The British three-day event team made an excellent start on the first day of action in the dressage, when Ian Stark and Stanwick Ghost performed at their best to take a useful lead with just 35.4 penalties.
Stark followed Blyth Tait riding Chesterfield for the favourites, New Zealand. Stanwick Ghost, a grey thoroughbred was prepared to the moment, not too fresh, yet bright enough to shine. "He's so laid back," Stark reported afterwards. "I try not to overdo him before a test."
Despite the light preparation and early hour, Stark's shirt was drenched in sweat, but the pair had looked cool, calm and beautifully collected in the arena. It was a smooth performance, a pleasure to watch. "I used to hate dressage, then I tolerated it as it became more important, and now it really interests me. You're always learning," Stark said.
Two riders from each of the 16 nations contesting the team event completed the dressage phase yesterday. Going second for Britain, William Fox-Pitt upheld team hopes with a tactfully ridden test on the comparitively young Cosmopolitan, to score 49.00. "There's a terrifice atmosphere out there," he said. "So many people, cameras clicking. My horse was tense, but I thought he behaved really well. We made two mistakes, which was a pity."
America's Karen O'Connor rode a lovely test on the impressive Biko for 39.60, with Canadian Therese Washtock just behind with Aristotle on 40 and David O'Connor, Karen's husband, fractionally behind with 40.80 to put the American team ahead of Britain at this stage.
Stark disagrees with the publicised view that the cross-country course tomorrow will be substandard for an Olympic Games. "It's every bit a four- star," he insisted. "The hills and the siting of so many fences on the sides of hills will make sure of that. It's very strenuous for horse and rider, on difficult terrain. "
Ex-world champion Tait confirmed this view: "It's bigger and hillier than we expected, but very well built and presented." Tait will also ride Ready Teddy in the individual event.
Stark is the ideal pathfinder for the team as its most experienced, successful and reliable competitor. Above all, he is as hungry as ever for the one medal to elude him, the Olympic gold. What a pity he cannot be eligible for an individual medal, for which he would have an obvious chance. For the first time, there are separate competitions for teams and individuals, a generally unpopular move. Fox-Pitt, Gary Parsonage making his team debut on Magic Rogue, and Karen Dixon on Too Smart complete the team for Britain.
After all seven of the horses passed the first horse inspection, Leslie Law's ride, New Flavour, who had to trot up twice, was very reluctantly withdrawn by the selection committee. A bruised heel has made him slightly lame.
Part-owner Diana Fitzroy admits to being "rather devastated", but agrees the right decision has been made. "I'm so desperately sorry for Leslie," she said. "He was in with a really good chance in the individual." Reserve Chris Hunnable with Mr Bootsie has been called up and face by far the greatest test of his career.
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