To quote the talented song writer, James Taylor, “I’m gone to Carolina in my mind.”
Yes folks, the final hours are counting down to the opening of the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games at the Tryon International Equestrian Center in North Carolina.
My Facebook feed has been serving up images of friends wending their way across the planet for the latest incarnation of the Games, which will run from September 10-23.
It is only the second time that WEG has been held in North America, after Lexington, Kentucky, hosted the event with considerable success in 2010.
We cynical types tend to take a different view of the FEI’s showcase event, held every four years.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy seeing the world’s finest riders and horses vying for the title of world champion in their respective disciplines.
But WEG always has a habit of throwing up some great curveballs.
First of all, we should remember that national federations are not exactly crawling over each other for the rights to host this event.
It’s costly to stage and complex to organize. Nations face the additional complexities of not only accommodating the riders, but catering for a large contingent of horses, and all the biosecurity issues that arise from their temporary importation.
But the other harsh reality is that it can be hard to get buy-in from governments and local authorities, who will often be asked to foot some of the bill, and perhaps underwrite the Games bid.
Many don’t feel it’s a winning bet to be spending taxpayers’ dollars on a sport that many view as the domain of the elite, at least at the top level.
In past years we have had what seemed to an entertaining game of whack-a-mole as bids came and went. All the while the FEI was talking up the bids, while everyone else could see that it was struggling to keep one standing long enough to survive the vetting process and be awarded the Games.
The FEI understandably has some pretty strict requirements in a bid to ensure the Games present a suitable spectacle, but that is not to say everything will go well.
Here are a few things that will particularly interest me.
In 2014, the FEI sung the praises of the WEG endurance race in Normandy, in which only 38 of 174 competitors finished.
That was 174 of the world’s elite endurance horses and 174 of its finest riders, competing in a race in which only 22.4 percent of them finished.
The 160km course around the Bay of Mont Saint Michel was technical and challenging. That is unquestionably as it should be. But heavy rain beforehand made the going even tougher.
There is, after all, a fine line between a challenging course and a brutal one.
The chairman of the FEI Endurance Committee, Brian Sheahan, declared himself happy. “This event really deserved the title of World Championships today,” he said.
The vets were obviously proceeding with an abundance of caution, which is commendable. But, in the end, the number of finishers was disappointingly low.
Spectators would most likely have been disappointed with the high rate of attrition that rapidly reduced the field. In the end, it probably wasn’t the showcase for the discipline that it should have been, given the spectacular backdrop of the course.
Also, there was the tragic loss of a horse. The Costa Rican mount Dorado died instantly near the end of the first loop when its head struck a tree beside the track in a forested area. His rider, Claudio Romero Chacon, required surgery for fractures and internal injuries.
By all accounts, the course in North Carolina is not likely to be as technically challenging, and endurance watchers will no doubt be monitoring course speeds with interest.
I commented recently that the Tryon endurance race will likely be the most scrutinized long-distance horse race in history. A group of vets and endurance officials in German recently voiced their concerns about the international direction of endurance, and the group Clean Endurance released its A-to-Z to identify cheating in the discipline.
It will be fascinating to watch.
Normandy also delivered some controversies beyond the field of play. It all came to a head at the cross-country venue for Eventing at Haras du Pin.
Kiwi Jane Thompson filed a few reports about the stresses involved, suggesting some of the Kiwis who had travelled many thousands of kilometres to watch the nation’s eventers might have been better investing in bigger TV sets instead.
Predicted traffic issues were even worse than many Kiwis expected, she reported. Three and a half hours stuck in traffic seemed common.
“One poor friend stuck on a bus in the jam ended up texting a friend in New Zealand to find out what was happening,” she reported.
Some of the comments she received:
“We were grid-locked for 3 hrs.”
“Eventually arrived after sitting in a mobile parking lot for over 4.5 hours!!!! Arrived at about 13.50 joined the queue just after 9am absolute madness!!!”
“Four hours stuck in traffic gave up and went back to watch on big screen at village. On top of the other antics of queues filthy loos etc, that was the pits. Just as well the dressage was fab.”
And another: “The traffic was horrendous! Pleased we started our day at 6am to get there just in time for 10am start.”
Another tale of woe: “Left Caen at 7.30am, joined the traffic queue and then parked the car on the side of the road at 10.20am and walked the last 6km to get there.”
It was no place for the incontinent: “The toilets have been horrendous. From “starting blocks” in the Stad D’Ornano which soon blocked during the dressage to the porta-loos at the cross-country where people had to queue for an hour, they really were dire.”
And the comments added to Jane’s piece rather backed everyone up. Here’s one from Yvonne Hobbs, with a great plug for FEI TV: “Horrendous conditions for spectators who are as important as the competitors and their horses. It certainly discourages me from attending any future international events that don’t have credibility. I just treasure the service of my FEI TV for a yearly $70 sub live feed, replays for 7 days and archives for about 2yrs …”
So, let’s see how the Americans do.
The thousands of fans who are flocking to WEG are clearly following the premise, “There’s nothing like being there.”
The event, to succeed, has to live up to that promise.