Team USA could not afford to be conservative on cross-country day at the Tokyo Olympic Games.

Heading into the second and incredibly crucial phase of eventing competition, the United States found themselves farther down the leaderboard than expected, sitting in eighth after dressage. Over a taxing cross-country course, they needed to play catch up.

Mission accomplished.

The three-man squad of Doug Payne and Vandiver, Phillip Dutton and Z, and Boyd Martin and Tsetserleg boldly navigated Derek di Grazia’s (USA) cross country track at the Sea Forest Cross-Country Course in Tokyo Bay under pressure-filled conditions. With the new Olympic format, there is no longer a drop score, which translated to significant changes in the team leaderboard heading into Sunday evening’s (Monday morning EDT) show jumping phase.

Team USA did not add a single jumping penalty to their score Sunday; time penalties were the only additions to their 94.60 dressage score. They moved up in the standings and now sit fifth heading into the final phase of team competition on 109.4 penalties.

Following what he called a “disappointing” dressage phase, Martin and “Thomas” rebounded with a performance that reminded us just why they are team anchors. Bounding around the track on an unrelenting gallop, they put up Team USA’s best score, coming home with just 3.20 time penalties; they sit 15th individually. While Tsetserleg and Martin were the individual gold medalists at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima (PER), it’s worth a reminder that the gelding was not Martin’s original Olympic mount, but the backup, having stepped up following an injury to Luke 140. The tiny Trakehner proved his merit once again in Tokyo.

“It’s a big sigh of relief getting around well. Thomas tried his absolute heart out,” Martin said. “It wasn’t a course that suited him that well with the twists and turns, but he dug deep. He finished well, and proud to be an American. Three American horses finished well today.”

Di Grazia’s course was characterized by its beauty and its options. Riders could plan their paths with a variety of tracks, putting strategy greatly into play. The more direct route had fewer jumping efforts but required great rideability; quite a few riders incurred jumping penalties attempting this route, with their eyes on trying to make the tight time. The wider route, while less technical, was an endurance test, with more jumping efforts. All the while, the Tokyo skyline was in view of the venue, making for a breathtaking backdrop.

Great Britain was the dominant force of the day, with all three riders—Oliver Townend, Laura Collett and Tom McEwen—navigating faultless performances, without a single time penalty. After leadoff rider Arinadtha Chavatanont (THA) took an early fall on course, Townend became the cross-country pathfinder, and quite frankly, he turned the course into a cakewalk, crossing the finish an incredible five seconds inside the time allowed. Townend punched his fist in the air as he crossed through the finish aboard the ‘class’-y Ballaghmor Class. This pair sits strongly atop the individual leaderboard heading into the final phase, and at this point, it’s hard not to envision them with a pair of gold medals in a day’s time. It’s hard to believe that this is Townend’s Olympic debut, but there’s no surprise that this is the world’s top ranked event rider.

Michael Jung (GER) sat second heading into cross-country, but the two-time defending individual gold medalist surprisingly faltered, collecting an unfortunate 11 penalties for triggering a frangible device on course with Chipmunk Frh. He now sits 10th individually, while Germany plummeted down the leaderboard, from second to sixth. Meanwhile, teammate Julia Krajewski—who developed Chipmunk Frh before selling him—moved up to silver medal position with Amande de B’neville, adding just .40 time penalties to her 25.20 dressage score.

Australia moved into silver medal position, while defending team gold medalist France slotted into third. New Zealand, who held the bronze position after dressage, moved down one spot to fourth, still in contention with another impactful phase to go.

Team and individual medals will be decided at the Baji Koen Equestrian Park Sunday with show jumping. Team competition will take place first, beginning at 5:00 pm JST (4:00 am EDT). Then, the top 25 combinations will return for a second jumping round to determine individual medals at 6:45 pm JST (5:45 am EDT).

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Featured Image: Photo by FEI/Christophe Taniére