July 17, 2015--Usually the words "excitement" and "eventing dressage" don't appear in the same sentence, but today at the Pan American Games, they went together like the perfect couple.
It's a heated competition, and that's a great thing for the sport and the hemisphere, as more nations are able to become contenders in eventing.
While each rider from countries that were in medal contention performed their 2-star tests in the rain before a sparse crowd at the OLG Caledon Equestrian Center, the picture came into sharper focus, and we waited for the next score to see where the leaderboard would go.
All the members of the U.S. contingent had marks in the 40s, and that consistency gave the team a total of 133 penalties to scoot into first as Marilyn Little nearly broke into the 30s with a 40.3-penalty performance on RF Scandalous.
Canada's marks were all over the place, from 39.8 for United Kingdom-based team newbie Kathryn Robinson, to 42.10 for defending individual gold medalist Jessica Phoenix and 65.10 (the drop score) for Waylon Roberts, who rode in his great-grandfather's dinner jacket.
"It's a little smelly," he confessed with a grin about the obviously aged garment.
Canada is on 133.7 penalties, while Brazil is in the hunt with 136.7, after Ruy Fonseca moved to the top of the individual standings with an impressive 38.9 penalties on two-time World Equestrian Games veteran Tom Bombadill Too.
At this point, those three countries appear to be the only ones in the medal hunt; Guatemala and Ecuador are tied for fourth, 33.4 penalty points back of Brazil, and 1.6 ahead of Chile, which is 2.4 in front of seventh-place Mexico .
The cross-country test, however, could turn things around. Today was cold and showery. Temperatures in the mid-80s and high humidity are predicted for tomorrow.
That can take a toll on horses, not only the sudden change in climate, but also enervating heat. In last weekend's dressage competition at the Small Tour and Big Tour level, riders often mentioned the tiring effect the heat had on their mounts--and they weren't even jumping.
After her ride, Marilyn Little talked about her mare, her lovely test, and the weather.
The cold today had some horses feeling fresh. The final rider for Brazil, Jorge Marcio Carvalho, likely could have done better than 52.20 penalties, had the wind and chill not made his mare a little too on edge to do her best.
The Brazilians, coached by eventing legend Mark Todd of New Zealand, already are qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympics. But they want to prove here that they deserve to compete in those Games based on their ability, rather than the fact that they get a bye because the competition is in their home country.
Canada has a similar deal. It qualified for the Olympics at last year's WEG, but since the Pan Ams are being held in their nation, they want to make the fans proud by taking gold.
And of course the U.S., as we've said before this week, needs to qualify for the Olympics. The Americans can do it by winning, or finishing behind Canada and Brazil, if that's the way it works out, since only one country can make the cut here and the other two already have their tickets.
So the U.S. riders aren't taking any chances. Boyd Martin played it a little conservative in dressage with Pancho Villa, winding up with a total of 44.3.
Boyd explained how he dealt with his horse today.
As a hemispheric championship, the Pan Ams have a mission to help developing countries experience a high standard as they strive for the top.
Mexico is one of the nations on the rise, with army and civilian programs that meld together for competition as it strives to reach the level of its northern neighbors. The country has a huge breeding program utilizing the bloodlines of continental stallions.
"They're well on their way to having a very competitive international program, certainly within the next quad (four years) but for sure within the next two quads," said Mexico's coach, Karen O'Connor, whose husband, David, is the U.S. coach.
Karen, who has been working with the Mexicans only since January, said training a rival team has added a new aspect to her marriage.
"It really brings another whole element of interest to the table," she said.
"We have so much to share with the countries and so much to share with each other about how our programs go forward. It's a very exciting time for David and I as well."
As you probably know, a very serious accident ended Karen's eventing career, so this has been quite a life change for the Pan American Games veteran, who won gold on the remarkable pony Theodore O'Connor.
This is what she had to say about her transition.
As I told you yesterday, the cross-country course is both beautiful and challenging. I'm looking forward to seeing how the horses handle it.
Here are the links to the individual and team standings.
Check back tomorrow night for my cross-country postcard. And as I always say, in the meantime, take a look at www.facebook.com/practicalhorseman.