Queen Elizabeth II's granddaughter Zara Phillips is competing for Britain, drawing greater attention than ever before to a sport that combines the skill of show jumping with the discipline of dressage and the bravery, endurance — and to some degree lunacy — required for a 5.7-kilometre, jump-filled race through the hills of London's oldest royal green.
First up is dressage, in which horse and rider walk, trot and canter to a standard test without jumps that's designed to test the animal's obedience. Half of the competitors start Saturday; Phillips and her horse High Kingdom compete Sunday in dressage and then Monday in cross country.
During a walk-through of the cross-country course Friday, designer Sue Benson said she was aiming to make a course that was challenging enough for the most accomplished riders but not so tough that lesser horses would wipe out. She acknowledged that a high-profile Olympic equestrian event was as much marketing for the sport as it was competition.
"The last thing we want is millions of viewers never wanting to watch again because they're seeing tired horses," she said. "It's been a balance."
That said, the 5.7-kilometre course, dotted with 28 obstacles, is no cake walk: There are two 2-meter blind drops — including one into water — razor sharp turns, slopes, hills and jumps that are just shy of the legal limit for height and length.
"Nice course, right on!" Germany's Peter Thomsen told Benson as he rode his gelding Barny into a practice jumping ring.
The course is very much tied to Britain in general and Greenwhich Park in particular: the first fence is shaped in a diamond in honour of the queen's just-celebrated Diamond Jubilee. A replica of the Tower of London greets horses in a combination jump inside the main stadium. And in a nod to the Royal Observatory on the park grounds, jumps in the shape of Saturn and a crescent moon dot the course as does one honouring Greenwich's meridian line dividing the Eastern and Western hemispheres.
On Friday, Phillips had a bit of a nail-biter as she trotted High Kingdom before a panel of judges and a veterinarian for a pre-competition equine fitness test. Phillips, 31, had to run High Kingdom down the track twice after the vet wanted another look. Only a few other horses had to do the same.
High Kingdom had been a bit frisky, and on the second run Phillips glared at photographers who were shooting at him as he rounded the turn.
After a seemingly unending half-minute huddle, vet and judges pronounced High Kingdom "accepted" and fit to compete. The collective sigh of relief was released and applause rang out from the stands.
British coach Will Connell sounded confident about Britain's overall prospects in eventing, though he acknowledged the competition from the Germans in particular
"Our medal target across equestrian is three to four medals," he said. "This time it will be a very close competition. The Germans are always to be feared, but we can't predict who will win."
The Germans won team and individual gold four years ago in China and are still on form, as are the teams from the United States and New Zealand, who all have strong medal expectations.
American Karen O'Connor, 54, is returning for her fifth games and will be riding Mr. Medicott, a horse purchased for her from the gold medal-winning German team four years ago. She said the cross-country course here, the most challenging of the three phases, has lower fences than can be seen at other major competitions, but that that the hilly, twisty terrain will ratchet up the difficulty.
"The combination of the terrain and the turns will make it competitive," O'Connor said.
In addition to penalties for refusals and falls, riders are penalized for exceeding the optimum time, and course designer Benson expects few to meet that challenge. The optimal time has been set at 10.03 minutes.
"My gut feeling is that not many will make the time, maybe just two," said Benson.
Margaret Freeman contributed.
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