Equestrian’s finest put on a spectacular show at Rio 2016

The riders of France, Great Britain and Germany took centre stage in the Rio 2016 equestrian events. Topping the bill, German dressage legend Isabell Werth won the ninth and tenth medals of her Olympic career to became the Games’ most decorated rider of all time.

Picture by 2016 Getty Images

French riders Astier Nicolas, Karim Laghouag, Thibaut Valette and Mathieu Lemoine enjoyed an Olympic debut to remember, joining forces to secure the team eventing title from Germany and Australia and open France’s gold medal account at Rio 2016. It was the Blue Jackets’ first gold in the event since Athens 2004.

Second after the dressage, which has long been their weak point, the French dropped to third place after the cross-country and lay fourth at one stage in the jumping. With the three teams above them all having riders eliminated, however, the men in blue climbed up to first, taking gold with an overall total of 169 points, 3.8 fewer than second-placed Germany, with Australia completing the podium. New Zealand dropped to fourth place after their two-time individual eventing champion Sir Mark Todd sent four rails to the ground.

“I had always hoped we could get the gold, but I also knew that was very ambitious,” said an elated Nicolas, who jumped clear in the team round to move within touching distance of an individual eventing medal. “We gave ourselves every chance of achieving our goal, though, and everyone on the team performed brilliantly. We also benefitted from the other teams’ lack of form, which means we were the best team out there, though it was a bit stressful. I didn’t pick up any time penalties and we got the gold direct, without having to appeal, like we did in Athens. It’s going to be so nice to walk away with the medal round our necks.”

Jung retains his title

The individual eventing medals were decided in a second round of jumping, with reigning champion Michael Jung of Germany adding a gold to his team silver after completing a second clear round over the jumps. France’s Astier Nicolas claimed a silver to go with his team gold, while the USA’s Phillip Dutton took the bronze. In successfully defending his title, Jung became only the third rider in Olympic history to win back-to-back individual titles, after the Netherlands’ Charles Pahud de Mortanges, who achieved the feat at Amsterdam 1928 and Los Angeles 1932, and Sir Mark Todd, a winner at Los Angeles 1984 and Seoul 1988.

“To do this twice with the same horse is very special. It’s unbelievable,” said the 34-year-old Jung, who was once again onboard his trusty Sam, the horse that carried him to gold in London. “It’s an amazing feeling when you come in and your horse jumps so powerfully. In London it felt the same. Sam is just amazing. A brilliant horse.” Last out on his 16-year-old mount, Jung never looked in danger of relinquishing his title, flowing over the jumps to give Germany their third consecutive individual eventing gold. “You have to control yourself and make the horse not feel any pressure. And then you just do your thing,” he added.

Twelfth with the USA in the team competition, Dutton lay fourth in the individual standings, behind Australia’s Chris Burton, before the final round of jumping. Burton knocked two rails down, however, to allow the American to leapfrog him into the bronze medal position, despite taking a fence down himself. Delighted to make it on to the podium, the American rider said: “I was down about my mistake but I picked myself up and get going. It’s unreal. It’s a real test of a rider’s abilities, the biggest test there is in equestrianism.”

Five-star Werth leads Germany to dressage gold

Beaten into second place by Great Britain at London 2012, Germany regained their Olympic dressage crown in Rio, relegating their British rivals to second place. Gold medallists seven times in a row between Los Angeles 1984 and Beijing 2008, the Germans returned to the top of the podium thanks to impressive performances by Kristina Broring-Sprehe, Isabelle Werth, Dorothee Schneider and Sonke Rothenberger, who scored an overall average of 81.936% to win by a distance from double London 2012 champion Charlotte Dujardin and her British team-mates.

“To be honest, we knew we were capable of winning the gold, because I can’t remember ever having seen a Germany team like this one, with four horses capable of scoring 80%,” said Werth. “I am really proud of the team. It’s been a great team job and it’s given us a lot of confidence. It’s a great day.”

In taking gold, Werth won her fifth Olympic team title since 1992 and her ninth medal overall. Dujardin, who recorded the highest individual Grand Prix score of the competition on her gelding Valegro, was disappointed to miss out on a second consecutive team title: “He’s only had one outing this year and I should have trained a little more. There were just the tiniest misunderstandings between us. I feel bad, because he really was in great form.”

The USA beat the Netherlands to the bronze, the Dutch having been hampered by the absence of one of their best riders in Adelinde Cornelissen, whose horse Perzival was taken ill in Rio.

Dujardin defends title in style

Three days on from taking team silver, Dujardin retained her Olympic title on the ever-reliable Valegro, coming close to beating her own world record with a Grand Prix Freestyle score of 93.857%. Taking second place behind her was the 47-year-old Werth, whose collection of six golds and four silvers is the largest amassed by any equestrian athlete, the German moving past the Netherlands’ Anky Van Grunsven, the winner of nine medals in total. Werth’s compatriot Kristina Broring-Sprehe took the bronze, which was also her second medal of Rio 2016.

