LONDON (Reuters) - They say anything can happen in Olympic show jumping and on Wednesday, anything did - Swiss rider Steve Guerdat beat favored veterans for individual gold while a streak of Irish luck helped Cian O’Connor claim bronze.
Dutch rider Gerco Schroder took the silver on a horse called London, named seven years ago with the 2012 Games in mind.
This is a second Olympic medal for Guerdat, who was on the Swiss team who won team bronze in 2008.
While his victory over heavily favored riders like Britain’s Nick Skelton may have surprised some, placing second in the World Cup final in the Dutch city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch meant it was not such a surprise for him.
“To be honest, I always said that I would win a medal with the team or individual,” he told a news conference.
“I knew also I had a horse that could jump anything - maybe he didn’t show it too many times because he doesn’t have so much experience at that level. But in Den Bosch (‘s-Hertogenbosch), I think it was clear for me that if I ride (well), I can be Olympic champion with him as well.”
Fans of the Swiss rider held up a huge banner that read “hop Steve” when he rode out on course. And hop he and horse Nino Des Buissonnets did, perfectly over everything in their path. Twice.
Guerdat was assured of gold after faultless first and second rounds, but Schroder and O’Connor - with one fault apiece for taking excessive time - had to go head-to-head for the silver.
Schroder went clear in a jump-off while O’Connor, rocketing around at a faster clip than his Dutch rival, took bronze after horse Blue Loyd 12 hit the last rail.
That rail may have been unlucky but it took a lot of Irish good fortune to get O’Connor on the podium at all.
The Irish rider, stripped of his gold medal in Athens in a doping scandal and banned for three months, got an eleventh-hour call-up after rival Denis Lynch was disqualified at a Nations Cup event when his horse was found to be hypersensitive.
The International Federation of Horse Sports (FEI) has strict rules to deter riders from making their horses’ legs tender to make them jump more carefully, although such sensitivity can also arise from injury incurred naturally.
O’Connor’s good fortune stayed with him at Greenwich Park.
He narrowly missed the cut for the individual, but did well enough to be in reserve. The withdrawal of a horse at the veterinary inspection let him slide into the final.
The first-round field included riders who finished in 35th place or above after a qualifier and two rounds of team jumping. All started on Wednesday with a clean slate.
O’Connor jumped clear in the first round and only picked up a time fault in the second, good enough for a medal on a day when several major names struggled to get round cleanly.
“It’s been a whirlwind kind of a trip to get to this stage,” he said of his good fortune.
In a leap of faith, O’Connor found horse Blue Loyd 12 eight months ago and sold him to a syndicate hoping he would be an Olympic mount.
And even though he was only reserve before the individual, he believed even then he would have a chance to compete.
“Last night I told my wife, I think I’m going to get in and I think I’m going to jump clear. And she was laughing at me,” O’Connor said.
Only six riders in a field of 37 finished the first round without any jumping or time faults. Only four of the top 20 that went through to the second managed that feat.
Scores from round A and B were added together with Guerdat the only one faultless in both.
Skelton, who has not hit a fence for days, took a rail out of an upright inspired by the Cutty Sark, a clipper ship that sits in dry dock at Greenwich and is one of its best-known sights.
Admittedly, Britain carried the weight of expectation into Wednesday after riders took the country’s first jumping gold in 60 years on Monday and its first dressage gold on Tuesday.
Skelton and team mate Scott Brash finished in joint fifth.
Britain does have another shot at individual equestrian gold on Thursday. Charlotte Dujardin and mentor Carl Hester rank high among likely prospects in the dressage freestyle competition, along with Adelinde Cornelissen of the Netherlands.
Saudi Arabia’s Kamal Bahamdan, part of the team that took team bronze on Monday, jumped clear in both rounds, but ran up two time faults to finish fourth.
A big Saudi contingent in the stands also whistled and cheered as Prince Abdullah al Saud, grandson of the Saudi king, finished with eight faults.
The Saudi royal did not make it into the top 20 who went through to the second round.
Editing by Greg Stutchbury