King leads Britain to silver in front of explosive and jam-packed crowd
"Words can't describe it," was how Westcountry rider Mary King summed up the Olympic eventing at Greenwich Park earlier this week, where she led Great Britain to team silver.
The home nation missed out on the top step of the podium by just over four penalties, Germany leading the contest from start to finish while New Zealand claimed bronze and the man of the moment, Michael Jung riding Sam, clinching the individual title.
The German made history as being the first rider ever to hold Olympic, world and European titles at the same time, a feat achieved at the 11nth hour when Sweden's Sara Algottson-Ostholt and her homebred grey mare Wega knocked down the final showjump and lost her grasp on gold.
"I am very happy," smiled Michael. "The cross-country course was tricky but Sam is small with plenty of Thoroughbred speed and he jumped well."
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The British camp also donned huge smiles when they took to the podium to receive their medals.
"We were hoping we would get the chance to overtake the Germans but they deserve [gold] because they were better than us on the day," said Mary who rode alongside Tina Cook (Miners Frolic), Zara Phillips (High Kingdom), William Fox-Pitt (Lionheart) and Nicola Wilson (Opposition Buzz).
Tina said: "The scores were so close that it was silver or nothing. Gold would be brilliant but silver is fantastic and it is very special."
Sidmouth-based Mary had been on target for an individual medal going into the final showjumping round – two are jumped at Olympic level to decide team and then individual placings – but two rolled poles dropped Imperial Cavalier to fourth behind Germany's bronze medallist Sandra Auffarth (Opgun Louvo) and best placed of the New Zealanders, Andrew Nicholson on Nereo, fourth.
"It's disappointing to have two down but I made the mistake of riding too close to a big bronze lion [statue] which scared him and as a result he was a bit whizzy down to the next few fences," said Mary.
Tina Cook and Miners Frolic kicked out the same two fences to drop from fourth to sixth – "He was a bit flat to the first and I'm beating myself up," she said – while a clear round from Zara Phillips and High Kingdom earned them eighth. William and Nicola were the discount scores, only showjumping once and pulling off a clear round and four faults to add to wind up 27th and 28th respectively.
Some 50,000 people gathered in Greenwich Park on cross-country day and competing in front of a home crowd was a major highlight for the British quintet. As each team member left the start box there was a deafening roar from spectators that followed them around the course.
"I couldn't hear my stopwatch or the horse's hooves – only the crowd. The atmosphere was electric and horses were carried along by clapping," said Dorset-based William, who crossed the finish line with 9.2 time penalties to add after nursing a tired Lionheart home. "I think something was amiss because it isn't like him at all and he came out bouncing for the showjumping."
Nicola, Zara and Tina all rose to the challenge of recording penalty-free cross-country clears.
"The ground was slippery which made it hard work but the crowd was unbelievable," said Zara. "High Kingdom lost both front shoes but he kept trying. He's inexperienced but he coped well with the atmosphere and I'm chuffed to bits with him."
Mary did not have the most comfortable of rides aboard her big-striding bay, who crossed the finish line with 1.2 time penalties to add and looked as keen as when he started. The duo were temporarily held on course after clearing the second water while the Cricket Ball Basket (fence 23) was repaired after Japan's Takayuki Yumira and Latina fell.
"I was nervous of the crowd but it was wonderful to have that support behind us," said Mary.
Imperial Cavalier is renowned for struggling to keep his excitement under control in front of an audience and Mary entered the main arena for the dressage with a finger to her lips in the hope of silencing the crowd. It worked and the 15-year-old gelding pulled off one of his best scores at this level.
"I knew if they cheered he would explode and it would have been hard to ride a test after that so although the crowd was behind me they were very well behaved," said a tearful Mary afterwards. "I'm not going to cry but coming in here with the home crowd is emotional. Imperial Cavalier is a horse with tremendous enthusiasm and energy. Tension got to him in the last flying change but I was pleased with the shoulder-in, medium trot and half pass."
Course-designer Sue Benson was praised for pitching her 28-fence cross-country track at the right level. British themes dominated and obstacles included a Diamond Jubilee Hedge (1), The Tower Of London (15/16) and a Wind In The Willows River Bank (8abc) complete with Ratty and Toad. The twisty, undulating course caused its fair share of problems and Australia, on target for a medal after the dressage, crashed out of the reckoning. Wiltshire-based Clayton Fredericks was eliminated when Bendigo slipped and fell while negotiating Royal Greenwich Borough (20ab), a drop with steep slope to a skinny, while Somerset's Sam Griffiths was also decanted when Happy Times slipped on the flat.
"I'm absolutely gutted but that is the sport. He lost his back end and the next thing I knew I was on the floor. The going was quite hard so I didn't want to put big studs in, maybe that's why he slipped," said Sam.
It meant pressure was on the three remaining Aussies and hopes were dashed when Lucinda Fredericks' Flying Finish glanced off the narrow bank out of Inland Waterways (17/18ab).
"I'm disappointed because the rest of the round was fabulous – I just didn't get his ears lined up between the flags," said Lucinda.
The second phase also wiped out three of Canada's campaigners – Peter Barry (Kilrodan Abbott), Rebecca Howard (Riddle Master) and Hawley Bennett-Awad (Gin & Juice) – the latter suffering a rotational fall at fence three and being taken to hospital, while Michelle Mueller withdrew Amistad before the final phase. The Americans were also luckless, with the exception of Karen O'Connor who piloted Mr Medicott into ninth, and William Coleman (Twizzel) plus Tiana Coudray (Ringwod Magister) clocked 20 penalties while Boyd Martin withdrew Otis Barbotiere ahead of the final phase.
Sweden battled all the way to the wire for bronze but in the end they were pipped by New Zealand when Niklas Lindback (Mister Pooh) and Ludwig Svennerstal (Shamwari) kicked out two fences apiece. This left Ireland fifth in the final line up.