Olympic riders shoulder great expectations

Britain’s equestrian teams are expected to make a significant contribution to the UK medal haul at the London Olympics. The dressage, eventing and showjumping teams should win three to four medals between them in a target set by UK Sport last week.

Equestrian, which receives around £13 million in Lottery money – about half the figure for athletics – is among the top eight sports in UK Sport’s medal target table. The cyclists, who are tasked with winning six to 10 medals, carry heaviest expectations.

Britain has not won eventing team gold at the Olympics since 1972, the showjumpers have endured a medal drought since silver in 1984 and there has never been an Olympic dressage medal, but recent results, plus the prominence of such riders as William Fox-Pitt (in eventing), Nick Skelton (showjumping) and Laura Bechtolsheimer (dressage) on the world stage, suggests that 2012 should be British riders’ year.

The equestrian Olympics at Greenwich Park, for which the tickets were some of the fastest selling, kick off on July 28 with eventing. The defending champions, Germany, are tipped to retain their title, but Britain’s eventers have not been beaten at home-ground championships for decades and they have star quality in abundance.

The team captain, William Fox-Pitt, is the world number one, and his team mates are record six-time Olympian Mary King, former world and European champion Zara Phillips, 2008 individual bronze medallist Kristina Cook and Nicola Wilson, brilliant pathfinder at the last three championships.

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Much will depend on getting a head start in the dressage phase – and here Germany and Australia will be dangerous – but the hectic switchback nature of Greenwich Park will not be to everyone’s taste in the pivotal cross-country phase and Britain and a rejuvenated New Zealand squad are expected to shine.

Germany is again the main danger in dressage, but Britain has become a world force in the sport over the last three years and won a first ever team gold in last year’s European Championships.

Carl Hester, a superb ambassador for the sport and a fine horseman, won two individual silver medals, Laura Bechtolsheimer gained her fourth individual medal and this year Hester’s protégée, Charlotte Dujardin, riding his horse, Valegro, burst onto the international scene with a world record score in grand prix freestyle (to music).

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Nick Skelton, 54, riding at his sixth Olympics, is one of the most highly-respected showjumpers and is currently world number three. A first Olympic medal would seal his illustrious career and his mount, Big Star, is thrilling to watch.

Skelton’s team mates, Scott Brash, who is half his age, Peter Charles, a former European Champion, and Ben Maher are also more than capable of holding their own against an onslaught of continental European might.

Will Connell, equestrian team leader, says 2012 will be the most competitive Games in history. ‘It is going to be exciting; it is going to be very close; it is going to be nerve-racking; it is going to be memorable,’ he sums up.

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Image: http://thehorsetalker.blogspot.co.uk