The British team cemented their gold medal position at the Tokyo Olympics with three magnificent cross-country performances, all clear inside the time. Added to that, their first rider, Oliver Townend, holds pole position individually after the dressage leader, Germany’s Michael Jung, picked up 11 penalties for triggering a frangible device.
The Brits were the only team not to add anything to their dressage scores, and their total score of 78.3 means they have 17.9 penalties in hand over the Australians, who have soared up from sixth to silver after very good cross-country rounds.
USA’s three riders all also jumped strong clears round Derek di Grazia’s track, each with a handful of time-faults, and the team lies in fifth place going into the final day of showjumping - up from eighth after dressage.
Townend set the standard for the day; he was second out on course, but as the first rider, Thailand’s Arinadtha Chavatanont, fell on landing into the first water at fence 5, he was essentially the test pilot. Ballaghmor Class, the winner of Burghley in 2017 and Kentucky this spring, was supremely polished and came home five seconds under the optimum time of 7 minutes 45 seconds, having remained in perfect balance and rhythm all the way.
Townend, who, despite his vast experience, is an Olympic debutant, said: “He’s an unbelievable horse and anyone who watches him knows that. He’s competed at the highest level and gone through the barrier of fitness time and time again. He’s very tough and very very special. Early on I thought he was slightly running away with me; in fact, in a couple of places I thought he was in control, but I sat behind him and tried to find good distances for him and once he got into the course I started picking up very good quick, big, fast distances – almost racing distances – to the straightforward fences and he answered beautifully.”
Doug Payne, the first of the US riders, followed Townend on course, and Vandiver posted a very secure result, just appearing to tire a little in the last minute and collecting 6.8 time penalties.
“I couldn’t ask for more - ‘Quinn’ tried his heart out and brought home the first clear for the team,” said Payne.
Each American athlete was quicker than his predecessor; Philip Dutton, who was held on course, brought Z home with 4.8 time-faults. They did survive a heart-stopping moment at 20c, the solid corner in the final water complex when Z slid across in on his belly. But Dutton never moved in the saddle and they jumped the final element as nothing had happened. The 57-year-old has now extended his stretch of clear cross-country rounds at the Olympics to six from six.
“It was hard work," Dutton admitted, "spending a lot of time accelerating and then slowing down, but we knew that was coming so we had to get the horses fit and prepared for that.”
Boyd Martin, last to go for the US, had to work to get his line through the Mt Fuji drop combination at 16abc on Tsetserleg, but the pair galloped on to record just 3.2 time-faults. Martin is the best-placed of the three in 14th with 34.3 penalties.
Martin noted, “The heat knocked my horse around, for sure. Like in Kentucky, when it’s cold and we’re in the spring weather, they feel fresher, and I felt like he was a bit winded by the second minute here, which is unusual. Initially, I was hoping for a longer course because I thought it would suit my horses with a lot of stamina and endurance, but I’m glad it wasn’t as it would have been an ugly picture.”
Dutton is 17th with 35.3, and Payne is 23rd with 39.8. Their combined team score of 109.4 is 5.4pen behind fourth-placed New Zealand and 12.3pen behind France, who occupy the bronze medal position.
The Germans are in sixth. Even before the dual Olympic champion Jung collected those surprising 11 penalties - he was still well inside the time - their day had not gone to plan, because Sandra Auffarth had had a run-out on the hard-pulling Viamant Du Matz.
They do still lie in individual silver position, however, courtesy of Julia Krajewski. She was excellent on the mare Amande De B’Neville and only added 0.4pen for one second over the optimum time to her dressage mark of 25.6, two penalties behind Oliver Townend.
Asked whether she had enjoyed her cross-country round, Krajewski replied: “ I could really only enjoy the first three-quarters of it - the last quarter I had to dig deep. ‘Mandy’ was rather spooky with the cameras [which ran on a rail alongside part of the track], to my surprise, but she’s so honest and is always trying to do everything I ask of her. I’m super proud of my horse. I 100% trust her - at the end of it all, we put ourselves in their hands.”
Britain’s Laura Collett nailed her cross-country round on London 52 and remains on her dressage score of 25.8 in the individual bronze medal position. Confident, brave and fast, Collett - and British number three Tom McEwen - supported Oliver Townend in showing that British cross-country riding is still the best in the world.
Collett, who lost sight in one eye in a terrible fall in 2013, said: “That horse [London 52] is unbelievable. He’s still quite inexperienced, and to come here and perform like that makes me very proud and quite emotional.
“I can’t explain how quickly everything comes up on this course; it’s bang bang bang - I’d quite like to do it again and enjoy it this time. We’ve walked it, we know what’s coming - for them [the horses] it’s a surprise and they’ve got to think quicker than we have.”
One penalty behind Collett is the best of the New Zealanders, Tim Price, who just picked up 1.2 time-faults with the relatively inexperienced Vitali.
And although hopes of a Japanese team medal on home soil were dashed when first Toshiyuki Tanaka refused on Talma D’Allou and then Yoshiaki Oiwa parted ways from Calle 44 when jumping the Mt Fuji drop - oddly, he did something similar when in the lead after dressage at the London Olympics in 2012 - Kazuma Tomoto still carries the hopes of his nation. The man who jumped his first cross-country fence only five years ago was bold and fast across country on Vinci De La Vigne for 1.2 time-faults and is in fifth place. Given his vast showjumping experience, could he put pressure on those above him and make dreams come true?
Both Britain’s Tom McEwen, sixth, and Australia’s Andrew Hoy, seventh, are sitting on first-class showjumpers in Toledo De Kerser and Vassily De Lassos; they will be well-placed to capitalize on any mistakes from the top few. Hoy was held on course for a considerable amount of time when Switzerland’s Jet Set, ridden by Robin Godel, suffered an injury. Jet Set, a former ride of the Swiss team’s cross-country coach, multiple CCI5* winner Andrew Nicholson, was seen being driven off the course to the on-site veterinary clinic in a horse ambulance, so the hopes are that the injury is not too serious.
Ultimately Derek di Grazia’s cross-country track, beautifully built and decorated by Britain’s David Evans and his team on the emerald jewel that is Sea Forest Island in Tokyo Bay, produced a highly exciting competition. With just three per team, all three scores to count, small errors had major impacts.
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