WORLD number one, Oliver Townend, gave the British eventing team the best possible start when taking the individual lead as the dressage phase kicked off eventing at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Baji Koen today.
Going second in the first of today’s two sessions, with a further 20 horse-and-rider combinations to go tomorrow morning, the 38-year-old athlete who is a triple European team gold medallist, produced what he described as “a very safe test” for a score of 23.6 with the Courage II-sired Irish Sport Horse gelding, Ballaghmor Class.
Team-mate, Laura Collett, then backed that up with a score of 25.80 for overnight fourth place individually with London 52, but she wasn’t overly pleased with her own performance. “He’s been phenomenal all year and I was aiming for (a score of) 21/22. This year he’s been very close to Ballaghmor Class, but unfortunately it didn’t come off today”, said the rider who, with the same horse, won the CCI5*-L at Pau, France last October.
However her result was plenty good enough to secure pole position for her country this evening.
Ireland in 13th
Ireland are lying 13th of the 15 teams currently, with Sarah Ennis still to go. Sam Watson was first into the arena for Ireland with Vahe Bogossian’s Irish Sport Horse Tullabeg Flamenco (Tullabeg Fusion x Ardenteggle Sir), bred by Nick Cousins and they scored 34.3 to hold 28th place at the moment.
Watson was pleased with the test but disappointed with the mark. “I was pleased with the horse and I think the foundations were there,” he commented afterwards. “The softness, suppleness, and relaxation were all there. I possibly didn’t give him enough punch and enough X-Factor for what they are looking for at the Olympic Games.
“It was a little safe and then I still made a small mistake, which was on me, I shouldn’t be missing changes at the Olympic Games. I am pretty happy with the horse; I am a little disappointed with the mark and there are a few things that I could have done better."
Austin O’Connor couldn’t have gotten much of a later call up to start in his third Olympic Games with the Kate Garvey-bred Colorado Blue (Jaguar Mail x Rock Kind), owned by the Salty Syndicate. They performed their test towards the end of Friday’s session to finish on a penalty score of 38. They sit in 34th place individually.
Difficulty in the flying changes saw the scores drop after a lovely start to the test. “Coming out of the ring and seeing that score, I am naturally disappointed. There is no hiding that fact,” commented O’Connor after his test.
“I don’t know where it went wrong, I think the horse got a little bit shy in the ring. From a horse that has been doing good flying changes, he was seeing imaginary show jumps tonight and getting a bit high! It is over now, and the beauty of this sport is that there are two more days to look forward to.”
It’s a fascinating leaderboard with two-thirds of the dressage competitors now completed. Lying second are Sweden, with the hosts from Japan in third and China in fourth place. Few would have expected Germany to be lying fifth and New Zealand, France, Switzerland, USA and Australia stacking up behind them in the field of 15 nations.
A brilliant ride by China’s Alex Hua Tian with Don Geniro brought him closest to Townend’s leading score when putting 23.90 on the board for individual second place while Germany’s Julia Krajewski and Amande de B’Neville lie third on 25.20.
The short action-packed dressage test, specially created for these Olympic Games, takes just 3.5 minutes to complete and, underlining the quality of the field, a total of seven combinations scored below 30 during this morning’s first session. Three more joined that elite group as the day progressed and amongst them was India’s Fouad Mirza riding the experienced 15-year-old gelding Seigneur that competed so successfully for Germany’s Bettina Hoy.
“I’m so lucky to ride such a great horse, he’s a gentleman in every sense, kind and honest”, said the athlete who is only the third rider from his country to compete in Olympic eventing.
Overnight there were some changes to the teams, with both Australia’s Stuart Tinney (Leporis) and Ireland’s Cathal Daniels (Rioghan Rua) withdrawing. Tinney has been replaced by Kevin McNab (Don Quidam) and Daniels by Austin O’Connor (Colorado Blue).
Townend said he wasn’t bothered by the pressure of being second into the arena and first to ride for his country. “It wouldn’t be my chosen job in life to be pathfinder but at the same time the first bit is out of the way and he’s (Ballaghmor Class) done a very commendable job. So fingers crossed we keep the work up over the next three or four days and see where we end up”.
There is a lot of talk about the course at Sea Forest where the cross-country phase will take place early on Sunday morning.
“It’s very intense,” Townend said about the track designed by America’s Derek di Grazia. “You’re always on the climb or camber or in the water, or in a combination. The questions are extremely fair, it’s very horse friendly, and if you took each fence individually there wouldn’t be too many problems but at the same time when you add the heat, the terrain, the Olympic pressure and then speed on top of that, it’s going to be causing a lot of trouble and it’s going to be very difficult to get the time.
“Derek is a horseman to start with, and I think he’s a special, talented man at the job. He wants the horses to see where they are going, there’s no tricks out there. Derek doesn’t try to catch horses out, he builds very see-able questions and lets the terrain and the speed do the job for him”, Townend added.