Britain is rocketing up the medal table at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Kentucky following the eventing team’s brilliant performance to win gold yesterday, plus an individual silver medal for William Fox-Pitt riding The Hon Teresa Stopford-Sackville’s Cool Mountain. This is in addition to yet another medal, silver, for dressage rider Laura Bechtolsheimer in the freestyle to music on Friday.
In the best British tradition, the eventers were in a class of their own in the cross-country phase with Fox-Pitt, Mary King and Nicola Wilson plus individuals Pippa Funnell and Piggy French coming home clear and fast, as the challenge from the dressage phase leaders, Germany, faltered.
Only the unlucky Kristina Cook faulted, when Miners Frolic jumped in boldly into a water complex and ended up crossing his tracks, a technicality which carries 20 penalties.
As the imposing course, designed by Britain’s Mike Etherington-Smith, exerted appropriate influence, Fox-Pitt, acknowledged as one of the world’s best horsemen and on his 13th appearance for the British team, made a meteoric rise from 12th to second behind German superstar Michael Jung.
A nail-biter was assured for the final show jumping phase, with Britain in pole position, but only a few penalties separating them from the host side, America. However, that challenge, too, evaporated, when the hugely experienced Karen O’Connor on Mandiba suffered a shock refusal at the gate.
With William, Nicola and Mary all jumping clear, the team gold was clinched – Britain’s first on the world stage for 16 years – and a new star was born in 28-year-old Michael Jung, Germany’s first world champion
The British team were quick to pay tribute to the Lottery funding which has doubtlessly aided their preparation, but William also highlighted the team spirit – he, Pippa and Tina have been riding together since they were teenagers, and Tina and Mary were part of the team that won in 1994. ‘It’s very hard to pinpoint one thing to mark our success,’ he said.
‘I think we’re very lucky back home to have fantastic support. And we have a good team here-we’ve been on lots of teams together now. We get on and have a lot of fun. We’re also riding fantastic horses, and we had luck on our side. Tina [Cook] didn’t have the luck on her side so the pressure was very much on but the other three of us had a great competition, and we’re very lucky today.’
Canada were the dark horses, capturing team silver – their first medal for 32 years – after their US neighbours’ demise, while for many in the eventing world the great pleasure was to observe the comeback of the New Zealanders who ruled the world in the 1990s but haven’t won a medal for 10 years.
Former double Olympic champion Mark Todd, who has returned to the fray after an eight-year retirement and is now based near Newbury, Berkshire, showed he has lost none of his old magic and his long-time team mate Andrew Nicholson deservedly won his first individual medal, bronze.
‘It’s just like starting over really,’ said Todd. ‘I’m really enjoying being back in the sport. It’s changed a lot, obviously, even since I gave up. It’s taken a wee while to sort of adjust to this, but I think I’m starting to get the hang of it!’
Now all eyes turn to the second week of the equestrian extravaganza. Britain has live medal chances in the vaulting, through reigning European champion Joanne Eccles, and should grab the lion’s share of the para-dressage laurels under the invincible Lee Pearson, while veteran British show jumpers Robert Smith and Michael Whitaker are sure to put up a brave fight in the show jumping.
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