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August 28, 2014

Germany Leads Eventing, But It’s Anyone’s Game

Haras du Pin provided a gorgeous backdrop for Buck Davidson's test on Ballynoe Castle RM.

Aug. 28—Haras du Pin, France

If there was one refrain repeated in every interview today, it was, “This isn’t going to be a dressage competition.”

The results after Day 1 of dressage are not unexpected. Germany slotted into second and third individually with Michael Jung on Fischerrocana FST ahead of Ingrid Klimke on FRH Escada JS to take the team lead.

Great Britain’s William Fox-Pitt won the day with Chilli Morning, which, along with a strong score from Zara Phillips on High Kingdom, put that team in third place behind New Zealand, following great rides from Mark Todd and Tim Price, who placed fourth with Wesko.

And the USA is very much in the hunt with Phillip Dutton in sixth on Trading Aces and Buck Davidson in 11th with Ballynoe Castle RM.

But all anyone wanted to talk about was the wet, wet conditions. Days of rain have left Haras du Pin a soggy wreck. Many of the smaller side roads have been closed due to mud and flooding, and parking for spectators has been a major challenge, as the fields are waterlogged.

"It's a fabulous venue. Unfortunately the French didn’t think about, 'What if it rains?' " said Todd, a veteran of so many world championships, he can't remember the number. "It’s a shame for everyone that it has turned out so wet because it’s part of our sport, and it’s how you cope with it. For the spectators and everyone else, it's not so pleasant sloshing through the mud and car parks to be towed in and out of and all that sort of thing. But for us it’s fine."

The grounds crew has been hard at work on Pierre Michelet’s testing track, and it’s certainly in better shape than the rest of the grounds, but there’s no telling what it will look like after 91 horses have galloped around it in two days time.

“I think by Saturday we’ll have forgot we ever did dressage,” said Fox-Pitt. “The course is serious; it’s a good track; it’s plenty to jump on good ground. It’s quite hilly and certainly undulating at best, and that’s on good ground, and then you add the soft ground to it, and I think we’ve got a serious test.”

The team order of go wasn’t decided until after the first horse inspection, which meant coaches and selectors knew the likely state of the footing for the cross-country. Traditionally, dressage marks are a bit worse on the first day, leading teams to save their best riders for last. But going early in the order on cross-country day may be a distinct advantage in these conditions, which led to some surprising team order choices.

Jung, the reigning World and Olympic champion, was the leadoff rider for Germany, a spot that might make an individual medal more difficult under ordinary circumstances.

“They said I had to go first, and for me it’s OK,” he said. “I think it’s very tough cross-country because of the hills and the ground. There are a lot of big fences, and it’s technical from the beginning to the end, so you have to concentrate the whole courses. I think it’s a really tough four-star.”

Buck Davidson will be the pathfinder for Team USA with Ballynoe Castle RM. He also had the unenviable position of being the first rider down centerline to begin the competition. But laid down a great test for 48.7 and a lead that held throughout much of the morning.

“ ‘Reggie’ did what Reggie does. He comes out and gives me 100 hundred percent,” said Davidson. “He went as good as he’s gone. I feel like I rode better than I ever have.”

Davidson didn’t see going first as a disadvantage. “I actually like it,” he said. “I’ve been the first at every major event this year, and I may as well go for it, right? I’m not the smartest guy out here, no point in me thinking about it too much. I’ve got the best horse, and he’s been around a few years now, I think with the conditions as they are, if you look at the list, the Thursday list looks what’s usually Friday. Everyone’s trying to get the best of the ground.”

Davidson thought his dressage score would’ve been higher if he’d gone later in the competition, but he wasn’t concerned. “So you get hurt a couple points today but it all evens out in the end,” he said. “I think we’re very fortunate to go first.”

Phillip Dutton, who rode next for Team USA, proved he’s really getting to know Trading Aces, a horse owned by the Trading Aces syndicate and usually competed by U.S. teammate Boyd Martin. The usually poker-faced Dutton even cracked a smile at the end of their test, which scored 43.8.

“He’s such a cool horse to have the ride on,” said Dutton. “I’m very grateful to Boyd and Silva and all the syndicate members for making him available to me. It’s been good for us to get to know each other [during the training camp]. He goes on about a three to four-day cycle, where about every fourth day I need to get him really forward, then I can really tone it down. I think I got that cycle about right today.”

While Dutton reiterated that he didn’t think the dressage placings would be the most important factor in the end, he wouldn’t say who he thought would have the best footing. Asked if it was better to go early, he said, “You would think that, but I’ve seen times where it dries up as the day goes on too. It’s hard to predict.”

A veteran of multiple Olympic Games and World Games for both his native Australia and the USA, Dutton waxed enthusiastic about his current team.

“We have a new coach [David O’Connor} with a lot of enthusiasm, which is good for me because I’m a bit older,” he said. “We’ve got a mixed group of which I’m probably the most seasoned, and we’ve got some greener ones and some people in between. Everyone’s gotten along really well actually; we’ve had a good time together.”

Sinead Halpin, who’s riding for the Land Rover U.S. Eventing Squad as an individual, agreed with Dutton’s assessment of the team experience.

“I think we’re six people strong,” she said. “I feel like I am on the team. It wasn’t a very emotional choice. They went with team experience, and I don’t have much team experience. I feel very much part of the team, and I don’t feel slighted at all.”

Halpin rode Manoir de Carneville into 15th place despite an error after the extended canter. “Before my blonde moment I was obviously having a lovely time,” she joked. “It was so lovely I totally forgot where I was going! He felt fantastic. There were moments in there where I felt like the arena and the crowd picked him up, where I started actually having a bit of fun, so I’m very happy with him.”

Halpin echoed the other riders in her respect for the cross-country course. “I walked around and thought, ‘Thank God I’m on this horse!’ ” she said. “I think it’s so creative and so big and so bold and so championship. Obviously the footing will be a big influence. We’re pretty lucky to have drawn so early.”

Three more U.S. riders will enter the arena on Friday. Kim Severson will lead the U.S. effort on Friday at 9:38 a.m. She’s riding as an individual with Fernhill Fearless, and she’ll be followed by team riders Lynn Symansky on Donner and Boyd Martin on Shamwari 4.

Find results, orders of go and more on the Normandy 2014 website.

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