Two days after Eric Lamaze chose Derly Chin de Muze as the horse he would use to defend his Olympic show-jumping title in London, the rider got a rude awakening.
Derly Chin de Muze reminded him that she is not yet Hickstead, the horse he rode to win the Olympic medal, a horse that was ranked No. 1in the world, a horse that many thought was the best of all time.
The mare abruptly refused to jump a fence at a major event in Calgary, and now Lamaze has just three weeks to understand the problem and fix it, if he's thinking of repeating at the London Games.
He’s not hopeful.
“If people expect Eric Lamaze to win a gold medal, it's probably not going to happen. That's the truth behind it,” Mr. Lamaze said Tuesday, before he boarded a flight to the Netherlands, where he will join up with Derly Chin de Muze, which is already there. “Hickstead was the horse I was going to London with. We really didn’t have a backup plan.” While he has two other promising mounts, they are not quite ready for the Olympics at this stage, he said.
Last Saturday, at the $200,000 Queen Elizabeth II Cup at Spruce Meadows near Calgary, as Derly Chin approached an imposing series of obstacles – a combination with three jumps, frightening heights and 15-foot spreads and rainbow colours everywhere – she just refused to jump.
The first of the three hurdles was impressive, an oxer (a jump with a spread that calls for the horse to jump wide) with solid, heavy bars that ascended in height. It was the second time in six days that she had stuck in her toes and simply declined her job. During her first refusal the previous week, Mr. Lamaze actually fell off the mare in Spruce Meadows’s international ring when Derly Chin cleared the first hurdle of a combination but stumbled and stalled at the second. Neither was hurt.
Even before Derly Chin came to a halt last Saturday, Mr. Lamaze said he wasn’t thinking about medals.
And for a moment after the Saturday refusal, he seemed to panic, thinking perhaps that the 9-year-old mare – inexperienced and young by Olympic standards – just might not be ready, that perhaps he shouldn’t go to London at all. He said at the time that if he didn’t feel he could contribute to the team, he’d give the Olympics a pass.
But a day later, after having watched videos of the miscue, he could see that he and Derly Chin had just failed to communicate; that their partnership was still so new they hadn’t figured each other out and developed a trust. When Mr. Lamaze got ready for takeoff at that imposing jump, he thought the mare would finish the move on her own. She didn’t.
It’s possible the problem can be solved, he said.
First off, Mr. Lamaze notes, she’s a very careful mare and dislikes lodging rails, a handy trait for a jumping horse. That’s her blessing, but it’s also her curse. Without experience, she can become intimidated by the fences she does touch.
Also, the rails and materials of Spruce Meadows’s fences are heavy, Mr. Lamaze said. She won’t see such rails at the Olympics, where the poles will be lighter and less frightening.
Derly Chin de Muze's difficulties started at the fence before the triple combination, a red-and-white plank fence that is easily dislodged. Because she is careful, she got a bit frazzled when she rubbed (but did not dislodge) the top part of the plank fence. "It scared her a little," Mr. Lamaze said.
The previous week, Derly Chin had stalled in the midst of a combination jump and Mr. Lamaze figures those memories lingered when she faced another big combo.
The good news, Canadian chef d’equipe Terrance Millar said, is that when Mr. Lamaze attempted the triple combination the second time last Saturday, the mare jumped it without turning a hair. Though in the end, she still did not knock down a rail.
Mr. Lamaze said he believes that if she hadn’t touched the plank, she would have been okay for the next fence.