Friday, October 31, 2014

All Eyes on Normandy | 10/31/2014

Getting Ready for the World Equestrian Games

By Pam Gleason

The Alltech World Equestrian Games are coming to Normandy, France on August 23. The "WEG" are the world championships for the eight equestrian disciplines that are governed by the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI). They have been held every four years since 1990, alternating with the equestrian sports at the Summer Olympic Games every two years. Like the Olympics, the WEG travel to different locations around the world: this is the first time they will be held in France. The last games were in 2010, when they were at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. The next games, in 2018, will be back on this side of the Atlantic at the Olympic Equestrian Park in Bromont, Quebec, a venue that was built for the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

This year's WEG will run for two weeks, from August 23 until September 7. Championships will be decided in these disciplines: showjumping, dressage, eventing, combined driving (four-in-hand only), endurance, reining, vaulting and para-dressage. In addition, there will be two demonstration sports. One is a polo match, the other a horse-ball tournament.

The majority of the competitions will take place in the city of Caen, the region’s capital, where there are four competition sites: D’Ornano Stadium (opening and closing ceremonies, jumping, dressage and the stadium phase of eventing); Prairie racecourse (combined driving), the Exhibition Center (reining) and the Zenith indoor arena (vaulting.) The dressage and cross country phases of eventing will play out at Le Haras National du Pins, an equestrian and breeding center built under Louis XIV in the 17th century. Le Haras du Pins is about an hour’s drive from Caen’s city center, and is famous for (among other things) being the birthplace of the Percheron breed. It has a new cross-country course designed for the games by Pierre Michelet, who will also create the course for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

The endurance competition will be run in the countryside to the west of Caen, with a loop along the beach on the Bay of Mont Saint Michel. Mont St. Michel, a spectacular island fortress and monastery, will be visible in the background.

The exhibition polo match is scheduled for September 6 in Deauville, which is one of France’s top polo destinations. Deauville is on the Normandy coast, about 60 kilometers east of Caen. The 18-goal polo match will pit a French team against a mixed team of one player from Europe, one from North America, one from South America and one from Australia/New Zealand. The actual teams have not yet been announced, although presumably the rosters will be drawn from players already in Europe for the season. This is the first time that polo has been included as an official exhibition at the World Equestrian Games, and some polo enthusiasts hope that its acceptance might lead to its becoming an official WEG competition in the future. Polo was once, after all, integral to the equestrian events at the Olympics. Its last Olympic appearance was in Berlin in 1936, where an Argentine team defeated a British one by the devastating score of 11-0 in the finals.

The horse-ball tournament takes place from August 27-31 at the equestrian center of Saint-Lo, about a 45-minute drive from Caen. Horse-ball is a highly popular sport in France. Derived from the Argentine game pato, it came to the country in the 1930s and was standardized in the 1970s. Variously compared to rugby, basketball and even quiddich (the imaginary flying game from the Harry Potter book series), horse-ball calls for two mounted teams of four players each. The teams attempt to score goals by throwing a ball equipped with leather handles through a vertical net. Like polocrosse (another polo cousin) it emphasizes teamwork and prohibits ball-hogging. You must pass the ball three times to three different teammates before scoring a goal, and you are not allowed to carry the ball for more than 10 seconds.

There are actually two horse-ball tournaments, one for women and one for mixed teams. Four nations are sending teams (France, Spain, Belgium and Italy) and the matches will be held in the evenings from 6 to 10 p.m. Organizers are promising a good show, including a pregame exhibition on Shetland ponies and professional cheerleaders. France, which is essentially undefeated in international competition, is favored to win. Horse-ball has not yet caught on outside of Europe, and is almost unheard-of in the States, although there have been occasional demonstrations at equestrian trade shows.

As for the official events, the WEG promises fierce competition. According to the Alltech WEG website, 74 nations have been nominated to compete, which represents an increase of about 25% over 2010, as well as an all-time high. Twelve countries will be making their WEG debut, including the U.S. Virgin Islands, Hong Kong, Romania, Thailand, Peru and Kazakhstan. Nine countries, including the U.S., expect to compete in all eight disciplines.

