The Australian equestrians stood on the edge of a precipice; ahead the opportunity to launch into greatness, to make their mark on Olympic history .
The first ever properly prepared Australian Equestrian Team was about to take to the Olympic arena against the best horse people the world had to offer. The work had been done, there had been plenty of doubters, there had been adversity, all of which got them to this point and now the real battle begins.
The Australian Team had gathered before the start of competition. Mairinger was there to address them, “Laurie, Brian, Neil, Bill. I had some words set aside for this very moment, however I received a package from Australia yesterday. Sam Horden sent it to us before he died, along with this note.” Mairinger pulled the letter from his top pocket and started to read, “To the Australian Olympic Team and my friends – never a backward step. Sam.”
Franz handed the package to Laurie Morgan, who opened it to reveal four saddlecloths, embroidered with the Australian Coat of Arms. There was silence as the men looked at their new saddlecloths.
They remembered the efforts of Samuel Horden and now in death, he had made one final comment with the kangaroo and the emu on the Coat of Arms, “never a backward step”.
The first day of competition was the Dressage. All day long there was a line of competitors streaming in and out of the arenas all under the scrutiny of the Judges, none of whom were Australian. Dressage is an interesting sport. The rider and horse enter the arena they are naked in front of the judges there is no where to hide. On the cross country course one can take a jump unbalanced and almost fall off but not be penalised , with a good horse and plenty of heart a rider can fumble around the course and still go clear and fast. In the dressage arena no indiscretion is missed, in hack classes horses travel around in never ending circles when asked to canter off they do so in there own time in the dressage Arena accuracy is paramount canter at “a” means canter at “a” not an inch before not an inch after. As a boxer enters the ring to put his work, his courage and his abilities on show for all to see so does a dressage rider every mistake is punished.
There were some magnificent riders on big solid European horses with scopey movement. These were the Judges favourite types and they were unaccustomed to the light, sprightly athleticism of the Australian Thoroughbred, at the end of the day, they had judged what they were accustomed to. Even taking this into account, the Australians had done well finishing fourth overall in the Team standings. The intent was always to be in touch after the Dressage but were they close enough to pose a threat the next day? The French had been outstanding as was expected and had a solid lead.
After the last competitors had finished their tests, the Commentators Dicussed whilst contemplating the leader board. “A truly marvelous performance by the entire French Team in day one the Dressage.”
A second commentator chimed in, “Indeed, with the points lead the French Team has, it looks like Germany, England and Australia will be fighting it out for the minor medals as far as the Team standings go.”
“Yes it would appear that the French are well on their way to Gold here in Rome in the Teams event.”
The Australian Team were gathered around a table with Mairinger at the head. In front of him were several papers with team information and points results of the day’s competition.
The Team had come to terms with the awesome performance of the French and it was now out of their hands, they had all competed at their best, but in Dressage on the day, the French were exceptional. It was basically accepted that the Team Gold medal was out of reach.
In the hot, humid Roman conditions, it was unlikely that riders would complete the course without time penalties, the Australians knew the Cross Country was their strength and they would give it everything, but under the conditions, it would now be about individual performance.
Mairinger was looking through the sheets of competitor’s scores and Morgan, Roycroft and Lavis had joined him. “Excellent performance today, gentlemen. You’re all in a good position for individual medals over the next three days. Our main threats will come from ..”
Crago, who remained seated, interrupted the conversation, “What about the Team medal?”
The Team stopped their conversation and focused on Crago.
“The Team medal Franz, what about the Team medal? Can we win it?”
“I wish there was a way Brian, but with the French’s performance today, their lead is unassailable. For us to be in contention for Gold, the French would need to falter and we would have to ride perfect rounds, fast and clear. With the conditions as they are and considering the technicality of the course, I believe we must focus on the individual standings, take the sensible option and preserve the horses for day three. At this point, you would all be considered a chance at an individual medal, I don’t see any option, it is the individual medals that we should focus on.
The Team returned to their animated conversation, pouring over the points scores. Crago remained at the end of the table, head bowed in deep contemplation. He raised his head, “We can still win the Team Gold.”
