To help prepare the U.S.horses bound for this month’s Olympic Games, the organizers of last April’s Rolex Kentucky CCI**** added a modified division to simulate what they’ll face in Athens. Coined “CCI without steeplechase” by the Federation Equestre Internationale, it was the first time the modified format had been used anywhere in the world.
The modifications were inspired by FEI officers’ desire to cut costs and decrease risk in eventing, thereby sustaining the discipline’s place in the Olympic Games.
FEI officials trimmed the endurance phase by removing the steeplechase and the two roads and tracks phases, leaving only the cross-country phase. For Athens, this will shorten the total distance covered from 22,835 meters to 5,700 meters, thus diminishing the amount of land needed for the venue as well as costs to run the three phases.
At Kentucky the modified course was 700 meters shorter than the 6,400-meter CCI cross-country course, but with the same number of jumping efforts, sharing some fences and adding a few of its own along the shorter track. The size of the fences (3’11” maximum height) and the speed at which they were taken (570 meters per minute) was the same.
Consequently, riders and observers questioned whether the result really was the easier test that the format’s proponents had envisioned, or a harder one, made more intense by the fact that it was 100-percent effort all the way around, without the usual relaxed warm-up that roads and tracks offers.
Instead of two roads and tracks phases surrounding the steeplechase phase before cross-country, horses trotted or cantered a 20-minute phase A with optional warm-up fences and then entered a 10-minute hold. There, riders were also allowed to jump as many flagged warm-up fences as they wished in preparation for cross-country.
Michael Etherington-Smith designed the courses in Kentucky and is the technical delegate for eventing in Athens. “It was a good prep for Athens. I tried to give them a slight feel for what they’ll see in Greece,” he said.
In building the course, he said, “I tried to ask more of the riders without asking more of the horses.”
Plans to adjust the track in Athens before the Games mean that the course won’t be as busy as it was in Kentucky, where, out of 44 starters in the full-format CCI, 19 horses finished cross-country with no jumping faults, seven without time faults. Another 14 had jumping faults, and three retired on course. Four horses were eliminated for falling, and three were withdrawn on Sunday morning. All told, 30 of the 44 starters finished (68.18%).
In the modified division with 38 starters, 26 horses finished cross-country with no jumping faults, but only four with no time faults. Three horses were eliminated for falling and another three retired. Three more horses were withdrawn before show jumping, and the ground jury failed two at the final vet check.
Overall, 25 of the 38 starters finished (65.78%) finished the modified division.
Nathalie Bouckaert had a perfect cross-country performance on West Farthing that put her in the lead after two days. But West Farthing still had 1.2 time penalties for being 3 seconds slow, even though he’s one of the fastest horses across country.
Just before she started, Bouckaert took her big gelding for a gallop up the lane to get him revved up. Still, she felt that something was missing from his performance.
“My horse was more tired after cross-country than I have ever felt him,” she said. “The modified is just as hard as the full version. I think the adrenaline from the steeplechase actually plays a big part.”
Bouckaert said she kept up her usual conditioning program leading up to the event, but she thought that the modified event was at least as hard as, or maybe harder than, the CCI.
“I thought the horses in the modified looked more drawn up than the ones in the regular event and didn’t show jump as well,” she commented. “I don’t think it was about the footing or the scheduling; I think it was because they didn’t have the roads and tracks.”
Said John Williams, who clinched a place on the U.S. Olympic team by riding Carrick to third place in the modified division, “I think a few people underestimated the level of fitness they needed, but conditions at Rolex had a lot to do with why horses were so tired. I think the footing was easier for the four-star horses because they ran earlier in the day.” (Two days of rain left the footing saturated, and, as the mud dried out and more horses galloped over the ground, some riders thought that the footing became heavier and more holding later in the day.) On Carrick, Williams was one of the riders who finished cross-country with no time faults.
“I went into the short format with two horses fit enough to do a proper four-star,” he said. “My plan all along was that two minutes fewer with the same number of fences meant that I’d have to be quicker between fences. I wasn’t sure what would happen without the steeplechase to pump up their heart and lungs, but I was glad my horses were fit. They were tired at the end, but I think they fared better than most.”
Williams said that he planned to amend his usual conditioning plan before Athens by adding more speed work to his program. He said that in his regular galloping sets, he would incorporate faster spurts for 30 to 60 seconds to get Carrick ready for the frequent, fast acceleration the modified format requires.
“Slowing down and speeding up again is more what we have to do on course,” he noted. “You have to ‘show jump’ some jumps and then catch the clock again.”
Amy Tryon will be Williams’ teammate in Athens aboard My Beau, who finished fourth in the Kentucky modified division, with 3.2 time faults (8 seconds slow). Tryon also rode Poggio II to 11th in the Kentucky modified division.
