The form book was turned on its head on the second day of the first round of team tests in the Para-Equestrian Dressage competition at this year’s Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, writes Rob Howell.
In a thrilling conclusion to the Grade Ia team competition, Singapore’s Laurentia Tan pushed ahead of the dominant multi-Paralympic and world gold medallist Sophie Christiansen from Great Britain. That was drama enough, but then Italy’s Sara Morganti, one of the last riders to enter the arena, went one step further, edging out Tan to the top spot and moving Christiansen to third as the test, and the day’s competition, came to an end.
Morganti, riding Royal Delight, scored 75.783% to Tan’s 74.552% on Ruben James 2, and Christiansen’s 74.261% on Janeiro 6.
An overwhelmed Morganti said: “I can’t believe it. It was my dream to come first, but Laurentia and Sophie are such good riders that I didn’t think I could. But I worked very hard and I’m just so, so happy.
“My horse in London 2012 was the youngest horse in the Games and now she is a little bit older and we have worked a lot with my personal trainer and the team trainer. There are a lot of people around a Paralympics rider and I’m very lucky. I thought I would never come first before Sophie. It is because I admire her and Laurentia so much that for me this is so precious.”
Tan was equally excited at having gone into the lead. Speaking after her ride she said: “Just wow. It’s unbelievable, a really good result. It was a very smooth ride and I felt I had a very good connection with Reuben while I was out there. Now though it’s just a case of taking it step by step and seeing what happens each day and taking it one day at a time.”
Christiansen admitted being disappointed by the day’s events but remained philosophical. She said: “I haven’t lost any test since London 2012, so it was obviously going to happen one day, but now I’m even more fired up for the rest of the competition. Today he (Janeiro 6) definitely upped it a gear but I always need to watch my tests before I comment on them. Obviously, for me, I can tell you how it felt, but it’s different from what the judges see. It could have been a little better with consistency but at least I’ve got something to work on for the rest of the week.”
First into the arena were the Grade IV riders. The win went to Great Britain’s Sophie Wells, riding Valerius, with 74.595% ahead of her close rival Belgium’s Michèle George, who rode FBW Rainman to score 73.643%. In third place was The Netherlands’ Frank Hosmar on Alphaville N.O.P. with 73.167%.
Wells said of her debut ride at these Games: “I was pleased. He went in and listened to me. It’s his biggest competition so far and he’s not done much this year with one thing or another. He got a little bit tense going around the outside but I reassured him so he came back to me and listened to me through the test. We’ve been working on different areas like the walks and the halt and those things improved and maybe I can build on them.”
The team competition has extra resonance this year as the top three nations secure their team places at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Speaking of Team GB’s chances, Wells added: “We’re hopeful. We’ve got a fair amount of pressure on us, but Lee got 77 yesterday and I just got 74 so that puts us in a good position.”
Belgium’s George comes to these Games as a double London 2012 gold medallist and a runner up from the last Games in Kentucky in 2010. She said: “I am very happy for the first day because I was trying to put my horse safely in the arena and that is what I did, to give him confidence and to discover the arena and how he reacts to the crowd. I am very happy, and I know what to work on. The atmosphere is great, and it was a joy to ride here.”
The Netherlands team has stated publicly that its aim in the team competition is to medal and qualify for Rio. Talking about his ride and part in that effort Hosmar said: “It felt really good. He was really with me, so it was a pity with the last transition but, other than that, I was fairly satisfied. It must get better because I want to win.”
The Grade II team test win went to Great Britain’s reigning Paralympic and European champion Natasha Baker on Cabral, with a score of 73.647%. She was ahead of Rixt van der Horst of The Netherlands, who picked up a valuable 72.618% on her horse Uniek, ahead of Canada’s Beijing 2008 Paralympic gold and silver medallist, Lauren Barwick, riding Off to Paris and scoring 70.176%.
Baker said of her test: “He warmed up really well and I was really pleased with him. I probably allowed a little too much warm-up so I knew I was going to have to work hard in the test.
“He went in there and he found energy from nowhere as he normally does going around the outside, but as soon as I went down that centre line I knew that he was totally with me and listening and he was a really good boy. I wanted a good safe test and in two days time I can move up a gear and go for that little bit more.”
Van der Host added of her performance: “I am very pleased about the test. I was very nervous because it is my first international championship but he was relaxed and I was relaxed. In the beginning he was a bit nervous but later in the test he was much better.”
And Canada’s Barwick was clearly delighted with her performance. “That was electric!” she enthused. “It was a little bit challenging because the cameras weren’t there when we trained and they are big and black so right when the horse went into the arena there was something new which was a bit of a spook. But she settled for me nicely and came back really well. I always ride for today and train for tomorrow so I think that set her up for the rest of the week. Mostly I ride these two tests to prepare for the freestyle as that’s where we excel.”
Team contest at halfway stage
The end of the first two days of the Games mark the halfway point of the team competition. Great Britain currently leads with 226.816 points ahead of The Netherlands on 217.838 and Germany on 216.697.
Wednesday marks the build-up to team medals on Thursday, 28 August and the first Rio spots for Para-Equestrian Dressage. Individual medals in Grade III and Grade Ib will be contested, followed by Grade IV, Grade II and Grade Ia on Thursday.