William Fox-Pitt: Tokyo is amazing — but crazy *H&H VIP*

Opinion

The Tokyo test event experience was an eye-opener, even if in many ways it felt like a home from home with so many familiar faces from national teams and officials. The Olympic experience is so in-demand — several US fence judges had paid their own way in the hope of being selected for next year.

Tokyo has a real excitement to it, but it’s also crazy and overwhelming — the language barrier made it feel like the film Lost in Translation. The traffic is horrendous at certain times and a taxi is £80-120 from the city to the venue. There will be buses from the Athletes’ Village next year, but for anyone without accreditation, public transport was challenging to navigate initially, although efficient once you understood it.

I was invited to take Catherine Witt’s three-star horse Summer At Fernhill and it was fun to share the experience with a long-term, loyal owner.

A mindset to cope with the weather

Stepping off the plane was like walking into an airing cupboard — the heat and humidity is a shock. But it’s mostly a mindset — we are spoilt in Britain with our climate and riders need to get used to the idea that they can move in that heat and sweating is normal.

I noticed I puffed a bit at the end of the cross-country, but I didn’t feel the heat affected rider performance, although our jackets seemed to let in all the rain and let out none of the heat. The horses puffed a bit too, but generally coped amazingly — but of course we only had a half dose compared to next year’s cross-country in terms of length.

Temperatures were varied — there is a difference between “feels like 41°C” and 35°C. There are conditions that the cross-country just won’t be able to run in, so it’s possible everything will slip a day late. I don’t know the contingency plan, but that would mean our showjumping clashing with the first day of the pure jumping.

In terms of horses, a sensible energy-saver who has thoroughbred blood, is snaffle-mouthed and does what he’s told, rather than a strong, exuberant enthusiast, would be best suited.

We introduced the permitted feed to our horses in advance, but not hay, which turned out to be very dense and bulky and didn’t agree with all of them. More thought is needed on this.

Distance or a hill?

The main equestrian park, built by the Japan Racing Association, is a great facility. The stabling is first class — one of the things the Japanese do really well is air-conditioning.

A few more arenas are needed to give space to work the volume of horses attending. The indoor arena was not air-conditioned, so let’s hope they can get fans at least.

For the first time in recent Olympic memory, eventers will have to cope with not being the first equestrian discipline and so owning the space at the outset, as the dressage teams will be in place first. The main arena’s development was well advanced, with the stands up, if not all finished, and horses were generally quite relaxed in it.

The journey from the park to the man-made cross-country island took about 45 minutes and the horses travelled well in luxury air-conditioned lorries. They had air-conditioned wooden stables within tents there. This move the night before and after cross-country happened at the Hong Kong 2008 Games too, but the facilities are better in Tokyo.

The cross-country has lots of mounds and dips — it’s not as hilly as Burghley, nor as flat as Badminton. The first minute is uphill and the chat was that in these conditions, horses can’t cope with that and a 10 minute course — if the hill stays, the course can only be eight minutes. I think eight minutes is plenty — does anyone remember how long an Olympic course was, when all is said and done?

The going was as good as at any Olympics — sports turf laid on firm, sandy ground which has been irrigated. It had a bit of give, but not much spring.

The warm-up was near the stables and will be doubled in size for next year; there is also a great hacking track round the island. There are no trees, but the limited shade will be improved for next year and there will be copious fans and ice.

It’s incredibly reassuring that our horses were monitored throughout, by vets we trust, and that German FEI steward Philine Ganders Meyer has a specific role supervising the cooling team. Riders need to plan cool-down periods during the warm-up — I spent as much time washing off as I did warming up.

The showjumping was up to height and horses jumped well off the sand and carpet surface. It was borderline firm when we arrived, which the pure showjumpers prefer, and with a team of professionals I’m sure they can tweak it for each discipline.

There is much to think about, but overall Team GB will feel more prepared after Ready Steady Tokyo. We are so lucky with the support we receive through the British Equestrian Federation (BEF) — from performance director Vikki Underwood downwards — and the lottery funding. Not every nation had horses or the full support staff attending and such experience is really at a premium. It’s also vital that we all get behind the BEF fundraising effort over the next 12 months; it’s an expensive trip.

We came away feeling positive and there will be no excuse for Team GB not delivering at Tokyo 2020 — nothing is being left to chance and riders will have to go there and perform.

Ref Horse & Hound; 22 August 2019