The Australian Team once again stopped and focussed on Crago.
Crago had always felt he’d let the Team down at the last Games and it had now become apparent to him that it had affected him more than he thought and he was single minded in wanting to set things straight tonight. “We can do it, we can do it as a Team, we can do it as a country.”
All of the men were disappointed at the seemingly out-of-reach Team medal, none more than Team Captain, Laurie Morgan. “Brian, it’d be great if we could mate, but you heard what Franz said, it’d be bloody impossible and could stuff any of us getting a medal.
Lavis tried to bring Crago back into focus, “Brian, your chances are just as good as any of us of going home with a medal mate.”
Crago responded, “Just hear me out fellas. I’m not asking anyone to do anything they don’t want to do, just asking you guys to listen to what I’ve got to say. I think there might be a way.”
Mairinger gave Brian the floor, “Go on Brian.”
“After the last Olympics,” he paused before his addition, “yeah, I’ve got a score to settle here. And the score is simple – to let the whole world know that we are the number one Equestrian Team at these Games. They should have known it at the last Games and by crikey, they’ll bloody know it at these Games as far as I’m concerned. Now the way I see it, if we take that goat’s track that old bloke and his donkey took, which is a legitimate option, we’ll have enough time up our sleeves to ride the course clear and close the gap on the French.”
Roycroft responded in amazement, “Are you bloody crazy? Brian, you’re grasping at straws there mate! That bloke was flat out getting down that track with a tiny donkey at a snail’s pace. The clock will be running, if we slow down we will lose the time we have made up with the hard route.”
“That’s how we approach it.”
Morgan confused asked, “And how’s that Brian?”
“Like you’re in an Olympic competition with the clock going.”
Mairinger was concerned, “Attempting something that you haven’t done before Brian, in an Olympic competition, could end in disaster and virtually put anyone who tried it out of contention.”
Crago responded passionately, “I’ve ridden down ridges twice as big as that, I’ve been doing it all my life. Bloody hell, we all have! Anyway, I’m not askin’ anyone to have a go until they see how I do it. If I can’t do it, then the rest of you continue on with the individual medal.”
Lavis was on board as he wanted the Team medal as much as anyone, “But Brian, that bloke on the donkey, after he’d gone down the first drop, it was thick bush with thorns all the way through it. He got under it because he was small and his donkey was tiny. You come down it on Sabre who’s over 16 hands and that scrub will take your head off before you get halfway down the ridge.”
“I’m gonna hit that scrub like a steamroller. Mate when I’m finished I can assure you the rest of you blokes won’t have that problem.”
Mairinger was not opposed to the idea, but was concerned about the horses’ welfare. “How do you intend protecting yourself and your horse Brian?”
“As far as Sabre is concerned, I’ll strap him up, put some blinkers on him and if I can get my hands on a good size breastplate, he’ll be right.”
Gino, who had been sitting at the back of the room listening contributed, “Mr Brian, my wife’s brother is one of the best leatherworkers in all of Rome. This breastplate, can it be made out of leather, no?”
Crago smiled, “Leather would be fine Gino. Well what do you think fellas? The way I see it, you don’t get too many chances to show what a bunch of bushies can do when they put their minds to it.”
Mairinger was processing the idea and thought to himself, “Well, I’ve got to go with the majority in this case, what Brain is proposing is the Australian way and like a good young horse, I would not try to diminish his natural enthusiasm and instinct.”
“Brian, are you prepared to risk your Olympic campaign for a very small chance of winning the Team medal?”
“I’ve never been surer of anything in my life Franz.”
“We take a vote then, and if we are to go ahead with this, it is with the understanding that if Brian fails the rest of you then concentrate on individual medals. Understood?”
Crago asked the final question, “Well what’s it gonna be fellas? Laurie?”
“Just make sure your bloody gardening skills are up to scratch when you go down that hill. I’m in.”
“We’re a Team aren’t we? I’m in.”
“Do you have to ask mate? Course I’m in you crazy bastard.”
Crago has committed to risking any kind of medal for the chance of putting the Team back in medal contention. Five years of preparation will rest on his shoulders as he throws caution to the wind.
It is something he had to do.