Tokyo’s Olympic cross-country: 5 years in the making, 8 minutes to ride

Japan’s Kazuma Tomoto and Tacoma Dohorset competing at the Test Event at Sea Forest Park in Tokyo in August 2019.
Japan’s Kazuma Tomoto and Tacoma Dohorset competing at the Test Event at Sea Forest Park in Tokyo in August 2019. He is currently in seventh place after the dressage phase at Tokyo 2020. © FEI/Yusuke Nakanishi

US eventing course designer Derek di Grazia has spent the past five years helping take “a big piece of open ground with a lot of trees on it” and turning it into an Olympic class cross-country.

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The course for Tokyo 2020 is di Grazia’s first Olympic contract. “Everyone wants to build at an Olympic Games and it’s probably always going to be a situation where you are presented with a new site and you have to develop it,” he says of the Sea Forest Park site.

“It’s been a big project. From the beginning, I knew it would be a challenge. The site was just a big open piece of ground with a lot of trees on it.”

His biggest task was making the distance fit onto the piece of land he was presented with, and then finding a spot for everything else.

“Sea Forest is basically an island with water all around and great views of the city. The transformation from the beginning to now is quite amazing. We are just doing the final preparations at the moment and I’ve been working with fence builder David Evans. This is his third Olympic Games.”

Di Grazia knows his sport from both sides of the fence: “I’ve always been a rider and still am to this day”, he says.

He started out doing design work in the 1980s and built his first track at Essex in New Jersey in the US in the early 1990s. His first big break was at Fairhill in the US in 1999, where he’s been involved for 21 years. Over the years he’s had a long association with many other high-profile events including Bromont in Canada and the Kentucky 5* since 2011.

Course designer Derek di Grazia on the cross-country course at the Sea Forest venue at Tokyo 2020.
Course designer Derek di Grazia on the cross-country course at the Sea Forest venue at Tokyo 2020. © FEI/Christophe Taniére

From the outset at Sea Forest, di Grazia left himself some wiggle-room when laying out the cross-country track. “When I started out I designed it so that we could shorten the course if we needed to. I created loops and ways to connect parts of the track and after the Test Event that’s when we decided to reduce it from a 10-minute course to around eight minutes.”

There was a lot of groundwork involved. “There was a lot of flat ground and some ups and downs and it was a case of balancing them both out. We added mounds and rises to some of the flat areas and graded some of the steeper parts. We were basically dealing with a landfill that was covered up to four feet, and we had to lay in subsoil and topsoil with sod on top of that. We finished sodding the whole track back in 2018, 18 months before the Test Event so it had time to grow in.

“There are four water-crossings, the main one utilising a catch-pond. After the Games, it’s going to be a public park and I really hope the local people will come out and enjoy it!”

So is it nerve-wracking waiting for the competition to play itself out?

“It’s exciting more than anything else because there will be so many different sets of eyes looking at what you’ve done and lots of different opinions about it. When the riders walk it they’ll be thinking about their own horse and about finding the best path for them. Everyone will see something different but I hope they all appreciate it.”

What the riders think

Michael Jung (GER): “We have a very good start position, our first rider is number 14, so before she (Julia Krajewski) goes some nice information will have come through which we can use. You need a lot of luck with the weather and other things you can’t control, but definitely it’s good if you start towards the end.”

Oliver Townend (GBR): “It’s very intense. You’re always on the climb or camber or in the water, or in a combination. The questions are extremely fair, it’s very horse-friendly, and if you took each fence individually there wouldn’t be too many problems but at the same time when you add the heat, the terrain, the Olympic pressure and then speed on top of that, it’s going to be causing a lot of trouble and it’s going to be very difficult to get the time. Derek is a horseman to start with, and I think he’s a special, talented man at the job. He wants the horses to see where they are going, there are no tricks out there. Derek doesn’t try to catch horses out, he builds very see-able questions and lets the terrain and the speed do the job for him.”

Philip Dutton (USA): “I’ll spend tomorrow getting to know the course well so I can shave off every second I can and figure out how close I can get to the jumps before I steady up, really get to know it well. It’s a course you have to understand, you have to keep thinking ahead before the next combination comes up.”

Tim Price (NZL): “It will call for both thinking and very reactive riding … di Grazia’s trademark design I think. Time is going to be really tight but it will make some amazing viewing and be like no other visual feast. It suits a good cross-country nation like the Kiwis – we are looking forward to getting out there and getting stuck in.”

Doug Payne (USA): “We prepped at Tryon and to me this course feels a lot like there, lots of turn backs.”

Jesse Campbell (NZL): “I think there will be problems evenly scattered and not one sort of combination pops out as being incredibly tough but they all need respecting. We can’t wait to get started. It will be about keeping your head on and doing a good job.”

Andrew Hoy (AUS): “The ground is fantastic and the fences are beautiful, like at every Olympic Games the presentation you cannot question. It’s a proper challenge, and I don’t mean just with the height of the fences. The layout of the course, the flow — it’s going to be a challenge to get the time. But I’m sitting on one of the greatest cross-country horses in the world and we’ve got a wonderful relationship and I believe it’s achievable but only time will tell.”

Boyd Martin (USA): “Cross-country tomorrow is so difficult it’s so hard to get the time but I think we are in with a chance if we can deliver three good rounds cross-country with three good seasoned horses that are older and experienced. We’ve nothing to lose by going out there and giving it a crack!”

Sarah Ennis (IRE): “It would have been nicer to have been in one of the top five teams heading out. It would have been really exciting but it won’t be a dressage competition. The time is going to be really influential. It is like an ERM [Event Riders Masters], it is going to be really fast and quick and I think there are going to be a lot of time penalties out there. There are a lot of fences in the first three minutes. The fourth fence in a water jump and there are four water fences in total.There is a coffin at the end that I would love to jump but I think it is going to be really risky. It is there to tempt you and you are so close to home. There will be no time for taking deep breaths.”

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