As far as I was concerned, this was the Main Event (I make no bones about my bias). It was lovely to share it with two houseguests, who endured my rather cramped and unglamourous quarters with exceptional grace, utterly failed to complain about the cat hair, rode my horses with aplomb, and made the whole thing way fun. One was an old friend returning to Toronto (though not, to her disappointment, to downtown — there just wasn’t time), and the other was one of those great friends you’ve never actually been in the same room with before! Amber and Ellen, we need to do that again.
So. Eventing started out with the first veterinary inspection (aka “the jog”), which was somewhat less entertaining than these things sometimes are because everyone was decked out in official team uniform. Therefore, no real fashion risks. The Canadian women looked sleek and smart in red jersey dresses with white jackets, while male teammate Waylon Roberts made do with jeans which were more burgundy than red. The Americans, sad to say, looked slightly rumpled and casual in khakis, and many of the South and Central American riders were decked out in full cavalry uniform. (I hate to say it, but some of the military garb had a decidedly … Nazi-ish … twist, which I’m sure was not what they were going for. But then again, the uniforms were one of the only things not viscerally, gut-clenchingly objectionable about the Nazis. Do not send death threats for my having said that. Unless they’re amusingly creative and you have no intention of following through.)
This being a Team and Individual competition rolled into one, one day of dressage was all that was required. Wet and chilly wasn’t exactly what spectators had been looking forward to, but if I’d been wearing a shadbelly and boots I would have been quite content with the temperature. First-time Canadian Team member, Kathryn Robinson, knocked it out of the park, scoring 39.8 penalty points for second overall on her lovely Let It Bee, and Jessica Phoenix and Colleen Loach also laid down really solid tests. Waylon Roberts’s Bill Owen, unfortunately, struggled to handle the atmosphere in the big ring and did his impression of a giraffe for most of the test — but we all figured that was the drop score (Teams keep the top three scores from their four competitors and drop the worst of the bunch) so it was fine. At the end of the day, only Brazil’s Ruy Fonseca, with his longtime partner Tom Bombadill Too, had managed to trump Robinson’s score, with 38.9 pp. America’s Marilyn Little, who’s a relatively recent convert to eventing from the showjumping world, dropped into third with 40.30 pp.
Cross-country day was held not at the Caledon Equestrian Park, but at Geoff and Ann Morgan’s Will O’ Wind Farm, about 20 minutes away. Will O’ Wind has hosted bunches of Ontario Horse Trials Association events over the years, and has been the site of the provincial championships on a number of occasions, but being selected to host the Pan Ams was another level of, well, everything. As in, pain-in-the-ass level 37, between the tearing up of much of the existing cross-country course (and the manicured grass dressage rings, which became a stabling area), losing the hay crop for the year, a truly paranoid level of security, and the Morgans being told they could no longer make decisions about their own land. The payoff was supposed to be a ‘legacy’ cross-country course at the two-star (Intermediate) level for Ontario riders to enjoy for years to come. Unfortunately, that’s not really what Will O’ Wind got. Because the Powers That Be accepted a low-ball bid for the design and construction of the course, rather than go with a bid from any of the local, extremely qualified course builders who understand Ontario conditions … they got jumps built in the southern US and shipped northward this spring on flatbed trucks. Many of these fences were built of southern softwoods which won’t withstand a single Canadian winter, and the construction that happened locally was also substandard in a lot of ways, meaning that (among other things) the Morgans are going to have to re-do what was once a perfectly serviceable water jump in order to make it serviceable once more, post-Pan Ams. Can you say, “clusterfuck”?
At least they did get it all finished for Pan Am cross-country day, if only by the skin of their teeth, and the weather and the footing on the big day turned out to be ideal. Someone had decided, in an utterly typical bit of short-sightedness, that the venue could only accommodate about 5000 people, due mostly to the parking challenges, so that was the cut-off for tickets. The event could easily have handled five times that, if only some bright spark had had the presence of mind to arrange shuttles from the expansive Orangeville Agricultural Society fairgrounds, a mere 10 minutes away, but of course that never happened. (Overall, ticket availability for the equestrian events was all kinds of stupid, as tends to happen at major Games. Online sales portals said the events were sold out, while the stands turned out to be half empty. I’m told what often happens is that huge blocks of seats are held back for corporate use. Said tickets are handed out to sponsors and other affiliated organizations which then never use them. Meanwhile, actual interested people bang their heads against walls and take their frustrations out on their children and dogs.)
