Amid low-key ceremonies, the FEI World Equestrian Games™ had its official kick-off yesterday, with last-minute construction at the Tryon International Equestrian Center continuing hours before week one of competition got under way this morning.
Deemed a “celebration” rather than a formal ceremony, it was far from the lavish productions that have opened other WEGs, including the 2014 extravaganza in Normandy, France, and most particularly, Aachen, Germany, in 2006, where exhibitions included a number of flashy mounted troupes.
While their teammates cheered from the sidelines, flagbearers from 68 countries marched into the arena. Dressage rider Laura Graves represented the U.S.
“I was so excited to be nominated,” said Laura, who joined other American riders and staff as they streamed into the arena to listen to a country music concert by Hunter Hayes that concluded the evening.
“It’s fun to look into the crowd and not just see Americans,” noted Laura, a contender for an individual medal with her spectacular horse, Verdades.
“It’s really special, because it’s Sept. 11, and it’s really emotional to me,” she continued, referring to the date on which terrorists struck the U.S. 17 years ago in an attack that still reverberates. “It’s deeply emotional for all of us,” Laura noted. “On a day like today, we remember the bigger picture.”
The rat-a-tat-tat of riveting was a counterpoint to comments from the celebration’s announcer, as work continued on the building that will house VIPs, with a media center that went operational yesterday on the bottom floor. The big question for months was whether the Tryon International Equestrian Center would be ready to host the WEG, and the facility still had the look of a construction site when people started arriving this week.
TIEC Chief Operating Officer Sharon Decker explained what happened. “When we took on the Games, we did have big ideas and big dreams, and still do. This is not a one-time event for us. This is a long-term facility with a grand vision for bringing horse sport here from around the world forever. We had less than 22 months to prepare, and we just didn’t quite accomplish what we set out to do,” she said.
Sharon commented that efforts had to focus on the courses for cross-country and the driving marathon, but intense summer heat and heavy rainfall hindered progress.
“So we just got behind and we had to make some choices and priorities,” she concluded.
Plans for the WEQx Games, a variety of non-WEG competitions, were scrapped weeks ago, while the equine demonstrations and expo acts for the first week of WEG have been cancelled because other horses had to be moved into the barn they would have used.
Now, however, the big question is, what will happen as Hurricane Florence heads toward the U.S.?
While North Carolina braces for the onslaught of a storm that is being called a “monster” and which some forecasters are predicting could be bigger than 1954’s Hurricane Hazel, the largest hurricane in the area to date, WEG and FEI officials are preparing for a number of “what if” scenarios. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, who was supposed to speak at the opening celebration, was represented by his wife—who pointed out he was busy elsewhere dealing with the hurricane situation, mandating coastal evacuations and readying the National Guard.
Although forecasters are dealing with a number of possibilities, Florence seems likely to make a direct hit on the coast, rather than 250 miles west in the Tryon area, but all the scenarios call for massive amounts of rainfall that could flood the grounds and cause postponement of competition if the downpour begins Thursday night as expected. Although the stabling is secure and has served as a “safe haven” for equine refugees from other hurricanes in the past, there are worries about eventing cross country, which is scheduled to run on Saturday because a deluge is predicted and flooding is possible.
Sharon said the organization’s first concern is the safety of horses, riders and everyone else on the grounds. There has been an issue with inadequate housing for grooms, some of whom are living in tents, but Sharon said they would be moved to permanent housing at TIEC.
While plans to rearrange postponed competitions are in place, a statement from the FEI also mentioned the words “potential cancellation,” saying if necessary, that and changes to the schedule, would be done in accordance with FEI general regulations. The organizers also are working with companies that are flying in horses and carrying them home. Meanwhile, some fans are thinking twice and have cancelled hotel reservations, while flight cancellations by commercial airlines also loom.
It’s a shame, because the stage was set for fabulous sport, with most of the big names in the equestrian world on hand. There are hopes the storm will not have enough of an impact to upend the competition for which so many have prepared themselves and their horses for so long.
Not only will nations in the three Olympic disciplines of dressage, show jumping and eventing be looking for medals, they also are seeking Olympic qualification through a top-six finish. The terms of qualification are more generous than they were at the 2014 WEG—the USA’s fourth-place there in dressage, for instance, wasn’t good enough to qualify it for the 2016 Olympics, so the squad had to earn its ticket for Rio at the Pan American Games in Toronto.
As always, there have been some high-profile dropouts, but the list of participants is star-studded. Here are my predictions for dressage, show jumping and eventing.
