The weather was blazing hot today at the Tryon International Equestrian Center, and so was the winning trip produced by 2012 Olympic individual gold medalist Steve Guerdat on Bianca, topping a field of 124 entries to win the first jumping test at the FEI World Equestrian Games.
“The issue of heat is more a question for people than horses,” contended the Swiss rider, who shrugged off the enervating combo of near-90-degree temperatures and humidity, maintaining, “Horses like the heat.”
Steve, next-to-last to in the jumping order for the one-round speed class, waited about nine hours for his turn after walking a course that he said was “going a little in my direction” with a layout favoring Bianca’s style. He was just able to better by 0.35 seconds the mark of 76.88 set in the early afternoon by Pedro Veniss of Brazil with Quabri de L’isle
The Netherlands, led by world number one-ranked Harrie Smolders in seventh place, stands second, with Brazil third and the U.S. fourth of 25 teams. Less than a 4-penalty rail separates the Americans, on 6.59 penalties, from the Swiss, who have 2.64.
The USA’s best-placed rider, McLain Ward in eighth on Clinta, projected where he wanted his country to be in today’s rankings even before the class ended, and he was spot-on. The WEG format involves four days of jumping over a five-day period, and it’s quite a demanding test. Listen to what McLain has to say about strategy for this competition by clicking on this video.
The course, laid out by Irish designer Alan Wade, had three double combinations and no triple. It included a water jump and two obstacles where riders could take a direct, time-saving route or an easier approach that would add to their clocking. Knockdowns were penalized as four seconds added to an entry’s total time.
McLain only started riding Clinta this year, but she had to fill in for his Longines World Cup finals winner HH Azur when that mare injured herself at Aachen this summer. Clinta is up to the task.
“She felt spectacular. She tries so hard, she gives so much of herself,” said McLain, noting the lovely gray mare was attempting to jump over the standards at the first double combination. It wasn’t a go-for-broke round; he added a stride before the water and noted “I lost my step” when a five-stride distance to a double at the end of the ring wound up being shorter than he thought it would be. McLain observed that Clinta loses time in the air because she jumps so high. He expects that to even out before the end of the week.
His 2008 Olympic gold medal teammate, Laura Kraut, finished 12th on Zeremonie when she couldn’t quite break the 80-second barrier, finishing in 80.08 seconds. After a stumble before the last line, Laura decided to let her gray mare recover for a second rather than pushing her.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that the three days in a row should really not impress her too much,” said Laura, who is hoping the exuberant Holsteiner might have a tiny bit less energy than she did today. Laura admitted she was a little nervous, because she spends most of her time riding in Europe, and now she’s back in a “home environment” in an area where she grew up.
Hear more of what Laura had to say by clicking on this video.
The two rookies on the squad, neither of whom had been in a team championship before, acquitted themselves well, though each had a rail.
Devin Ryan, the lead-off rider with yet another gray, the Dutchbred Eddie Blue who is the only gelding on the team, thought maybe a pole toppled during his round because his horse didn’t read the combination at the end of the ring quite right. “He’s a young horse, he’s only 9 years old,” explained Devin, who is very positive.
“After day one, he felt great out there, he felt confident, he felt solid,” said Devin, noting “it was a blast walking into the ring and having the whole American crowd cheer you on.”
Devin, who stands 38th, had a few other things to say. Click on this video to listen.
Adrienne Sternlicht had her hands full with Cristalline (a bay who is the only non-gray on the team). She got close to the base of several fences and then went skyward with jet-propelled energy. Being intense and putting pressure on her horse, Adrienne reflected, “she got away from me and got a bit strong. I know I can do better for my team.”
She normally shows the mare in a full-cheek double-twisted wire bit, but today Cristalline was in a full-cheek rubber snaffle, which Adrienne uses with the mare in the jump-offs. It seemed like a good idea, since this was the speed leg. Tomorrow, however, she’s back to the double-twisted wire.
A world championship is always a bit unpredictable. You have your favorites, such as Steve Guerdat or McLain that you know will be medal threats, and then there are others who surprise you. Today number one on that hit parade was Karen Polle, who made a big splash in 2015 when she was the longshot winner of the Hampton Classic grand prix. Now she rides in the Netherlands with Jeroen Dubbeldam, winner of the individual world title at the last WEG, and Wim Schroeder. No one-shot wonder, Karen obviously has become a real contender.
Karen, who grew up in the U.S. but was born in Japan, rides for that nation. Thirty-sixth to compete, she caused a sensation when her longtime ride, With Wings, produced a 79.88-second round to take the lead, an edge that held for 11 more rounds. She wound up the day in eleventh place.
“I never expected this in a million years. To jump clear was a huge accomplishment for me, it’s my first championship. To see I was actually in the lead—I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I’m nervous but having him (Wings) with me makes me feel like, `Okay, we can do this.’ ” She noted the course included a lot of turns and the verticals were quite tall, so she said she had to keep her pace going forward. Hear more from her by clicking on this video.
Israel is making its team debut in the WEG. The effort got off to a bad start when Ashlee Bond had a fall from Chela LS, but team members Daniel Bluman, Alberto Michan and Danielle Goldstein recouped to stand in eleventh place. Daniel is the highest-placed of the group, in seventeenth place. I really felt for him in this draining heat, because he was observing the Yom Kippur Jewish high holy day and couldn’t eat, or worse, drink. While he was intent on being observant, he said he was handed a bottle of cold water after his round and “really tempted” to take a swig, but resisted.
The Nations’ Cup gets underway tomorrow, and with Olympic qualification for the top six teams on the line, competition will be intense. Nineteenth-place Japan, which is hosting the 2020 Games in Tokyo, is already qualified by virtue of being the home team.
Click on this link for the individual results.
Click on this link for team results.