Olympic Grand Prix Dressage Begins

The U.S. stands in second place after strong performances from the Germans and Spain's Rafael Soto on the first day of Olympic grand prix dressage competition.
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The U.S. stands in second place after strong performances from the Germans and Spain's Rafael Soto on the first day of Olympic grand prix dressage competition.

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Markopoulo, Greece, August 20, 2004--The U.S. is in second place in the Olympic grand prix dressage competition, but don't pop the champagne cork yet. While the standings may seem like good news, they camouflage a distressing truth.

"In some ways, we didn't perform quite up to what we're used to recently," said Jessica Ransehousen, the long-time dressage chef d'equipe.

Numbers don't lie, and a look at the scores tells the sad truth: Neither Lisa Wilcox, once the toast of European dressage, nor Guenter Seidel, the team's Mr. Reliable, broke 70 percent. Ouch.

True, the USA's biggest guns Brentina with Debbie McDonald and Robert Dover's ride, Kennedy, will ride tomorrow when the team medals are decided.

But the other nations' stars will be riding in the morning, too.

Germany stands on 71.813 percent to the USA's 69.146. What do you think will happen to the German score when Ulla Salzgeber and Rusty enter the arena?

Britain, one of my dark horse medal picks, is right behind the U.S. on 69.084, courtesy of Escapado. This bay Oldenburg by Ex Libris was ridden to a T by the very capable Carl Hester, who stands fourth on 70.667 percent (though I thought some of his transitions in and out of the piaffe were weak. But they didn't ask me...)

Anyway, Carl was as thrilled with his performance as the judges.

"Let's say that if I died now, I would be a happy man. My horse gave me the hottest ride ever," said Carl. Some believed he shouldn't be on the British team, but obviously he's proven them wrong.

Spain is right behind Britain on 68.771 percent. That nation's enthusiastic Rafael Soto is the leader in the rankings at this point on Invasor, who scored an impressive 72.792 percent. Amazingly, he's ahead of two Germans, Humbertus Schmidt who had a lyrical test on the lovely Wansuela Suerte (72.333) and his teammate Heike Kemmer with 71.292 on Bonaparte.

Unlike the elegant warmbloods against whom he competes, Invasor is a comfortable couch of a horse, an old-fashioned, heavyset Andalusian. The son of Panadero 8 is 15, an experienced hand at the top level. This is his third and final Olympics. His type wasn't much in favor in 1996 when Invasor made his Olympic debut. Now the judges have no worries about giving good marks to a horse who is obedient and expressive and doesn't look like the others.

However, in the expressive department, Invasor doesn't hold a candle to his rider. Rafael, who runs the riding school in Jerez (home of the 2002 World Equestrian Games), raised both hands to the sky after his final salute and then dropped his reins and clapped for himself all the way out of the arena. Someone said he was showing the judges how obedient his horse is. Maybe.

Tomorrow Spain's best rider WEG double-medalist Beatriz Ferrer-Salat comes out on Beauvalais. America better look out.

Denmark, America's other big worry, is slightly farther down in marks, with 68.209 percent to stand fifth. Tomorrow, however, we'll see the impressive Cavan (you might know him as Blue Hors Cavan, but they're not using commercial prefixes in the Games) and Esprit de Valdemar, who I've never watched but I've heard is quite something.

Now wait. I know you're thinking, "Why didn't she mention the Netherlands?"

The Dutch are sixth on 67.166 percent, but won't be for long. Olympic champion Anky van Grunsven waits in the wings on Salinero, her 10-year-old Hanoverian by Sallieri, and my prediction is that she'll blow them all away and move the Dutch up like an elevator. However, the Dutch are missing Anky's protege, Edward Gal, whose Lingh got hurt getting off a van recently. With Gal on the squad, they had a shot at beating the Germans. Without him, they'll have to settle for silver. If the USA can make a comeback tomorrow, the Dutch might wind up with the bronze.

Anyway, it's a very close race.

Lisa was the first rider in the competition (never a comfortable spot) on Relevant, who definitely did not look full throttle. She also had a mistake in the two-tempi changes which isn't like the meticulous Lisa. But she hasn't been competing much since her stallion by Rubinstein I hurt his right front tendon sheath and was laid off in the spring. She won the grand prix with him at Lingen, Germany, earlier this month, but perhaps the lack of showing hurt him.

"It's disappointing," conceded Lisa, who is eighth with 68.792 percent. "That puts a lot of pressure on my teammates."

Guenter rode his newer horse, Aragon, a Bavarian gray by Abydos, instead of his old faithful Nikolaus. Neither of his halts were anything to write home about, and he stepped back in one pirouette. His passage was also a little tight, which meant when he went into his first piaffe it wasn't his usual remarkable version of the movement.

"Overall," said Guenter, who is seventh on 69.5 percent, "it was good considering that half a year ago he was afraid to stay in an arena like this."

Oh well, don't write off the U.S. yet. America still has some cards to play.

"The first day can be disappointing. Sometimes things pick up and sometimes they don't. That's just part of the game," said Jessica.

On the eventing front, the U.S., Britain and France followed through and filed an appeal of Bettina Hoy's score with the Court of Arbitration for Sport. A decision may come as soon as today. Bettina, the individual gold medalist who led her German squad to team gold, circled twice before the first jump on Wednesday and crossed her own line, which is against the rules. For details, see my postcards of the last two days (Accusations Surround Eventing Conclusion and Controversy Mars Team Eventing).

If Bettina is disqualified, Kim Severson moves up to the individual silver and the U.S. team gets the bronze. John Long, the U.S. Equestrian Federation's CEO, told me that if the medals are redistributed and there is a ceremony to go with it, the American athletes will be flown back to Greece to take part.

I'm editing this postcard in the Olympics' Main Press Center, about 40 minutes from Markopoulo, where seven screens are full of the action of the Games, from synchronized swimming to sailing and gymnastics. There are thousands of journalists at work all around me. If you can work in the MPC, as it's called, you can work anywhere. You learn to completely ignore distractions, even the guy over there in the turban and long white robe who's speaking a language I've never heard.

Every MPC at every Olympics I've been to is the same, a place of eternal half-twilight, with a warren of offices around the main workroom.

It's an amazing location, but there are some poor editors who never see anything else (except a bed for a few hours a night) during the run of the Games. Happily, I'm not one of them. I'm going while the getting is good, taking a few hours with friends from the BBC and NBC to head to the center of Athens for dinner. But it will be an early night. I have to get up at 5 a.m. tomorrow to get to the second day of grand prix dressage. See you then!