Here’s a sneak preview of a couple of the fences on the cross-country course at Greenwich Park, site of the London 2012 Olympic Equestrian Events.
» Video: Olympic cross-country: predictions
The three-day-event is the first equestrian sport at the Olympics, and the riders have known for some time that the cross-country challenge across Greenwich Park would be particularly demanding
Designed by Great Britain’s Sue Benson, a former European Eventing team champion who has been designing courses for “almost 20 years”, the course has been described by media as a masterpiece. The undulations, steep rises and falls of the parkland have not been tamed, but embraced, to create a 28-fence track, with 39 jumping efforts and three stopping points, that will test them all and draw the cream to the very top. And all without interfering in any way with the site which will be returned to its original state as soon as the Games are over.
Respect for the park, which is the oldest in London, has been key to her every move, but that has not affected the scale of the test that horses and riders will face on Monday. With an optimum time of 10 minutes 3 seconds she doesn’t expect that many will return without time penalties.
It is less than three weeks since the fences were brought into the park. In appallingly wet weather conditions it took two JCBs with low-profile tyres and skilled drivers to put them in place without doing any damage. “At one stage we had 14 builders, and that was sometimes reduced to 8 or 10 – on cross-country day there will be a 25-strong course repair crew at the ready,” Benson said.
By the time horses reach the 1.45m high and almost 2m wide Royal Herb Garden hedge oxer at fence four they will be on the gallop, and the questions come up at a relentless rate all the way around the track. One of the most spectacular obstacles is The Moon, built at the top of a steep downhill run with a sensational view across the London skyline.
But the riders won’t be doing any sightseeing there because it is swiftly followed by The River Bank, possibly the most charming of Benson’s creations with its wild flowers growing around the edge of a little lake busily populated by characters from the children’s book “The Wind in the Willows”.
The quintessentially English theme of the track is at its finest here, with Moley and Ratty fishing on one side while Mr Toad picnics on the far bank under his sunshade. For the riders, The River Bank will be all about getting back the control they may have lost on the steep downhill run in order to tackle the three-element obstacle.
Wide tables with maximum stretch, and super-tight corners demanding absolute accuracy, are all included, but the biggest thriller may well be the awesome drop at Royal Greenwich Borough, Fence 20, which, if over-ridden, will make it very difficult indeed to tackle the skinny Village Flower Troughs that follow. The children of Greenwich produced the montage in the background of this fence.
The Flower Garden at fence 22 includes 40 hanging baskets in full bloom, and the Rose Garden at fence 24 is staggering in its beauty, although the direct line across the corner of the hedge here is a massive test so late on the track. It all finishes up over The Olympic Horses, an enormous horse-shoe with hedge inserted, guarded by two horses in take-off mode at each side which have been created by joining together hundreds of horse-shoes. Imagination and flair have taken flight all around this spectacular track.
The dressage phase takes place on Saturday 28 and Sunday 29 July, followed by cross-country on Monday 30. The Dressage Test is OG CCI 4-Star Test B, Short Version. The test is here.
The following morning, Tuesday 31, after the second horse inspection, the team medals will be decided in the first round of jumping. The top-25 will then qualify for the individual final in the afternoon, again competing in reverse order of merit and with only three riders from each nation permitted to make the cut.
Click to listen to an exclusive interview with Sue Benson by Chris Stafford Radio