Admittedly, it’s been a few years since I last saw Central and South American event riders competing in any significant numbers (we’re talking the Winnipeg Pan Am Games, in 1999), but it was fantastic to see how much the standard of cross-country riding has improved in these nations since the last century. Let’s just say there used to be a lot of scary, kamikaze riding out there, but I didn’t see any of that this year at Will O’ Wind. Granted, the Pan Am Games is run at the two-star level, which is nowhere near as demanding as, say, the Rolex Kentucky CCI****, or even a three-star like Fair Hill or Jersey Fresh. But every rider and every horse looked like he/she/they belonged there, and there were very few falls or other incidents. Part of the equation might have been that many of the up-and-coming teams forked out the big bucks to hire world-class coaches, leading into the Games. Brazil, which ended up with Team silver and an individual bronze for Ruy Fonseca, clearly reaped the benefits of having Mark Todd on board — and they’re keeping him for the foreseeable future. Mexico had Karen O’Connor coaching them, Venezuela had Kyle Carter, and Guatemala had assistance from Peter Gray. (Neither of the last two countries managed to finish as a Team, sadly, but they looked a lot more solid in their attempts than they might have otherwise.)
(It’s Sir Mark Todd, looking a bit grim and wearing a jacket with “Brazil” on it! We’re not worthy!)
Never mind the stupid Wayne’s World videos, I hear you cry. How did the bloody Canadians do??? Well, three out of the four smoked around, adding nothing to their dressage scores. Admittedly, one of those was the individual gold medalist at the last Pan Am Games, but considering that she was riding with a very-recently-repaired collarbone and liver (along with various other injuries suffered in a fall at Jersey Fresh at the beginning of June), it was pretty damn encouraging. Unfortunately, however, Kathryn Robinson and Let It Bee had a tough day at the office. Not sure how it happened, considering this combination has four-star mileage, but somehow they came a cropper at the second fence, an impressive but straightforward table. Rider fall = elimination, and they hadn’t even gotten going properly. I had been looking forward to seeing them go — they’re based in the UK so no-one in Canada had much familiarity with them, and I suspect Robinson was given a Pan Am team slot largely as a consolation prize for having been named to the World Equestrian Games team for 2014, then being told she hadn’t gotten her paperwork in on time and was ineligible (despite an Equine Canada high-muckity-muck having assured her that all was kosher). To have flown your horse across the pond to finally wear that Team jacket, and then crash and burn that early, must have really blown.
With Robinson picking up the Big E, Canada no longer had her stellar dressage score to call its own, and was forced to count Waylon Roberts’s somewhat-less-than-stellar result (65.1 pp). Michel Vaillancourt’s stadium course did not prove all that influential (there were lots of clear rounds), and the end result was Team bronze, which was rather less than we’d been hoping for. Luckily, thanks to an error of judgement on the part of a French rider a year ago, which belatedly resulted in a positive drug test and France being disqualified after the fact from the 2014 WEG, Canada had retroactively moved up one placing at the WEG and had already secured a berth for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, which was really all we cared about. The US eventing team, which had an even worse time in Normandy than we did, clinched its eligibility for Rio with its Pan Am gold, and Brazil … well, being the host country they were already invited to Rio, but the pleasure they got out of landing the Team silver and an individual bronze was infectious, and I think everyone was rooting for them.
Many people — including the riders — were anticipating a second stadium round to determine the individual medals,since that’s a format which has been used at the Pan Am Games before. Not this time, apparently. The math was done based on the completed single stadium round, and Jessica Phoenix and Pavarotti, the reigning Pan Am individual champions, missed the repeat by less than a single rail (42.10 pp). They settled for silver this time, behind American Marilyn Little and her mare RF Scandalous (40.30 pp).
Out of 43 competitors, 10 were eliminated on cross-country, either for a fall or for too many refusals, and there was one Guatemalan entry who withdrew at the jog. The top 17 competitors made it round the cross-country with no time penalties, a reflection of the slightly more generous time allowed at the two-star level (time is generally more influential once you get to three- and four-star competition). Eight nations managed to finish in the Team competition (at least three out of four riders completed): USA, Brazil, Canada, Ecuador, Mexico, Chile, Uruguay, and Colombia. Argentina, Venezuela, and Guatemala failed to finish in the team competition, but two of the Argentinian riders and one from Venezuela got around. So, you know, progress.
Here’s another photo gallery, of stadium and dressage and medals and shit.