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Royal faces tough cross country course

Monday - 7/30/2012, 12:39am  ET

By NICOLE WINFIELD
Associated Press

LONDON (AP) - The queen's granddaughter Zara Phillips heads into the grueling heart of the Olympic equestrian eventing competition Monday, racing her horse around a twisting course in London's oldest royal park that's been outfitted with 28 fences, hedges and water jumps.

The thrilling cross country portion of the three-discipline eventing competition is designed to test horse and rider's endurance and guts _ and the 5.7-kilometer (3.5-mile) course up and down the hills of Greenwich Park should fit the bill. There are razor-sharp turns, blind 2-meter (yard) drops and tricky combination jumps _ each one designed with a very British story behind it.

It remains to be seen which royal might come to cheer Phillips on for what she has said is her horse's strongest event of the three-discipline competition.

On Sunday, her grandfather, the Duke of Edinburgh, joined her mother Princess Anne in the VIP stands of the main stadium of Greenwich Park to watch her earn a respectable score in the dressage portion of her Olympic debut. With 46.10 penalty points for a slight mistake, Phillips landed in 24th place out of 74 riders with cross country and show jumping to go.

Phillips said her horse High Kingdom, an 11-year-old bay gelding, was looking forward to Monday's cross country, a timed competition with penalties awarded for refusals, falls and times that exceed the 10 minute, 3 second pace.

"He's a good jumper, that's his stronger phase," she said. "He's quite quick and easy to turn so hopefully it'll be good." And after days practicing dressage, a standard test of walk, trot and canter that demonstrates the horse's obedience, Phillips said High Kingdom was ready for action.

"I think he wants to get out there now. He's a bit bored of dressage," she said.

What he'll face are English rose gardens to jump over, a Tower of London combination jump in the main stadium and even a swampy scene from the British children's classic "The Wind in the Willows." One tricky jump depicts the Prime Meridian Line that runs nearby; another is a crescent moon in a nod to the Royal Observatory on the park grounds.

The course starts with a diamond-framed hedge in honor of Queen Elizabeth II's recently-celebrated Diamond Jubilee. It ends with a giant, upside down horseshoe flanked by two equine sculptures made entirely out of recycled horse shoes.

Phillips, a former world and European eventing champion who is 14th in line to the British throne, said she was thrilled to be representing Britain on her home soil _ literally. Equestrian events are being staged at Greenwich Park, the oldest royal park in London which dates from 1433. The main equestrian arena sits in front of Queen's House, a 17th-century building designed as a summer palace for Queen Anne of Denmark, the wife of James I.

"To be here at home is an amazing feeling, and you just want to try and do your best for the team," Phillips said.

Cheers and applause broke out as Phillips rode into the stadium Sunday, and cheers erupted again when she finished. Princess Anne, wearing a bright red canvas hat, applauded politely.

Anne competed at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, but her horse fell going over a jump during the cross country event. Phillips father, Capt. Mark Phillips, fared better, winning team gold at Munich in 1972 and silver in Seoul 16 years later. The elder Phillips was in the stands on Sunday as well to cheer his daughter on, sitting a few seats from his ex-wife. He's currently a coach of the U.S. equestrian team.

After the dressage portion, Germany was in the lead with 119.0 penalty points followed by Australia with 122.1 and Britain with 127. The United States was seventh with 138.8. Like golf, the low score wins.

Japan's Yoshiaki Oiwa posted the best individual dressage score on Noonday de Conde with 38.1 points, landing in a surprise first place.

"I still can't believe it," Oiwa said. "Probably everyone is a little bit shocked. No one was expecting it. There's very little Japanese media here."

But in eventing, anything goes, and team leader Germany _ which won both team and individual gold in the 2008 Olympics _ said Monday's cross country would likely shake up both team and individual standings.

"It's a three-day competition and not a dressage show," said German coach Hans Melzer. "I think tomorrow is a new competition and everyone starts with zero."

Course designer Sue Benson said she was aiming for a course that was challenging enough for the most experienced riders but not so tough that lesser horses would wipe out, fearing the bad reputation that could give the sport on such a high-profile stage.

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