and our old fellows really had to work to make the team this time." The thought of another 60 Andrew Hoy’s is enough to make other coaches pull their hair.

            The Brits did not hang around today, either. They had 3 clean and fast rounds, and their record was not affected by Ian Stark’s somewhat sketchy round on Jaybee. The New Zealanders showed some real determination today, with 3 double clears by Mark Todd, Blythe Tait, and Vaughn Jefferis.

             David O’Connor, on Giltedge, first to go for the U.S. was clean and just outside the time to finish with a two day total of 46.8. Nina Fout and 3 Magic Beans set out well, but Beanie gradually got stronger and stronger, forcing her to slow down before the fences in order to avoid a fall. By the second water jump at #14 Beanie was pulling so hard that Nina lost her reins as they jumped the big bounce back into water, and had to pull off to the right hand side, thus avoiding a refusal at # 15, but incurring more lost time. The course was too difficult to make up any time and the end result of all this struggle was that Nina finished with a clear round, but 20 time faults.

             With two clear rounds safely home, American supporters could be forgiven a mild sense of optimism as Linden Wiesman started out. But that feeling only lasted until Anderoo slipped on the turn before the first water at # 10. He recovered his balance by adding a stride, but this put him too close to the log, and he and Linden had a crashing fall. A somewhat dazed Linden speedily remounted, and continued the course.

            By the Orphans School Seats, they seemed to be regaining their rhythm, but at the last second Anderoo refused at the seat before the sunken road. At the second attempt, he jumped, but left his right knee down, and the impact caused a second fall for Linden, and thus mandatory retirement from the course. Linden quietly remounted, and gave Anderoo a reassuring pat on the neck. She looked down the valley for an instant, as if she could see the mirage of what might have been. Then she started the long walk home, surrounded by thousands of spectators, but alone with her thoughts.

            So the pressure was on Karen O’Connor and Prince Panache. If she did not jump clean and fast, the U.S.A. would have no chance for a medal. But athletes like Karen and ‘Nache live for this sort of chance, and barring a near disaster at the Orphan School Seats, Karen turned in a fabulous round, to finish just one second over the time.

            And with that effort, which was as nice a display of precision at speed as we saw all day, the U.S.A. stands just one knock down and a few time faults away from an Olympic medal.

 

September 19, 2000

            Greetings from Sydney. The Australian Eventing team won an unprecedented third Gold medal in a row today, holding off a late challenge by the Silver medal British team, and the Bronze finishers, the United States. In front of a capacity, and highly partisan, crowd of 20,000, Australian team captain Andrew Hoy galloped through the finish line to clinch the victory. As Andrew pulled up after his round, he started to walk out, but changed his mind and rode another circle, waving at the crowd. Finally, he walked out, glancing over his shoulder at the crowd, and for an instant I could hear him think,”This moment is too perfect…I don’t ever want it to end.” But the applause started to die out and he turned his eyes forward, and left the ring.

            The old broadcaster’s cliché about “And the crowd goes wild” had nothing on the stadium at Horsley Park. Maybe that’s why I like the Aussies so much…they are happy drunks. But six hours earlier, at the final vet inspection, they did not look so happy. Andrew’s horse was decidedly stiff, and an audible sigh of relief went through the crowd when the Ground Jury passed him.

            The American horses all looked well and passed without further discussion by the judges. The only thing noteworthy was that 3 Magic Beans had finally gotten enough work, and stopped acting like such an idiot in front of the crowd. So it looked like our luck had turned.

 But Blythe Tait, the reigning Olympic and World Champion, was not so lucky. Reddy Teddy was not level behind. A spell in the holding area did nothing for him, and he was eliminated on reinspection.  This finished the New Zealanders chance for a medal, as Vaughn Jefferis had already withdrawn Bounce, and like wise Paul O’Brian with Enzed. Thus the U.S. team that had looked so far out of touch the night before was back in contention.

            A clear round by David O’Connor and a clear round with 5 time faults by Nina Fout, set the stage for Karen O’Connor to ensure a medal for the U.S. An obviously tired Prince Panache tipped two rails, but held things together long enough to nail down the Bronze medal spot.

             “I am so lucky to have a horse like him. He just brings out the best in me,” said Karen. Under the old rules, her best would have been good enough for a Bronze Individual.

            The US team will return home with a Bronze medal, which ordinarily would be cause for celebration. But there is an air of unfinished business in the barn area tonight. They think they can do better the next time around. I know they can. 

The Olympics always are good for  memories and special moments. For example: The sign ‘way up in the cheap seats that said simply “NZ loves you Mark” For someone like Mark Todd, who has been under intense press scrutiny for the past 3 months, this must have been welcome support. With his team in disarray around him, and his private life being picked over by the tabloid press, this is not the way the FEI Horseman of the Century wanted to go into retirement.

