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May 18, 2009--Another eventing tragedy, the fatal accident involving two-time Olympic gold medalist Phillip Dutton and Bailey Wick, was the high-profile problem at the Jersey Fresh competition earlier this month.
Phillip took the blame for the mishap, which sadly demonstrated that even one of the world's most experienced riders can misjudge his approach at a fence. The risk is always there when horses are competing at speed, no matter what sport they're involved in, whether it's racing, polo or eventing.
But the number of horses who looked quite tired at Jersey Fresh even before they finished cross-country also turned out to be a concern. Course designer John Williams had his thoughts about why that was the case. To some extent, in his view, the reason related to utilizing the short format, as opposed to dealing with some heat, humidity or ground that was a little sticky in spots after more than a week of rain at Jersey Fresh's Horse Park of New Jersey venue.
The tracks were well within the specifications for the levels offered; a two- and three-star CCI and a three-star CIC (which has a shorter cross-country route than the equivalent CCI), and officials saw no need to change the optimum times that originally had been set for those courses due to conditions. Their conclusion: "There wasn't anything out there that was inappropriate," John said.
But he added, "I always see more tired horses than I would like to see, whether it's this competition or Rolex or wherever. These days, we deal more often with two different kinds of tired. One is just simply tired. The other is that percentage of horses whose internal systems don't carry away the lactic acid build-up quickly enough. Somewhere around eight or nine minutes, they get drastically fatigued."
He's seeing it more with the use of the short format that became mandatory at the upper levels a few years ago.
"I think that happened a whole lot less when we still had roads and tracks and a steeplechase," contended John, referring to the traditional long format that required more space, workers and time than just running cross-country without any preamble.
"I've always believed that and I think I always will, until some very good veterinary research can prove otherwise," he said.
Explaining his thinking, which might seem counterintuitive to some, he noted, "Several minutes of steeplechase an hour or so prior to cross-country primes the horses' bodies so that the systems that get rid of that lactic acid are already primed and pumped and in good working order from the moment they leave the start box on phase D. Without that proper warm-up, there is a percentage of horses that suffer from that. That I think primarily is what I saw [on cross-country day at Jersey Fresh] with tired horses. Most you could see from one moment to the next, when all of a sudden their muscles weren't responding as well anymore. There were probably a couple of unfit horses that were simply a bit tired at the end, but I saw more of the ones that I feel would have benefitted from a good old-fashioned three-day event."
No entry in the three-star CCI or CIC made the optimum time; only three horses of the 34 that started in the two-star CCI managed it.
Olympian Becky Holder, who rode in both the two-star and the three-star CIC, agreed with two-star winner Emily Beshear that difficulty came near the end of the two-star for a number of entries, as opposed to the CIC, for instance, where more occurred earlier on the course.
"The 2-star level is a big step up, and it might be the first time someone has felt a horse get tired on them near the end of a course," she said.
Explaining why a two-star CCI can be difficult for riders to gauge properly in terms of how much gas their horses have left in the tank, Becky said, "You finish a one-star, they're still pulling at the finish flags. It's a perspective you get with experience, and there's often a lot of people doing it (a two-star) for the first time who feel the horse is going great and then suddenly at the minute mark (60 or 90 seconds from home, about a minute beyond the normal horse trial course), they're not going well anymore and need a different ride. You're going to feel a different horse than you've felt before."
In addition to tired horses, I also saw riders who didn't look as if they belonged at the levels where they were competing. Some appeared unfit; others were off-balance, leading their horses to become so as well. Qualifications for moving up have been tightened, and officials are less reluctant to stop people on course these days if they feel they are not riding well, but three or four that I would have stopped had I been an official continued blithely on their way through the good graces of their horses, though some did run into trouble eventually. Luckily, no major injuries resulted. But that was luck, and in eventing, it's not always with you.
The Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials, Great Britain's September 4-star event, is not trusting to luck. The competition is cutting the distance of the cross-country course by 600 meters in the interests of safety.
"It is my belief that we often see less-attractive pictures of horse-and-rider combinations after the 10-minute mark," explained Mark Phillips, the course designer, who is also the US eventing coach.
"Making this change therefore means that horses and riders will have jumped the last combination before reaching that stage."