And she planned to stick to her usual four-star conditioning schedule to prepare for the Olympics. “I haven’t spoken to one rider who thought that [Kentucky or Athens] was going to be easier,” she said.
A Right Way To Warm Up?
How to warm up for cross-country was riders’ biggest uncertainty at Rolex, and there were as many approaches to the warm-up as there were entries. Some competitors nervously jumped again and again in the 10-minute holding area, and some let their horses rest just as they would in the vet box of a regular three-day event.
And when it was over, there was no clear answer.
“I wasn’t a big fan of the roads and tracks alternative at Rolex,” said Tryon. “I jumped three or four fences on ‘Beau’ and a few more on ‘Pogi,’ and I thought that part was fine. They went the same as ever without the steeplechase. It just felt like a long horse trials–you had to kick to make the time, landing and hurrying on without congratulating yourself for jumping the fence in the first place.”
The Rolex modified division was Cricket Worthen’s first four-star experience. On Broadstone Whitehall, she finished 21st and felt somewhat shortchanged by skipping steeplechase and roads and tracks. Now she’s aiming for the full-format Burghley CCI**** in England (see story p. 8).
“I’m glad Burghley’s a real one,” Worthen exclaimed. “We had a great run in Kentucky, but there’s a big difference without a steeplechase. Usually, after steeplechase, they come out of the box rolling. Not that he didn’t come out sharp, but the adrenaline wasn’t the same.”
Worthen added that she missed the steeplechase for her own peace of mind. “Usually it relaxes me when I’ve finished the steeplechase,” she said. “I take a deep breath and forget about the course while I’m cruising around phase C.”
Bouckaert also missed the time on roads and tracks to get herself focused. “It was so weird to come out of the box and have the second fence be four-star height and width,” she said. “It’s really not just like a horse trials–you have another 21Â³2 minutes to go. Horses can’t do three or four of these a year.”
Bouckaert’s new husband, Michael Pollard (they were married in July), retired the experienced mare Psalm XXIII on course after she became exhausted.
“She just couldn’t keep going,” he said. “I think not having the steeplechase and the roads and tracks had something to do with that. I’d say it was more difficult, fitness-wise, than a regular event.”
Darren Chiacchia and Timothy Holekamp’s Trakehner stallion Windfall essentially secured their spot on the Olympic team when they jumped to the stop of the modified division. Having already been around the course on Power Ty, Chiacchia found that a demanding warm-up prior to the cross-country left Power Ty tired and slow. So he let Windfall have a rest before their round, with just a couple of warm-up fences, as if it were the vet box in the CCI.
That plan worked–Windfall finished with 1.2 time penalties compared to Power Ty’s 9.6–and Chiacchia said that he’d probably stick to a similar approach in Athens.
Chiacchia said that although Windfall seemed more stressed than usual immediately after finishing cross-country, he recovered exceptionally fast.
Williams said he had a similar experience and pondered whether the shorter distance they’d covered had mollified the effects of
what was clearly intense exertion. Without the steeplechase, Williams gave his horses a good gallop in the warm-up phase to get them ready for the cross-country challenge and jumped a couple of steeplechase-type fences on phase A to create his own mini-steeplechase.
Williams noted that four-star size fences are bigger than the fences at horse trials, so he wanted to make sure his horses were “leaving the ground sharp and with scope.
“Sloopy has a little less scope and is more timid than Carrick. So, since I always use the chase to get him in a forward mode, I was happy they set up those fences” on phase A, he said.
Since this strategy worked with Sloopy, he did the same thing with Carrick.
“I don’t feel they need to stick the ‘chase back in,” he added, “but I would love it if FEI rules mandated more warm-up facilities like they had at Rolex. I think they got that right.”
Three-Days Are Still A Big Goal
While watching last month’s Tour de France bicycle race on television, Nathalie Bouckaert noticed that the cyclists spent some time warming up on a stationary bike before they went out to race.
“I think that more research needs to be done on muscle optimization” when considering eventing’s format, she said.
Husband Michael Pollard agreed, “We need to go back to the drawing board. With the old event, we had 50 years or so of research behind it. Now we’re starting over again.”
The modified division at April’s Rolex Kentucky CCI was one of the first attempts at the new format without steeplechase, and it’s probably not the last. Eventers expect the format to be further modified.
Cricket Worthen put a little perspective on things when she commented, “I think the younger riders need to have the full CCI because it takes discipline to condition for prop-erly, and the amount of time that you spend with your horse preparing for a three-day is huge. The [CCI without steeplechase] is more like a horse trials. So it’s a big goal to get to the three-days.”