The Cross Country phase has begun with riders and horses suffering from the extreme heat and humidity of the Roman summer and most are making hard work of the course. The combinations at jumps 32, 33 and 34 late in the course, have been particularly punishing, after 26 riders, none had made the optimum time or gone around the course without jumping penalties. Crago is the 1st of the Australians to ride and he is totally focused on Sabre as he prepares for the trial ahead.
It is a tense time for Crago, knowing he is about to undertake a manoeuvre that could potentially end in disaster. He has purposefully placed the breastplate supplied by Gino, and adjusted it on Sabre, as if in some sort of pre-gladiatorial ceremony. He adjusts and fastens each buckle, stopping to admire the Australian Coat of Arms carved into the solid looking piece of leather harness. Leather blinkers are placed over the Sabre’s eyes and he places as much leg protection on the horse as possible; knee guards, shin protectors and leather bell boots, and the tension grows with the fastening of each buckle.
Crago himself has elected to wear long sleeves and gloves despite the oppressively hot and humid conditions. Sabre is now fully tacked up and Crago reaches up and gently strokes him above the eye as he soothingly whispers, “I’ll look after you mate.”
Crago puts on his helmet and as he adjusts it, time seems to slow down, it’s as though he is in a dream. Adrenalin can have this affect. He mounts Sabre and rides towards the Ten Second Box to await the countdown for the commencement of his ride. Once again, there is a gladiatorial feel to what he is about to undertake. Suddenly, he is brought back into focus. Back to real speed and sound as the Starter begins the ten second count.
Sabre is on the toe; he marches on the spot ready to leap into action as soon as the order is given.
Crago looks down at the Coat of Arms on his saddlecloth, touches it and growls his new mantra to himself between gritted teeth, “Never a backward step.”
His fingers tighten around the reins and he takes a handful of mane. Finally the starter counted down to “Zero” and with that, Crago and Sabre launched forward as though into battle.
Commentator 1, “And the first of the Australians is now on course, it’s Brian Crago, the only Australian who has previously ridden at the Olympics.”
Commentator 2, “Yes that’s right, and if I remember correctly, it was an incident on the Cross Country course involving Brian Crago that potentially cost his country a medal at the last games.”
Commentator 1, “I’m not sure I’m familiar with that type of breastplate, any thoughts on that?”
Commentator 2, “No, but the way he’s armoured up there, you would swear he was going into battle!”
Jump one looms immediately. Jump one; never take it for granted. Many run-outs occur at Jump one through complacency. Approach every jump like it is the last one you will ever ride.
Up and over, hit the ground galloping.
Rhythm and tempo; don’t get too excited and burn out too early.
Jump two, Jump three, Jump four.
Long gallop to five; bank and lane combination.
Upright two strides, up onto the bank, two strides, drop two strides another vertical.
“Here we go over one, two up, good boy, one two down, one two over and away, good boy.”
The gathered crowd cheer, Crago and Sabre are making light work of the course and there are only a couple of more jumps before Crago must place himself in the hands of destiny.
Sabre is travelling boldly and he has never felt better in himself, all of his confidence is in Crago on his back, “He won’t let me down. Jump 11, half halt, shorten, shorten, it must be a bounce, I have to react quickly when I hit the ground. Solid upright, looks too high! Oh it’s only brush on top, I can push through that, lift, land, snap up and drive! Over and out, blow, blow, blow, rhythm and tempo, relax, what’s next? It’s hot, it’s so hot, but the sweat helped me through that brush. Big crowd, must be a water complex, photographers, shifting people, movement everywhere, half halt, mind on the job, focus, big drop it’s only water, he wouldn’t ask me to do it if it wasn’t safe, splash, nice, half halt, focus, hold the line, jump, splash, splash, splash, jump, splash, jump and out.”
This is it, the final stretch to the big leap into the ravine and Sabre is surging along strongly, his nostrils flared making use of every ounce of available oxygen, his ears are still pricked in concentration, and as they near the dreaded point, Crago leans forward and whispers to Sabre, “Here we go mate, ‘never a backward step’.”
Crago indicates for Sabre to change course and heads straight for the ravine, Crago grits his teeth and again growls to himself, “Never a backward step.”
Sabre launched into space.
Over the loudspeaker the Commentator is alarmed, “Something has gone wrong the Australian, he has gone off the course, this could be very bad.”
Crago and Sabre seem to be in the air for an eternity then finally land on the almost vertical face of the ravine. After the initial drop of about ten feet through the air, the stony face of the ground shatters under the weight of the landing horse. He slides, sitting on his powerful haunches, then lunges forward and back into his galloping stride, still racing almost vertically down the slope. The undergrowth is thick and the track barely visible.
Crago lowers his head so that his helmet will take the brunt of the impact from the lantana, then his head hits a branch and he is thrown backward, almost dislodging him from the saddle. He gives Sabre his head in order to allow him to negotiate the dangerous descent without interference from him. Branches and thick brush smash onto the strong, protective breastplate emblazoned with the Australian Coat of Arms. Branches are heavily buffeting Crago, but he continually bounces back to the task.
Looking up from the bottom of the ravine, the bush can be seen to part as though it’s being cleared by a rolling bolder. The undergrowth looks to be an impenetrable hedge until suddenly Crago and Sabre crash through. They explode out of the dense bush and into the open of the lower section of the course. Behind them, a path has been partially cleared.
The only person to witness this feat at the bottom of this ridge is Franz Mairinger, as all other spectators are gathered around the major jumps.
The plan has worked. Crago tips his hat to Franz and continues on his way. The Commentator boomed over the loud speaker, “No! What a gallant move by the Australian. That’s the first rider we’ve seen take that route and I’d say it will be the last. In all my years of commentating I’ve never seen anything like it!”
Crago and Sabre finish the course. He looks to the scoreboard and is ecstatic to see that he has made the fastest time with no jumping penalties. He pats Sabre with enthusiasm, “Good boy, good boy.”
He looks over to the rest of his Team who are preparing to start their rides and as their eyes meet, he points down to his saddlecloth and then points up to the Heavens in a salute to Sam horden.
Crago is a mess and looks as though he has been in a fight. He is scratched and dirty, as is Sabre who has a cut on his front nearside fetlock, which has turned his white sock red; hopefully it is only superficial.
The way has been paved. The door to the Holy Grail of a Team Gold medal has reopened and the Australians will fight to the death.