 The individual competition starts on Wednesday. I think the standard of horses and riders down here is so high that the winner will finish on their dressage score. That doesn’t mean that the course is that easy, it means these guys are that good. By my calculations, David O’Connor will win the Gold, with Andrew Hoy winning the Silver and Mary Thompson the Bronze. Look for good placings for Julie Burns and Bobby Costello. How’s that for sticking your neck out?

    The vet check for the individual competition was held this afternoon. I have never seen so many horses in one place at one time with such a bloom on their coats.  All of our horses passed and looked really well. We have a fabulous draw, with all three horses in the final group, which always helps in the dressage phase. (the judges tend to get a little more generous as they go along .)   As Bobby Costello walked in with Deirdre Pirie’s Chevalier, who was meant to be her late daughter, Amanda Pirie Warrington’s ride here, I had a sudden flash back to Amanda’s incredible, luminous smile, and I knew she was watching.

    How good was the Team competition here? So good that over a course that had the experts scratching their heads, 8 riders jumped double clears (no jump faults, no time faults), and 8 more riders were less than 10 seconds over the time limit. Of the top three teams best three riders, those 9 riders had a combined jump penalty score of …are you ready?…(drum roll)…zero. The top 9 riders were, combined, less than a minute late. Heck, several of the lower placed riders were that late all by them selves.The Australians are such gracious winners that the rest of the horse world doesn’t seem to mind that they have dominated Olympic Eventing for the past 12 years. I don’t remember such an explosion as greeted the Australian Team on their entrance into the stadium to receive their medals. That strange Australian warcry of “aussie, ausSIE, AUSSIE!” got a real workout today.

    Journalists are supposed to be objective, so I have tried to down play my fondness for our four riders. I know I haven’t done a very good job of it but I have tried. Yet the fact remains that I have a unique view of all 4 of them, as at one time or another, they were students of mine. So I thought I would share some impressions of them with you.

    In 1994, Linden said “I have a really cute 4 year old I want you to see”. It only took one cross rail for me to fall in love with him, too. Of course that 4 year old was Anderoo, whose best… and Linden’s… is yet to come.

    Nina bounced at the trot dreadfully as a junior, but she would try her heart out, and I remember thinking, “If this kid doesn’t give up, she is going to go somewhere” She didn’t. She did.

   It occurred to me on more than one occasion that I might not ever get David to focus long enough to develop his talent. Picture a younger and much more volatile Jim Wofford, with his index finger pressed into a much younger David O’Connor’s chest….”G-d D-----t, David, when I told you I wanted you to make your mark on the world, I did not mean for you to bush-hog your initials in my hay field!” David has written his name into the record books since then.

    And  Karen. I taught Karen a great deal about horses, but I learned a great deal more about words like intrepid, and indomitable, from her. We are so lucky to have her, and all of them. They make us proud to be horsewomen and –men, and proud to be an American.

             September 20, 2000

            Greetings from Sydney. When U.S.David O’Connor came down to breakfast this morning, everyone asked him anxiously if he was ready to go. He replied that he was going to show the judges a “Godfather” test (for the uninitiated, that’s a test the judges can’t turn down). Riding Ms. Jacquie Mars’ Custom Made, his score of 29.0  put him in first place after the dressage phase, with a 5.8 point lead over Germany’s Marina Koehncke. Her ride on Longchamps was good enough for a score of 34.8.

    There is a truly international cast of characters rounding out the top 6 spots. Heidi Antikatzidis, riding Michaelmas is in third place for Greece with a score of 37.4, while two-time Gold medalist Mark Todd of New Zealand, riding Eyespy II is close behind her. His score of 39.0 was barely enough to hold off the challenges of three-time Australian Gold medalist Andrew Hoy, riding Swizzle In, and Sophia Andler from Sweden, on Amaretto. They are tied with equal scores of 39.8.

    Several of the hot prospects looked unsettled, and did not perform as well as their riders had hoped. Ian Stark, Mary Thompson, Karen Dixon, and Blythe Tait all had sub-par performances today, but  Robert Costello was delighted with Chevalier’s test, which has him in 9th place going into tomorrow’s  cross country phase.

    The cross country course follows the same basic track, but course designer Michael Etherington-Smith has done a clever job of changing the fences around, and his efforts have been met with unanimous approval.

    The riders all feel confident about the fences, especially since many of them have gotten their eye in during the team competition. While no one thinks the course is a pushover, there is more of a relaxed air about the individual competition, now that the pressure of riding for one’s team has been lifted. All this should make for a real race against the clock tomorrow, and an exciting competition. The U.S.A. is poised for its best chance at an individual Gold medal since 1976, when Tad Coffin won at Montreal.          September 21, 2000

    About the only thing faster than David O’Connor’s double clear on the Individual cross country course is the speed of the internet, spreading the good news around the world. By the time I got back to file this article, I had emails from the States, asking for more information. The basic story is this: With only the show-jumping phase left to go, the Individual Gold is David’s to lose. He has an 8.4 point lead over Heidi Antikatzidis, and a 10 point lead over Mark Todd.

