Tokyo’s Olympic cross-country track will challenge riders to hold their lines across a tight, undulating track, members of the U.S. Eventing Team said, and they feel well prepared for the task ahead.
Speaking at a press conference Wednesday after all their horses passed the first horse inspection, the U.S. riders talked about their experiences in Tokyo thus far and what they think of the task ahead, having now walked the cross-country course for the Tokyo Olympic Games.
All four riders were complimentary of the facilities at Baji Koen Equestrian Park and have enjoyed using a gallop track and cross-country course to train. Between their own preparations, they found time to watch the U.S. Dressage Team win team silver, too.
“Having the entire U.S. team there has been pretty cool, especially with the success the dressage team had,” U.S. Eventing Team member Doug Payne said. “Vandiver’s been ticking along really well. The facility offers just about anything you could want as far as training, cross-country, whatever it might be. It’s an honor to be here.”
Tamie Smith is the traveling alternate on Mai Baum, and it’s both her and Payne’s first Olympic experience.
“We all get along really good, and we’re here to support each other,” she said. “It’s been fantastic. It’s been a great experience. Doug and I were just talking about how you envision being at your first Olympic Games, and then you get here, and it’s maybe not quite as scary as you potentially thought it was going to be. It’s comforting!”
Boyd Martin has brought Tsetserleg TSF as his ride for this third Olympics.
“It’s been an Olympics like no other,” he said. “You can whinge and whine of how it’s inconvenient and this and that, but it’s fantastic being here, and I think you’ve got to enjoy the moment. It’s unique; it’s different. I think for years to come we’ll look at photos on the wall of masks and no spectators and think, ‘Holy hell, what a weird time that was.’ We had a great training camp in Aachen [Germany] and a good time here. It’s different, but it’s a special moment in all of our careers.”
The team has had a chance to walk Derek di Grazia’s cross-country course a few times now, and they predicted it will be a challenge to make the time. Payne compared the tight track to The Fork CCI4*-S (North Carolina) at the Tryon International Equestrian Center.
“I think everyone’s goal is to be as smooth and easy on the horses as possible,” he said, noting he is happy to be mounted on a quick horse like Vandiver. “It’s going to be incredibly important—and will help your horse a lot—if you know the land and know your line from start to finish, within a couple inches, because I think it would be very easy to get caught out a little bit off one way or the other and have a pretty big impact on your round and make it more difficult on the horses. … Time’s going to be challenging for sure, but we’ll take a crack at it.”
Phillip Dutton is riding Z for his seventh Olympic Games. He’s the oldest U.S. athlete at 57—a fact that’s made the rounds on national news outlets—and joked that he’s only asked about that three times a day.
“It was interesting, walking with the other nations,” he said of the course. “Derek’s made people think and decide what line they want to take, so I think that’s a positive thing. It’s certainly not the biggest course I’ve ever walked, but there’s plenty to do. It’s going to be very hard to make the time, and the terrain is sort of different than what most of us have ridden. There’s a lot of steep climbs and then flat areas. You’ll have to be thinking all the time, knowing the course very well, knowing each turn very well and really pushing things to stay on the clock.”
Martin added that although the course isn’t huge, it will feel that way because of the starting, stopping, turning and up-and-down nature.
“Even though it’s 7 minutes 45, I think a lot of the horses will be winded because there’s sort of a lot of sprinting and stopping and starting,” he said.
He credited di Grazia for building a “top track” and noted, rather than having one or two particularly difficult and influential fences, it is uniformly difficult from the fourth fence on and will use speed and riders’ choice of direct lines versus alternate routes to separate the top of the field from the rest.
“I think there will be problems spread out throughout the course,” Martin said. “The course is way harder if you really have a crack at the time and the direct lines.”
Chef d’Equipe Erik Duvander said the team will have a slight advantage with the early draw—the U.S. will go third of 15 teams in the team rotation—so they can get to the Sea Forest cross-country venue a bit earlier and let the horses settle in for an overnight stay before cross-country begins Sunday morning (Saturday evening in the U.S.).
As for deciding the order in which the U.S. riders will go, Duvander said they were all in agreement.
“People always talk about strategy and that you have to have a certain type of horse. I’m a believer in bringing the best horses and the best riders that are on form,” he said. “We had a conversation with the riders about the running order, and it was decided amongst the riders that we were going to go with Doug being first, Phillip second and Boyd third. That was a smooth, all-inclusive conversation, and that made my job easy. I’m very happy with the lineup.”
The riders said that the hot, humid weather isn’t too bad, and the horses are coping well. Veterinarians are able to monitor the horses while they’re being ridden with handheld heart-rate monitors, which have indicated when a couple from other teams were showing signs of overheating. Those horses subsequently were monitored.
Dressage begins on Friday morning in Tokyo, which will be Thursday evening in the U.S. For viewers watching the dressage phase on NBC’s Olympic livestream from the U.S., Payne is scheduled to go at 7:42 p.m. Thursday, Eastern Daylight Time. Dutton will ride at 5 a.m. Friday and Martin at 8:28 p.m. Friday.
“At the end of the day, the dressage arena is the same size and the same number of judges,” Martin said. “Doesn’t matter if one person or 50,000 people are watching, you’ve still got the same job to do, so it’s important that you don’t get focused on things that are different or inconvenient. We’ve got a big job to do the next couple of days, and I feel like we’re dialed in.”