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Sunday, July 29, 2012

New Faces, Nations Lead After Eventing Dressage

Individual leaders after eventing dressage (from left): Yoshiaki Oiwa of Japan, Stefano Brecciaroli of Italy, and Mark Todd of New Zealand. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Hey, who are those faces representing the finest in international eventing competition?

Surprising many in the audience at Greenwich Park--and at least one of the riders himself--the usual powerhouses of Germany, Australia, Great Britain, and the U.S. weren't represented in the individual standings after eventing dressage concluded today. Topping them all was a rider pretty much nobody has heard of, from a nation that until today wasn't a blip on the eventing community's radar: Japan.

But Yoshiaki "Yoshi" Oiwa, 36, put in a stellar dressage test aboard the eleven-year-old Selle Francais mare Noonday de Conde (by Fidji du Fleury) to top the leader board with just 38.1 penalty points.

Nobody seemed more astonished at Oiwa's victory than the man himself.

"I couldn't believe it," Oiwa said of seeing his score. "Probably everybody was a little bit [shocked]. Nobody expected it. There are not many Japanese media here," he observed dryly.

Oiwa seemed a bit overwhelmed during the post-competition press conference, his reserved demeanor contrasting with the easy smiles from the second- and third-placed finishers, Italy's Stefano Brecciaroli and New Zealand's Mark Todd. Brecciaroli rode Apollo WD Wendi Kurt Hoev to 38.5 penalty points, and "Toddy" and Campino came in at 39.1.

For three years Oiwa has been based in Germany. He trains with Dirk Schrade, who's on this year's German eventing team with the horse King Artus.

Today's wild weather affected some of the rides. After a sunny and pleasant morning, the clouds rolled in and the wind kicked up almost exactly at noon. Soon Greenwich Park was deluged with rain, lightning, and thunder that forced the competition to cease for about ten minutes. The rest of the afternoon, it was on-and-off thunderstorms and rain showers interspersed with sunny breaks. Your reporter has never made so many quick outerwear clothing changes in her life.

Oiwa's mount had one spook at a crack of thunder. Mark Todd said, "There was a huge clap of thunder when I was getting on, and it was going on when the riders before me were in the ring. I was relieved that it let up, and the weather was fine for my ride."

The footing in the equestrian stadium was fine despite the rain, but competitors already dubious that they will be able to make the time on tomorrow's twisty-turny, super-hilly cross-country course are wondering what additional rain might do.

"If we get rain it will get slippery," Todd said. (We'll have to see about that, considering course designer Sue Benson's assurance that the ground has outstanding drainage.)

Also at the post-dressage press conference was Hans Melzer, the German eventing team's chef d'equipe and national coach. Although his team currently lies in first place, Melzer fielded questions about the (comparatively speaking) disappointing performance from 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games individual gold medalists, Michael Jung and Sam, whose two mistakes (a break to canter and an anticipated walk-canter transition) put them in eleventh place with 40.6.

"Michael Jung can live with the result because he never had an atmosphere like this before in eventing--this big, beautiful stadium, so many spectators," Melzer said.

Well, I beg to differ: The stadium and the atmosphere at the WEG in Kentucky was equally electric, if not more so. And I'll leave it at that.

At the end of the day (literally), the fact that we're welcoming new faces and new nations into the top ranks of equestrian sport is a welcome and refreshing trend. More important, it helps to show the International Olympic Committee that many nations indeed contend in equestrian sports--a very important factor in helping to ensure that horse sports remain on the Olympic program.

Tomorrow: cross-country!

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