    Toddy did not feature in many of the “likely to win” lists, which was probably just the way he wanted it. I watched him turn in another display of cool precision at high speed, and I was surprised at the strong sense of sorrow and loss I had, as he galloped over the last fence.

    The sport has never seen anyone like him, and I just thank my lucky stars I was around to see him perform. I was in the twilight of my career when he started his, and after the Los Angeles Olympics, I was asked by a reporter what I thought about him.” I think I retired just in time”, I replied,” Toddy won’t just beat you, he will embarrass you.” If you thought the stadium was rocking for the team medal ceremony, wait ‘til you hear the place if Toddy and Andrew Hoy get a piece of the action.

    But I wouldn’t count Heidi out. She is a fierce competitor, with nothing to lose and everything to gain, so the pressure won’t be too severe on her. The pressure is completely off Bobby Costello and Julie Black, with their clear rounds cross country. Bobby stands 6th tonight, only 3 points away from a medal, and Julie rode the round of her life to keep her somewhat green Hyde Park Corner focused from beginning to end.

  And for sure, focus was the name of the game over Mike Etherington-Smith’s course today. Referring to his team course, Mike said that “the boys and girls made it look easy”. Maybe so, but the Individual course was no pushover.

     The first rider on the course only got as far as the 4th fence. He adopted the toilet seat over an Olympic sized drop, and of course came off over the shoulder. His horse wisely left town, and so it went. The likes of Andrew Hoy would go blazing past, and indeed for a moment this course would look easy. But lose your focus for a second, and your Matilda was well and truly waltzed. Many of the questions on the course were obvious questions, but you still had to have the right answers, and having the right answers for these Olympic level questions was, well, hard.

    There will be endless discussions about the relative difficulty of the two tracks. The fact remains that the good horses and riders went well, and the not so good, or good but not so lucky, went home. 

    But for today, the story was David O’Connor, and Custom Made. When he galloped through the finish line today, the supporter’s tent erupted, but this time it went “Yankee,Yankee, Yankee, Oi, Oi, Oi!

 

September 22, 2000

            Greetings from Sydney. I never remember my dreams. I did not mention it earlier because I am so superstitious, but when I woke up yesterday morning, I remembered this dream. In my mind, I could still hear the crowd at Horsley Park, chanting “Yankee,Yankee,Yankee, Oi, Oi, Oi!”. And so it was today, as David O’Connor won the Individual Gold medal, ahead of Andrew Hoy of Australia, and Mark Todd of New Zealand. David came into the ring knowing that he could knock down two fences, but then could afford to have no time faults, since Andrew was 10.8 behind in the silver medal spot.

    He jumped seven fences perfectly, landed well…and started to turn the wrong way! A groan from the crowd got David’s attention, and he was back on course, but you won’t hear much about “blonde moments” around the O’Connor household for a while. Custom Made knocked down the 9th, to add further drama to the situation, and then galloped home inside the time for no further penalties.

    “I was really worried about the seventh fence, because I thought “Tailor” would knock it down”, said David, “and I was listening to hear if it had fallen down, and nearly missed my turn”. Jay O’Connor, David’s father, was heard to grumble “I’m going to buy that boy a road map.”

   But none of this bothered the U.S. supporters, who made up in volume what they lacked in numbers. As David started off on his victory gallop, the U.S.E.T.’s Jim Wolf darted under the fence and handed David the U.S. flag, which David proceeded to wave as he galloped around the ring. “Tailor”, who normally doesn’t suffer fools gladly, seemed to sense the symbolism of the moment, and galloped on as if he did this every day.

    Jim later said that as he stepped into the ring, an enormous security guard said “Hang on, mate, you can’t go in there. “ Jim replied “you’re not big enough to stop me”, and performed a baton pass with the flag that would have made our 4X100 meter relay jealous.

    There was a moment just before the three medal winners, David, Andrew, and Mark stepped on the podium today when I thought to myself, “what a brain trust”. Three of the best horseman the world has ever seen, separated by the color of their medals, but united by their respect for each other, and their love for horses.

    I can’t close without mentioning what an outstanding job the Australians have done here. They are a warm, cheerful, friendly, engaging people, and they have been able to show it. The one thing that really struck me is what sports fans these Aussies are, and what good sports they are. They enjoy every moment of the performance, and are genuinely pleased for athletes from whatever country when they go well. The atmosphere here has been fabulous this week, and these must be the best Olympics ever held.

    The atmosphere and team spirit behind the scenes of the U.S. team were equal to the occasion and are widely credited with our success. We are proud of our horses and riders for sure, but we should be equally proud of the grooms, vets, blacksmith, staff, and coach Mark Phillips.

    As usual, Karen O’Connor had the last word. When congratulated on getting a team Bronze, the supporter added, “and an Individual Gold, too.” “Hey,” said Karen, “that Gold is a team medal, too!”

 

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