Equestrianism: British team wary of over-optimism: Thomson and King William to be first off at the second World Games extravaganza

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THE world's greatest equestrian extravaganza gets under way here today, when up to 400,000 followers of horse sports are due to watch nearly 700 competitors in action. The second World Equestrian Games will be officially opened this evening by Crown Prince Willem of the Netherlands, during a ceremony in the main stadium at the Zuiderpark.

By then, the three-day event riders will have completed their first day of dressage in an adjacent stadium. Mary Thomson and King William will be the first to go for the British team. Kristina Gifford is next to ride, on General Jock, followed by Charlotte Bathe on The Cool Customer and Karen Dixon on Get Smart.

The team were announced yesterday after the riders had walked the course and all the horses had passed the first inspection. Gifford spent the day wondering which horse she should ride: General Jock, last year's Bramham winner, or Song and Dance Man, with whom she was the individual silver medallist in last year's European Championships.

'There were pros and cons with both horses,' she said. 'Jock has more scope but less experience. In the end, I decided that the course would suit him better; there are some big fences with long distances.'

As in the first World Games, held in Stockholm in 1990 and acknowledged as a resounding success, riders from six equestrian disciplines will be competing for six sets of team medals. A further eight sets will be awarded to individuals. The latter includes two in dressage (one for the Grand Prix Special and another for the freestyle to music) and two for vaulting, the only discipline to have separate contests for men and women.

Spectators will watch the opening ceremony in the biggest temporary stadium to be built in Europe. It has seats for 26,000 people, and one performance, the freestyle dressage to music on Saturday evening, is already a sell-out. The site is normally used for football, so the new all-weather surface of sand and wood chippings will have to be removed once the Games are over.

All the contests take place in the Zuiderpark, with the exception of the three-day event cross-country and the marathon section of the four-in-hand driving. These will be held at the military base of De Vlasakkers, near Amersfoort, requiring a convoy of lorries to take horses (and, in the case of the driving, vehicles as well) to a venue that is about 50 miles away.

Britain is sending the maximum permitted number of competitors. However, people are reluctant to hold out too much hope of medals in The Hague because none were forthcoming in Barcelona at the 1992 Olympic Games.

But the team of endurance riders look to have a great chance of victory; the showjumpers are among the favourites in a competition that is more open than ever before; the three-day event women are capable of winning medals even if they find the New Zealanders invincible, which they look to be on paper.

The British dressage riders, who went to Stockholm for the experience, now have a realistic chance of taking the team bronze awards. Britain's four-in-hand drivers are relying on George Bowman to win an individual medal.

That leaves the vaulting team, whose eight members are aged between 12 and 17, as the only group who are going to The Hague without great expectations. In their case, a leg-up in the placings, which left their hastily assembled team last in Stockholm, would be good news.

THE SIX DISCIPLINES OF THE WORLD EQUESTRIAN GAMES

THREE-DAY EVENT (27-31 July)

Defending team: New Zealand

Individual: Blyth Tait (NZ)

The New Zealanders had looked invincible before they won in Stockholm four years ago and they are even stronger now, though Britain's Karen Dixon refuses to concede that they are unbeatable. Dixon is the most experienced of the four women on the team and she must have a chance of an individual medal with her 14-year-old, Get Smart. Blyth Tait is favourite for the individual title, which he defends.

BRITISH TEAM: Charlotte Bathe (The Cool Customer), Karen Dixon (Get Smart), Kristina Gifford (General Jock), Mary Thomson (King William). Individuals: Helen Bell (Troubleshooter), Caroline Sizer (Ghost Town).

DRESSAGE (28-31 July)

Defending team: Germany

Individual: Nicole Uphoff-Becker (Ger)

Germany have dominated this discipline for more than 20 years, but victory is no longer a foregone conclusion now that the Netherlands have made sufficient improvement to be challenging for gold. Britain won team silver at last year's European Championships, where the Dutch were without their top rider, Anky Van Grunsven. The United States appear to think that they can finish third, but the British intend to prove them wrong.

BRITISH TEAM: Jane Bredin (Cupido), Ferdi Eilberg (Arun Tor), Emile Faurie (Virtu) and Laura Fry (Quarryman). Reserve: Jennie Loriston-Clarke (Catherston Dazzler).

VAULTING (29 July-1 August)

Defending team: Germany

Individual: Men: Christoph Lensing (Ger)

Women: Barbara Strobel (Ger)

Germany and Switzerland will be vying for gold medals in these gymnastic exercises on horseback. The British are relative newcomers. They were last in 1990, but have since made sufficient improvement to feel that they can finish in the top half of the 15 teams taking part, though medals are probably out of reach. Each team consists of eight vaulters (all aged 18 and under) and they compete in leotards.

BRITISH COMPETITORS: Men's individual: Ronan Brown, Merlyn Forrer. Women's individual: Louise Townsend. Team: Rachel Brinkley, Katie Cepok, Sian Ephrain, Jonathan Ions, Sally Locke, Rebecca Townsend, Hannah Walgate, Charlotte Walker. Reserves: Nicola Percy, Emma Scott.

SHOW JUMPING (2-7 August)

Defending team: France

Individual: E Navet (Fr)

Britain's win at Aachen, in the most competitive Nations Cup of the year, has raised hopes that they can regain the team title which they last won in 1978, when the late Caroline Bradley was on the team. The British selectors have chosen another woman, Kelly Brown, to join the Whitaker brothers and Nick Skelton. Germany's powerful team will include two top contenders for the individual title, Ludger Beerbaum and Franke Sloothaak.

BRITISH TEAM: Kelly Brown (Alfredo), Nick Skelton (Everest Dollar Girl or Limited Edition), John Whitaker (Everest Gammon or Grannusch), Michael Whitaker (Everest Midnight Madness or Twostep). Reserve: Warren Clarke (Benjumin II).

FOUR-IN-HAND DRIVING (3-7 August)

Defending team: Germany

Individual: Ijsbrand Chardon (Neth)

George Bowman, a former rodeo rider and scrap metal processor, is Britain's outstanding driver with his team of four black cobs. He would have won the world title in 1992 but for his groom putting one foot on the ground during the marathon section, thus incurring 10 penalties. Bowman could make amends this year, but the competition is wide open.

BRITISH SQUAD (three to be chosen for team, one as individual): Karen Bassett, George Bowman, Alwyn Holder and Richard Margrave. Reserve: John Richards.

ENDURANCE RIDING (August 5)

Defending team: France.

Individual: B Hart (US)

The British team won this 100-mile race in 1990 and they were European champions last year, when Jill Thomas won the individual gold medal. France took the world title two years ago in Barcelona, but the British must have a splendid chance of regaining it. Much of this year's route is along the beach which is why the British squad did their training on Pembrey Sands.

BRITISH SQUAD (four to be chosen for team, two as individuals): Catherine Brown (King Minos), Donna Helme (Bobby), Maria Palmer-Hourd (Golden Playboy), Gill Smedley (Charlie), Jill Thomas (Egyptian Khalifa) and Rick Wiggans (Penmore Omarif). First reserve: Jane James (Master Fiddler).

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