The optimum time will be approximately 10 minutes, 30 seconds for a course, which will now run over a distance of approximately 6,000 meters. This represents a reduction of approximately one minute in the time allowed. The ratio of jumping efforts, one every 145 meters, remains the same.
Burghley's director, Elizabeth Inman, said her event is "leading the way to show that four-star eventing can, within these parameters, produce an exciting competition, a good image for the sport as well as a great day's entertainment for our many visitors. Mike Etherington-Smith, chief executive of British Eventing, is fully supportive of this and hopes it will provide riders with an opportunity to get a feel for a four-star track over a slightly shorter distance." Mike also designs Rolex Kentucky and will be doing the course for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
The U.S.'s WEG Eventing Prospects
As the clock ticks away toward the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games next year, U.S. eventing prospects aren't exactly brilliant.
"If you look at the Rolex Kentucky results, there weren't too many Americans in the top 10," US eventing coach Mark Phillips observed dryly. While Buck Davidson was third with My Boy Bobby, the only others from his country to join him in the top 10 at Rolex were Phillip Dutton, seventh with last year's winner, Connaught, and Stephen Bradley, 10th on Brandenburg's Joshua.
While it seemed to me there was a lot of talent at Jersey Fresh, which, like Rolex, was also a WEG selection trial, "This is more of a home affair here," Mark pointed out. There were no riders on the formidable order of a Lucinda Fredericks or William Fox-Pitt who had come from overseas to compete, so Jersey Fresh had to be kept in perspective.
"We had some nice horses in the CIC, some were coming back from injury, so that was a positive," Mark said.
"We're going to have to see how the year progresses."
Mark thinks the Rolex results might prompt the Europeans to "write us off."
Then he smiled and said, "Hopefully, we can give them a surprise next year."
Perhaps the horses coming back from injury and young ones rising up the ranks can help boost the U.S. cause. He was glad to see Phillip's mount, Tru Luck, and Mara Dean's High Patriot back in form, and he mentioned developing riders Tiana Coudray and Molly Rosin as ones to watch.
The Jersey Fresh CCI 3-star winner, Icarus, with Michael Pollard, may be one to watch, too. He was still full of fire even after stadium jumping, refusing to tolerate the trophy presentation. "He likes to win them but he doesn't like to get them," laughed Michael.
I asked Mark about Icarus. "We have to see what comes next and if he can take the next step forward," he said. There's always that question, isn't there? No matter what you've done, it's the next step that counts.
"There are some positives," said Mark. "But we have a long way to go before we really can be extremely competitive at the World Games."
Gem Twist's Clone
I covered the career of the great Gem Twist from start to finish, privileged to be there for such important moments as double silver at the 1988 Olympics and the Final Four at the 1990 World Equestrian Games, as well as watching this great gray win three American Grand Prix Association championships. I shed a tear at the National Horse Show in 1997 as he was retired. And when I sadly wrote his obituary after he died in 2006, I thought that was the end of a great, long-running story. But it wasn't.
I just visited Gem's clone, Gemini, at the New Jersey farm of his owners, Mary and Frank Chapot. If you told me when I wrote all those pieces about Gem that someday I would be writing about his clone, I would have thought you'd seen one too many episodes of Star Trek.
Gemini arrived this month from Texas, where he was born, and spent the first part of his life at Peter Pletcher's farm. I thought it was almost surreal that I could touch this lively little guy, this gem of science, and he even nipped me. Does he look like Gem? Considering that he's less than 10 months old, it's hard to tell. He's a chestnut; actually a strawberry roan, but "he's getting grayer every day," Frank said about his ever-changing coat color. Mary noted the couple's daughter, Laura, is trying to unearth photos of Gem Twist as a baby so they can compare the two.
Frank gives the colt lessons in the indoor ring, working him lightly on the longe line and teaching him to step over a pole on the ground.
"When will you jump him?" I asked.
"He'll tell us when he's ready," said Frank.
A few minutes later, we were watching the colt in the pasture when all of a sudden, he soared over the 3-foot-9 fence. Although he took a tumble on landing (stopping my heart), Gemini was up quickly, proudly trotting around.
"I guess he's ready," I said. So much for stepping over a pole on the ground.
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