Equestrianism: Britain's riders on course for gold

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AROUND 700 horses - from 42 different nations - are due to pass through Rome and its environs during the third World Equestrian Games, which were officially opened at the Flaminio Stadium in Rome last night. By the time they draw to a close on 11 October, 11 sets of medals will have been presented in five separate disciplines: three-day eventing, dressage, show jumping, driving and vaulting.

The British three-day event team, defending the world title won four years ago in The Hague, were finally named yesterday, after the squad's six horses passed the initial inspection here without problems.

Gary Parsonage, riding Magic Rogue, will go first in today's opening half of dressage and Saturday's cross-country. He will be followed by Polly Phillipps on Coral Cove, Nigel Taylor on The Frenchman II and Karen Dixon on Too Smart. The remaining two squad members (Jeanette Brakewell on Over to You and Peta Beckett on Watermark II) will compete as individuals.

The cross-country course, which riders inspected for the first time yesterday, is not as big as anticipated. But, as the British chef d'equipe, Giles Rowsell, pointed out, "There are plenty of places where mistakes can be made."

The New Zealanders, who are hot favourites for team and individual three- day event medals, were involved in a gallant rescue when a Spanish lorry broke down at the top of Mont Blanc, en route to Pratoni del Vivaro.

Fortunately the Kiwis, who were close behind, found room for one of the Spaniards' two horses in Mark Todd's lorry. The other was eventually accommodated in Blyth Tait's vehicle, after it had been driven into a lay-by. Three horses (among them Tait's Olympic champion, Ready Teddy) had to be unloaded there, so that partitions could be rearranged to make room for another occupant.

The New Zealanders (drawn second of the 18 teams) are likely to be less accommodating in the competition itself. Todd has been chosen as trail- blazer on Broadcast News, followed by Sally Clark on Squirrel Hill, Tait on Ready Teddy and the defending champion, Vaughn Jefferis on Bounce. This will be the last European contest for Bounce, who returns to New Zealand after the Games.

Dressage riders began their team competition yesterday in the Flaminio Stadium, which has undergone a recent refurbishment at a cost of pounds 4m.

Britain arrived with the intention of finishing among the top eight dressage teams, which would qualify them for the next Olympic Games. With Sandy Phillips gaining 65.6 per cent on Fun, and Ferdi Eilberg and Arun Tor on 64.76 per cent their goal is still possible, but not guaranteed.

Eilberg has unhappy memories of three previous championships, from 1993 to 1995, in which Arun Tor took exception to television cameras at the side of the arena with disastrous results. This year Eilberg has used new tactics with Arun Tor. "Instead of trying to keep him quiet, we've been working him harder and asking for more. It has helped to keep his mind more occupied," Eilberg said. It has also given him much better scores.

The short-term British goal may sound modest but, under their new German trainer, Conrad Schumacher, they actually have ambitious aims for the future. Nothing happens quickly in this discipline, so long-term plans need to be accompanied by immediate goals that are realistically achievable.

Show jumping riders are not due to compete until next week. Their team result will be decided by a speed competition on Wednesday and a two-round Nations' Cup-type contest on Thursday. The individual show jumping final provides the Games with its climax next Sunday.

Everyone (in particular the 487 competitors) will be hoping that these World Games will resemble the successful meeting in Stockholm in 1990, rather than the chaos of The Hague in 1994. It is too early to make any judgement but, in the beautiful hills of Pratoni del Vivaro, where preparations appear to be running smoothly, it would be difficult to feel anything but optimistic.