Dressage offers the possibility for the U.S. of repeating the silver medal the nation won in 2002 at the WEG in Jerez, Spain, the best finish ever for an American team in the discipline. Steffen Peters has a new mount in Suppenkasper, but his experience should outweigh mileage with the horse. Salvino is making his first championship appearance with Adrienne Lyle, who has an Olympics and another WEG under her belt and can bolster Laura and Kasey Perry-Glass, brilliant at Aachen with Dublet.
Germany seems to be unbeatable with the World’s No. 1 dressage rider, Isabell Werth leading the way on her favorite horse, Bella Rose. Although that nation has suffered a couple of dropouts along the road to WEG, its depth is such that having a few contenders fall by the wayside hardly matters. But the U.S. certainly is a bigger threat for gold than it has been in the past.
Denmark, which appeared to be a podium threat at one time, lost not only its top horse, Upattergard’s Cassidy and even the reserve horse that replaced him had to withdraw. So the chief contenders besides the U.S. for spots on the team podium would seem to be the Netherlands, led by Edward Gal on Glock’s Zonik; Sweden and Great Britain. Though they aren’t as strong as they were when Valegro was the world’s star, the Brits have what could be a new icon in Charlotte Dujardin’s ride, Mount St. John Freestyle, AKA Mrs. Valegro. My prediction: Germany, USA, Britain, with the Dutch as a possibility.
The real excitement comes with the individual honors. Isabell is the favorite, of course, but her teammate Sonke Rothenberger and Cosmo could be in for a piece of it, though they skipped Aachen and had to prove they were ready to go with a convincing performance at the final show before the team was named.
Laura and Verdades should be on the podium—they have bested Isabell in the past—and although Charlotte has competed with Freestyle outside Britain only once, she might have a shot at individual honors. But my prediction is that Isabell wins, with Laura a very close second and Charlotte third. Kasey Perry-Glass could also threaten for bronze.
In show jumping, the U.S. is led by McLain Ward and his new mount, Clinta, who already has established an international reputation. Laura Kraut, who rode on the 2008 Olympic gold medal team with McLain, made a comeback with Zeremonie at the Dublin show to score two clear rounds. The other half of the squad is championship newbies on spectacular mounts: Devin Ryan, second in the Longines FEI World Cup™ finals with Eddie Blue and Adrienne Sternlicht on Cristalline.
The list of medal threats in show jumping is far longer than in dressage and eventing. They include the Germans, of course, even though they have a relatively young squad, along with Ireland, Belgium and the Dutch (with World No. 1 Harrie Smolders). Also consider the Swedes and the French, who can never be counted out, no matter how they look on paper. Figure the U.S., Germany and the Irish on the team podium, though it’s difficult to state in which order.
McLain certainly has a shot at the individual world championship, which no longer will be decided with the controversial “Final Four” switching of horses. Harrie should be in there, along with Ireland’s Cian O’Connor, perhaps Canada’s Eric Lamaze and maybe Sweden’s Henrik von Eckermann. Five competitions until the individual medals mean a lot can go wrong, and McLain’s horse is untested in that type of format. But this may well be his year to claim an individual medal in the WEG, after just missing out on making the Final Four last time in Normandy.
Eventing appears to be the weakest of the U.S. squads. Marilyn Little had to withdraw the lovely RF Scandalous after a minor injury. She was replaced by Will Coleman and Tight Lines. Boyd Martin’s Tsetserleg is untested in a championship, but Boyd has a habit of coming through. Olympic individual bronze medalist Phillip Dutton has the strongest hand for U.S. individual medal with Z. Lynn Symansky and the speedy Donner should shine on cross-country, while Lauren Kieffer learned a hard lesson with elimination at the Rio Olympics and is wiser and more experienced with a different mount, Vermiculus, for this time around.
Eventing performance director Eric Duvander has had less than a year at the helm, but he already has been impressive, and the team is enthusiastic about him. His presence can make a difference.
There is talk of shortening the cross-country course if necessary, depending on what happens with the hurricane, so it’s really tough to predict the outcome of eventing. It’s possible that the show jumping phase will have to come before cross-country because of weather, so everything’s up in the air.
All being equal, look for Germany to claim gold, even without Michael Jung who dropped out after an injury to fischerRocana. Ingrid Klimke (Hale Bob OLD) and Julia Krajewski (Chipmunk) are formidable and either could find themselves on the podium as individuals. New Zealand looks like silver with the terrific husband/wife combo of Tim and Jonelle Price. Australia lost traction when Sam Griffiths had to withdraw Paulank Brockagh, but Chris Burton is a great rider and could threaten for individual honors with Cooley Lands. As I said in terms of the show jumping, no matter how they look on paper, don’t underestimate the French.
The WEG is always interesting, but with the complications posed by Florence, be prepared for some unexpected results.