Monday, August 11, 2008

In Injury-Free Eventing, the U.S. Stumbles

HONG KONG — After a year marred by fatal accidents, the equestrian sport of eventing received a much-needed reprieve Monday at the Olympics when the hazardous cross-country portion of the event concluded with no riders or horses seriously injured.

The German team took the lead in eventing, which consists of dressage, cross-country and show jumping. Australia had the best score in dressage over the weekend, but fell behind in the overall score on Monday as their riders consistently took slightly longer than the Germans to complete the cross-country course.

The final stage, show jumping, will be held Tuesday.

One of the Swedish team’s horses, Keymaster, was limping a little after its turn on the course, showing a slight reluctance to put weight on its right foreleg. Veterinarians were closely inspecting the horse but did not believe it to be seriously injured, said Mark Pinkstone, a spokesman for the Hong Kong Equestrian Company, which organized the competition.

The horse and its rider, Magnus Gallerdal, had finished the course without incurring any penalties for missing jumps or falling.

In the individual standings, two German riders, Hinrich Romeike and Ingrid Klimke, were in first and second place after the cross country. Megan Jones of Australia was in third.

The United States, which was third after the dressage, plunged to seventh place on Monday. An American rider, Amy Tryon, and her horse fell and were disqualified, and two other American riders, Rebecca Holder and Karen O’Connor, were penalized for each failing twice to clear jumps on the first try.

The hazards of cross-country riding had been underlined on Saturday when a 23-year-old woman died in a fall during an international eventing competition in Britain not connected to the Olympics. More than a dozen riders have died or been paralyzed in the past year, in a spate of falls that experts have attributed partly to demanding cross-country courses designed in response to public demand for ever greater challenges.

At each of the past two Olympics, a horse was injured during the cross country competition and had to be destroyed. High rates of injury have contributed to periodic suggestions over the years that eventing might not remain an Olympic sport.

Martin Plewa, the president of the ground jury for the eventing competition, said that the riders Monday were “very responsible, very aware of the welfare of the horses.”

He added, “That’s a very good sign for the Olympic future of eventing.”

At 2.8 miles, the course here was one of the shortest ever used at the Olympics for an activity originally designed to test horses’ endurance as well as their speed and jumping ability.

The course designer, Mike Etherington-Smith, said that his top priority had been to protect the welfare of horses and riders, and Hong Kong’s heat and humidity were a particular concern.

To avoid overtiring the horses, the course was shortened last Thursday from 3.5 miles, already short by Olympic standards. The base of one of the obstacles was then changed from rocks to bushes on Sunday afternoon to further reduce the risk of accidents, by presenting a more forgiving barrier.

Mr. Etherington-Smith said in an interview that others, whom he declined to identify, had raised safety concerns about the original obstacle, but that he still believed the last change had been unnecessary.

Making up for the shorter distance was the frequency of obstacles, with 29 of them packed into the course. Some of the obstacles were designed to reflect Hong Kong’s Chinese heritage: horses and riders leaped a wooden barrier carved and painted to resemble a dragon, jumped a miniature Great Wall and passed under a gate faintly resembling the entrance to a Chinese temple.

Clayton Fredericks of Australia said that the heat and number of obstacles made it a challenging course, and that he was not troubled by the shortened length of the course. “I think they judged the distance well,” he said after the competition.

The Hong Kong Jockey Club designed and built oversized golf carts fitted with portable generators, hoses and bathtub-sized red plastic tanks full of cold water, ready to be driven to overheated horses. But the carts were not needed as a warm drizzle fell before the start of the competition, the sun stayed behind the clouds during the warm and humid early hours of the competition and then a heavy rain fell on the last horses and riders shortly before noon.

Two of the 69 horses that started the race fell, but both sprang up without any immediate sign of injury. Two riders also fell while their mounts stayed upright, including Alex Hua Tian, the first rider to wear China’s flag in an Olympic equestrian event.

Born in Britain to a British mother and a Chinese father, Hua was raised partly in China and now studies at Eton. He was the clear hometown favorite among the crowd of 10,000 spectators, who heartily cheered his start and groaned when he mistimed the strides of his horse on the approach to one of the most challenging fences on the course.

“I’m just so disappointed,” he said afterward, adding that his horse had been lightly grazed above one knee but would be fine.

Drenched in perspiration and later by rain, the mostly Hong Kong-raised spectators were enthusiastic. In interviews with a half dozen spectators, none turned out to have ever ridden a horse — not surprising given that Hong Kong has one of the world’s highest population densities.

“I petted a horse at a zoo in China once,” said Tsang Kit Yee, a 17-year-old student who went to the cross-country portion on a date with her boyfriend, Chan Yik Lung, who also had never ridden a horse.