Old boys from Brazil and Austria go close
Britain's show jumpers, who have had a dismal year on the team circuit, hold the advantage going into today's team decider at the World Equestrian Games in Rome after an unexpected victory by John Whitaker and the inexperienced Virtual Village Heyman in the opening speed leg yesterday.
Incredibly, two of the sport's oldest riders chased Whitaker right to the wire, with 56-year-old Hugo Simon galloping his way into second on the superlative jumper ET FRH and Brazilian veteran Nelson Pessoa, who has another six years on Simon, in third with Gandini Baloubet de Rouet.
Whitaker believes that the nine-year-old Heyman could be his key to a successful crack at the individual gold that was denied him at the inaugural World Equestrian Games in Stockholm eight years ago when he took silver with the legendary grey Milton. He says that the Dutch gelding Heyman is "quite hot and can get very strong", but feels that could be a major advantage if he wins through to Sunday's four-way change-horse final.
German-born Hugo Simon, who switched allegiance to declare for Austria in 1972, took individual silver with ET in Mannheim last year and, although the Austrians will be jumping in today's Nations Cup style team final, Simon's main aim is the individual title.
Pessoa, whose son Rodrigo is in seventh, suffered a heart attack in 1996 and, as a result, missed out on a place in the Brazilian squad that took team bronze in the Atlanta Olympics. But he has returned to the fray and, riding the horse that carried Rodrigo to victory in this year's World Cup finals, clocked a time of 87.61 that helped the Brazilian team to fifth in the overall standings.
But morale in the Irish camp is far from high after a disappointing start that sees team rookie Erik Holstein ahead of his infinitely more experience team mates after opening the action with only a single error yesterday morning.
Drawn number one of the entire competition, 25-year-old Holstein gave it his best shot with Ballaseyr Kalosha, returning a time of 97.58 seconds after the addition of five seconds for hitting the first part of the penultimate double to set an early target that left him 26th at the close of play.
Holstein's path-finding round earned the praise of chef d'equipe Tommy Wade, but the Tipperary man was less complimentary about the efforts of the three other Irish, who all added 10 seconds to their times in a disappointing start to the championships.
But Wade is determined that his quartet will improve during today's team final, from which the top 25 will win through to the last individual qualifier on Saturday. "We're only a fence and a half off the bronze", Wade said yesterday, "even though we're only 10th at the moment."
The Irish are drawn 13th of the 19 nations for today's team decider and Wade is hoping that course designer Marcello Mastronardi will put up a big track. "The bigger the better as far as we're concerned", he said, "and hopefully it'll knock some of the others out."
There is rather more optimism out at the four-in-hand driving championships in Pratoni, where Irish hope Viscount Petersham belied his relative inexperience at this level to slot into 18th after the first day of dressage.
Hungarians Lazslo Kecskemeti and Jozsef Dobrovitz hold the top two placings.