Sunday, 01 August 2021
Cross-country is arguably the highlight of any eventing competition, and today’s Olympic action certainly didn’t disappoint. With the leaderboard very tight after two days of dressage, there was everything to play for and much excitement.
The action took place at Sea Forest Park, a reclaimed island in Tokyo Bay that was previously a landfill site. Course designer Derek di Grazia had made full use of the man-made terrain, creating a tight, twisting course that utilised every slope and undulation available.
The horses made the one hour journey from the Equestrian Park at Bajikoen after the conclusion of yesterday’s dressage session, staying in air-conditioned temporary stabling overnight before an early start this morning to beat the worst of the heat.
An early fall from the first rider out on course meant that it was down to Team GB pathfinders Oliver Townend and Ballaghmor Class to give those watching their first taste of how Derek di Grazia’s course would ride. Karyn Shuter, Angela Hislop and Val Ryan’s 14-year-old gelding proved once again why he’s considered one of the best event horses in the world – having already achieved six top-five CCI5* finishes, including two wins, in his career – by putting in a masterclass with Oliver in cross-country riding. They sailed home a full five seconds under the optimum time, despite earlier consensus that the time would prove very influential.
“We know he’s special, anybody who watches eventing knows he’s special, but he’s tough and digs deep,” said Oliver. “Early on, I thought he was getting slightly away from me – in fact, there were a couple of places where he was in control and I wasn’t – but I sat behind him and found good distances. Once I got into the course, I started picking up good, big, quick distances – almost racing distances – to the straightforward fences and he answered beautifully.
“His pedigree is part of what makes him good, but it’s mentality more than anything – he’s tough in every aspect of life. He’s quirky, but he’s tough and the bottom line is that he wants to do his job more than most horses.
“I have a lot of trust in Derek di Grazia’s courses, I think the man’s one of the best – if not the best – in the world at what he’s doing, and even when I think a distance is one way, I know that if it isn’t, then it’s a safe distance.”
And how much is Oliver enjoying this almost perfect journey through his first Olympic Games?
“I don’t enjoy these things until I’m on the plane on the way home – and then I enjoy it more than you can ever imagine!” he laughed. “Right now, though, I’m very happy. I just need to keep concentrating on my job and what will be, will be.”
Laura Collett and London 52 exploded out of the start box and carried on in the same manner around the whole course. The 12-year-old gelding, who Laura co-owns with Karen Bartlett and Keith Scott, ate up Derek di Grazia’s track in the same manner that saw him and Laura take the CCI5* title at Pau last autumn. They finished a few seconds under the optimum time, still full of running.
“I’m not really sure I’ve got any words for it, to be honest,” said an emotional Laura afterwards. “I’ve always said he’s a superstar, and he went out and proved to everyone just how good he is. I’m just so relieved that I did my job – we had to fight for our place here and he’s just proved to everyone that he well and truly deserved it, and I just can’t tell you how proud of him I am.
“Everything came up so quickly out there and you didn’t have a second to think, which is probably a good thing! You just had to get on with it – everything came up as I walked it and as we planned. That kept giving me confidence and it was just ticking boxes really. He cruised the whole way and we knew from watching Oliver that we were going to be down for the first few minutes, but I just opened him up and off he went. It’s an amazing feeling.
“I just do the steering – on a horse like that, it’s about not interfering with him. He knows his job now – yes, we’ve had our ups and downs in the past, but it’s been a learning curve and since Pau last year he’s changed. He’s come out here at the Olympic Games with all the belief, and he’s just phenomenal. He’s a big horse, but he’s so adjustable – he rides like a pony – he’s got eight gears, he listens and he was foot-perfect.”
A score of 25.8 had left Laura disappointed after her dressage test on Friday, but today’s performance and time to reflect has left her in a much more positive headspace.
“It’s a massive surprise to be so far up after dressage. I was disappointed with the test, but luckily it ended up not being too bad [compared to everyone else] and, looking back on it, going out there today without the pressure of being in gold medal position was probably a blessing in disguise. It’s all about fighting for it now and climbing the leaderboard.”
With two strong performances already in the bag, it was down to the anchor combination of Tom McEwen and 14-year-old Toledo de Kerser, who’s owned by Fred and Penny Barker, Jane Inns and Ali McEwen, to fully shore up Team GB’s cross-country dominance – which they did with aplomb. With the luxury of time in hand, Tom played it safe with a long route towards the end of the course, going on to cruise home a full five seconds inside the time.
“That felt absolutely incredible,” said Tom. “He was just phenomenal, so straight and wanting to jump every fence – I’m just really pleased that I could give him the ride he deserved.
“It wasn’t planned to do the long route at the last water, but I saw such a great shot and I had so much time that I decided that I didn’t need to go flying into the water, so I just popped round the long way. I had it in mind and he was so comfortable with the time and the course that I thought it wasn’t really a risk worth taking – a nice S-bend might supple him up for tomorrow!
“We’ve been walking the course for what feels like a month, but to be honest we needed it because it’s only really stuck in my head from yesterday. It all rode well, the other two gave me the most amazing feedback and confidence that the lines we’d been walking were the correct ones – I’m not sure if it makes it easier or harder when someone on your team has made it look so easy!
“I wouldn’t change my horse for anybody’s and I know the other two would say the same about theirs. We’re all very happy. Hopefully the horses come out of it well – they’ve finished up really well and been relaxed in the stables, and obviously they’ve got the air conditioning – we’re the ones getting hot!”
Tom was quick to praise those working behind the scenes, including as part of British Equestrian’s lottery-funded World Class Programme, as being integral to today’s successes.
“The team’s been phenomenal, more importantly I think beyond what you see from us three riders – we’ve got strength and depth to get here, but actually it’s the whole team support behind us. The funding from The National Lottery really provides a great support team – everything that’s done behind the scenes is why us three could show off on scenes today.”
Just seven combinations finished clear inside the time in what proved to be a very influential cross-country phase, including the three for Team GB. These textbook performances further cement Great Britain’s place at the top of the leaderboard, now sitting 17.9 penalties ahead of second-placed Australia on a total of 78.3. A triggered frangible device for Germany’s Michael Jung has opened the door for Oliver and Ballaghmor Class to take the lead in the individual standings on 23.6, while Laura and London 52 rise to bronze medal position overnight on 25.8. Tom and Toledo de Kerser are in sixth on 28.9, less than a pole off the podium, meaning there’s still all to play for tomorrow.
The full leaderboard after cross-country is available here.
The horses will now travel back to Equestrian Park ahead of tomorrow’s showjumping phase, which will take place in the evening under floodlights. All remaining team riders will compete to decide the final standings, then the top 25 combinations will jump again for individual honours.
The action kicks off at 09:00 BST, and live coverage is available from 08:50 on Discovery+ and Eurosport Player. Some coverage will be available as part of BBC One’s Olympic programme that starts at 09:00 BST. Full viewing details are available here.