London Olympics cross-country course designer Sue Benson's track was every bit as twisty, turny, hilly, and tight as she'd predicted.
Of the 74 starters, nine finished the 5,728-meter course under the optimum time of 10:03.
Nine starters, including U.S. riders Tiana Coudray on Ringwood Magister and Will Coleman on Twizzel, had jumping penalties.
Fifteen pairs were eliminated after falls of horse or rider (or both) on course.
Team U.S.A. remained upright, but a fall knocked yesterday's individual dressage leader, Yoshiaki Oiwa of Japan, out of contention. It also wasn't a good day for Team Canada: Hawley Bennett-Awad on Gin & Juice, Peter Barry on Kilrodan Abbott, and Rebecca Howard on Riddle Master all suffered falls. Bennett-Awad's fall caused the most concern when it produced the longest delay on course of the day--at least 30 minutes--and word got back to the press corps that ambulances had been summoned for both horse and rider.
"She is in hospital. She is fine but she is under observation," Anne-Mette Binder (DEN), president of the Olympic eventing ground jury, reported at a press conference held about 6.5 hours after Bennett-Awad's fall. "That is all the information we have right now."
Binder also reported that, as far as she knew, the course produced "no major injuries for horses or riders."
But the Greenwich Park footing itself caused plenty of slippery going, particularly in the early-afternoon hours (U.S. rider Boyd Martin was the first to go at 12:30 p.m.). According to Benson, the course designer, yesterday's downpours slicked up the turf. The favorable weather conditions (mostly sunny and in the upper 60s with a breeze) helped the track to dry up somewhat as the day progressed.
Early riders shared the information about the couse conditions with those later to go, and it seemed almost everybody broke out the big guns. Karen O'Connor of the U.S. called the track "very slippery" and said she changed Mr. Medicott to bigger studs before her ride. Another veteran, Great Britain's Mary King, said, "I said, give me the biggest [studs] you've got!" Her mount, Imperial Cavalier, went on course with 1.5-inch studs behind and slightly smaller cleats in front, she said.
Jamaican rider Samantha Albert's horse Carraig Dubh slipped and almost fell into the first element of fence 5abc, the Chestnut Logs. Bendigo, ridden by Clayton Fredericks of Australia, slipped after successfully landing the drop at fence 20ab, the Royal Greenwich Borough. The horse's hindquarters went out from under him and both horse and rider went down.
Two fences caused the lion's share of the day's problems. One was fence 3ab, the Bandstand Rails, two relatively straightforward-looking angled fences--although both had frangible pins. This is the fence at which Hawley-Awad fell. The other was fence 23, the Cricket Ball Basket, another relatively straightforward obstacle, which also was the site of several falls.
The stream of course holds meant that the day wrapped up almost an hour late. Of yesterday's dressage leaders, Italy's Stefano Brecciaroli on Apollo WD Wendi Kurt Hoev lost his invitation to the post-competition press conference after incurring 11.60 time penalties. Only Mark Todd of New Zealand on Campino remained in the top three, staying in third place individually with an uncharacteristic 0.40 time fault.
Campino looked tired by the end of the course, and evidently he felt the way he looked. "I felt the last few minutes I'd have to get off and carry him," Todd said.
Another tired horse was Lionheart, ridden by William Fox-Pitt of Great Britain to 9.20 time faults.
"Up the hill at the back, he just didn't take me," Fox-Pitt said afterward. "It's not like him; he's a very forward, athletic horse. I've never had to ride with spurs before."
Fox-Pitt got props from the horsemen in attendance for clearly easing up on Lionheart as they came down the stretch to the final fence. That's what you do "when you realize that you're not going to make the time," he said.
But the course seemed to suit Butts Abraxxas just fine. With Ingrid Klimke of Germany he blazed around in 9:55 and took the individual lead, thanks to their dressage score of 39.30. It also suited Sara Algotsson Ostholt of Sweden, whose horse Wega finished exactly at the optimum time and who's now tied with Abraxxas thanks to his identical dressage score.
The team competition is shaping up to be a fierce battle between first-placed Germany (124.70 total penalty points after xc) and Great Britain (130.20). Sweden lies third with 131.40. New Zealand stands fourth (133.40), and the U.S. is in fifth place (155.20).
Philip Dutton of the U.S. on Mystery Whisper is the highest-ranked American: twelfth with 2.80 time penalties. Karen O'Connor on Mr. Medicott is currently tied for twenty-fourth (5.60 time penalties). Boyd Martin on Otis Barbotiere are in twenty-sixth position with 3.60 time penalties. Twizzel refused the drop (20a), incurring 20 jumping penalties for Will Coleman, and also racked up 16.40 time penalties.
"I'm really disappointed," Coleman said afterward. "I thought he was kind of going off, and then we weren't."
"You're trying to finish for your team," Coleman added.
It was left to Dutton, last to go for Team U.S.A., to try to make a good showing. "I went flat-out from start to finish," he said. He called Mystery Whisper "very ridable, but he's a warmblood, so he's not as fast, and the crowds backed him off a bit." Dutton also went in with plenty of ammunition: "as big studs as I've ever had behind," he said.
Dutton praised his horse as strong in all three phases. The opportunity to ride him was "the chance of a lifetime," he said.
For her part, course designer Sue Benson expressed great satisfaction with the course and the day.
"I think it's been a truly marvelous day for the sport," she said. "The spectators were amazing. The horses were very fit, and we saw wonderful riding. I think the sport should have gone up in everyone's estimation."
Asked about the day's casualties (ten falls total), Benson said: "Your dream is to have no horse falls, but at an Olympic Games you can't have that dream." She said that "chefs, coaches, and riders need to take responsibility" for ensuring that horses are properly prepared and ridden for a course of this magnitude, in whatever weather and footing conditions they may encounter. "The cricket fence," she said, referring to fence 23, "is straightforward, but you need to take a pull [strong half-halt] after that long gallop [approach] and slow down."
Of the turf, Benson said: "We inherited very poor footing." She praised the contractor that has worked for two years (although she wished she'd had three) "to make great galloping ground." But she did acknowledge that "the heavy showers yesterday had some effect on the track."
Eventing fans will be waiting anxiously for tomorrow morning's second horse inspection. As Fox-Pitt pointed out, "The studs have ripped some shoes off. Horses were twisting and just twisting their shoes off. There could be the odd bruised foot."