After sealing gold with her freestyle routine, the 31-year-old Dujardin said: “If I didn't win I knew I could not have done better. Valegro definitely could not do any more. It is absolutely incredible. I can't believe it. I am so overwhelmed.” Explaining the choice of samba music for her gold-clinching routine, she said: “It is a new freestyle. I rode it only the second time. It was just magical. I got really emotional down the last centre line. He always goes in to give me his very best. It felt absolutely effortless.”

“I love horses and I love training,” said Werth, who was partnered in Rio by Weihegold OLD. “Winning medals with three different horses means more than anything.” Between Barcelona 1992 and Sydney 2000, the ageless German rider formed one half of the most decorated Olympic dressage pairing of them all with Gigolo, winning four golds in that time before picking up a team dressage gold on Satchmo at Beijing 2008.

Commenting on her record medal haul, which spans five Games, Werth said: “I never thought about the record at all, just about riding well. Going out last was tough. I knew Charlotte had scored 93%, but my mare Weihegold OLD did really well despite the heat. My medals are good for German dressage. We’ve been through some difficult times lately and I hope this is going to give equestrianism a boost. We need it.” As for the possibility of competing in what would be her sixth Games at Tokyo 2020, she said: “Who knows? We’re going to work towards it.”

French jumpers end 40 years of hurt

France won the team jumping title for the first time since Montreal 1976, topping the podium from the USA and Germany, who sealed the bronze after a jump-off with Canada. It was the Blue Jackets’ first jumping medal since Alexandra Ledermann’s bronze at Atlanta 1996 and their second gold of Rio 2016, helping erase memories of an underwhelming London 2012, where they failed to collect a medal and missed out on a place in the team jumping final altogether.

The French lay fifth behind Germany, Brazil, the USA and the Netherlands after the first round, despite only incurring one penalty point. Philippe Rozier, whose father Marcel won gold in Montreal, then got France off to a good start on day two. Having come into the team in place of world No2 Simon Delestre, who pulled out when his horse suffered an injury, Rozier picked up a solitary time penalty. Kevin Staut then went clear for the second day running to heap the pressure on the Americans, the Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 champions and the only team who had yet to concede any penalties. Lucy Davis knocked a rail down to incur four faults, however, and when the USA’s last rider Elizabeth Madden was forced to withdraw from the competition, they lost the benefit of being able to drop their lowest score, allowing the French to take the lead.

France’s third rider, Roger-Yves Bost made sure of the gold with a solid ride on Sydney Une Prince, picking up a single time penalty to leave his team on three points, two clear of the Americans. Having gone clear on day one on Flora de Mariposa, the Blue Jackets’ fourth rider, Penelope Leprévost was not even required to venture out.

A key figure in France’s momentous win, Rozier said: “My father’s got his medal in his lounge and now I’ve got mine. It was a childhood dream of mine and now it’s come true. My father said it was the nicest gift I could give him, 40 years on.” A delighted Roger-Yves Bost added: “We kept on believing through to the end. The horses never gave up. We didn’t think we’d win the gold. On paper, there were four or five teams who were better than us, and we weren’t the favourites.”

Skelton earns long-awaited individual gold

The Rio 2016 equestrian competition came to conclusion with a six-way jump-off for the individual jumping medals. Coming out on top at the end of it was Great Britain’s Nick Skelton. An Olympic team champion at London 2012, the 58-year-old produced his third clear round of the final to beat Sweden’s Peder Fredricson, the only other rider to jump clear, by 0.53 seconds. It was the second silver of Fredricson’s Olympic career, the first having come in the team competition at Athens 2004. Eric Lamaze, the 2008 Olympic champion, collected the bronze after going fastest but knocking a rail over in the process.

Some 13 riders went clear in Round A of the final, a figure that was trimmed to six by the faster course set up for Round B. Skelton was joined in the subsequent battle for the medals by London 2012 individual champion Steve Guerdat of Switzerand, Qatar’s Ali Al Thani, the USA’s Kent Farrington – a silver medallist in the team competition in Rio – and Fredricson and Lamaze.

After holding his nerve to win only the second Olympic medal of his long career, Skelton said: “I waited a long time. I felt like he (Big Star) was hard done by in London (where he missed out on an individual medal). I am so pleased with this horse. He won his last big competition at the grand prix in Aachen in 2013. There were several problems and he took a long road back.

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“It was hard to go first and I knew I had to be fast to put some pressure on the others. Peder was fast but not fast enough,” added the Briton, who then explained the secret of his success: “Just keep going. As long as you have a good horse you are all right.”

“My horse jumped well,” said the Swedish runner-up afterwards. “He did not have one fence down during the whole competition. I had hoped for a medal and I stuck to my plan. It was a great week.”

Describing his emotion at winning a bronze to go with his Beijing gold, Lamaze said: “It feels incredible. It was a lot of work. First with the jump-off for the team medal that we missed out on, and then me leading all the way. The second round today was massive.”