How will the U.S. teams fare? A lot is riding on that question, especially in the Olympic disciplines (showjumping, dressage and eventing) where the country has had some disappointing results in recent major world competitions. At the 2012 Olympics, for instance, U.S. riders were unable to take home a single medal, either in team or in individual competition, their worst performance in over half a century. At the 2010 WEG, held on their own home turf in Kentucky, American eventers and showjumpers also came up empty, leaving Steffan Peters on Ravel, who won the individual bronze in dressage, the lone medalist in the Olympic sports. Americans did better in other arenas, winning the gold in team vaulting, as well as in team reining, along with the gold and silver in individual reining.

This year, Americans are once again favored to dominate reining, which is, after all, a quintessentially American horse sport. Other disciplines are less certain. The U.S. dressage team hopes to finish at least fourth, which will ensure that the team will be qualified for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. A team medal, bronze or even a brighter, is not out of the question: Robert Dover, who took over as chef d’equipe of the dressage team after the London Olympics is said to be optimistic. The best hope for an individual dressage medal is generally acknowledged to be Steffan Peters and Legolas, the two time National Grand Prix Champions. The pair have been earning top placings and high scores in Europe. Other team members (especially Lisa Wilcox on Denzello) have also stepped up this summer and may be ready to shine. The U.S. does not have a terrific history in dressage: a third place team finish has often been regarded as “winning” since some of the European nations (Germany, The Netherlands) have been seen as unbeatable. But national dominance can change. After all, Great Britain won the team gold and the individual gold and bronze at the 2012 Olympics. Those three medals were the first Olympic dressage medals ever for the country, which is now seen as a favorite.

In showjumping, the American team shows signs of regaining the world-class form that propelled it to the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. In early August, for instance, Beezie Madden, riding Abigail Wexner’s Cortes C, became the first woman ever to win the Longines King George V Gold Cup at CSIO5* Hickstead, England. U.S. teams also won the Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup both at Hickstead and at Gijon (Spain.) Hopes are certainly high, although there are no guarantees that the rails will stay up when the competition begins.

Hopes are also high for the Land Rover U.S. Eventing squad, which has some extremely impressive members, including Buck Davidson, who is currently ranked third worldwide by the FEI. Aiken will be represented in Normandy by three members of the squad. These are Phillip Dutton on Trading Aces (owned by the Trading Aces Syndicate LLC), Boyd Martin on Shamwari 4 (owned by the Shamwari Syndicate LLC) and Kim Severson on her own horse, Fernhill Fearless. All three of these riders make Aiken their winter training base, and are frequent participants in the area’s many events and horse trials from January through March. Phillip and Boyd are also listed as alternates on Mighty Nice and Trading Aces, respectively. Jan Byyny, another rider who trains in Aiken, was named as an alternate on her family’s Inmidair, but she recently withdrew him after he sustained a minor injury.

The Alltech World Equestrian Games website says that over 80,000 tickets are still available for many sessions. Ticket prices are more reasonable than they were in Kentucky in 2010: for instance, tickets to watch the dressage start at 12 Euros (about $16), while showjumping tickets start at 30 Euros ($40) and you can watch reining for 20 Euros (about $26.) In Kentucky, the least expensive tickets were $25 and went up to $45 for some other, lower profile events such as vaulting. Tickets to reining started at $90, and most of the showjumping and dressage sessions were $100 or more. Organizers in France say they have sold over 300,000 tickets to the 2014 games so far and are expecting over half a million spectators.

Spectators and competitors alike are looking forward to the WEG experience, which will include a trade fair, equestrian demonstrations and shows. There will be exceptional food and drink (think oysters and Champagne), spectacular scenery and historic architecture. (For instance, you can tour the Chateau de Caen, built in 1060 by William the Conqueror.) All of this is in addition to what will be one of the largest gatherings of equestrian competitors in history. 

Can't make it to France? You can still watch the action if you have a computer and a good Internet connection. FEI TV (www.feitv.org) will be offering live streaming on their website, and you can find highlights on the FEI TV YouTube channel. You can also download the Alltech WEG app on your iPhone or Android device (available August 10) for schedules, live scores, results, news photos and videos. You might not be there, but you can be virtually there. Let the games begin.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.