"We did it," said an elated Lisa Wilcox, as word came of a historic moment for the American dressage team -- it had clinched the silver medal at the World Equestrian Games.
The pressure was on anchor rider Lisa for this one, because Guenter Seidel had difficulties with the temperamental Nikolaus 7 and couldn't break 70 percent during his appearance this afternoon.
Spain was threatening U.S. efforts to move up from its usual bronze, so Lisa had to produce with the stunning chestnut stallion Relevant. Produce she did, though Relevant tried so hard he got off balance in two piaffes, which dropped his score to a mere 74.200 percent. Remember the era (not so long ago) when U.S. dressage riders were thrilled at the thought of getting 70 per cent?
This was quite a day for the U.S. Equestrian Team, with Olympic gold medal eventer David O'Connor on Giltedge and his teammate, John Williams on Carrick, tying for second with 34.2 penalties to put their nation first as the dressage phase of eventing got under way.
"It's a good time to be an American," said David's wife, Karen, neatly summing up the positives. She didn't make the squad after her mount, Regal Scot, got hurt in his stall before the final team outing in the U.S. last month. But she was here to support her husband, who also got congratulatory hugs from his mother, Sally, and father, John.
Let me get back to the Grand Prix dressage, though, because that was the big deal today. I was reminiscing with U.S. Chef d'Equipe Jessica Ransehousen and show jumping team leader Sally Ike about the first time a post-World War II U.S. team got a dressage bronze medal, in the 1976 Montreal Olympics. We all remembered Fiona Baan, the U.S. Equestrian Team's director of dressage activities who had worked so hard to see the medals around the necks of her team members, and was so proud when it actually happened. Fiona died of cancer after that, but her spirit is still with the team she loved so much.
"Fiona's watching today," Sally said, and I agreed. She would have been enraptured by the elaborate medal ceremony. Winners were led into the ring by a mounted troop in 19th-century military regalia, followed by horses each bearing two riders, a man in the saddle and a woman wearing colorful flounced dresses seated sideways behind him. A pretty picture, but I was hoping their horses weren't the same ones we saw in the afternoon exhibition, who were trained to rear side-by-side in unison. I'd hate to see the gals in their pretty outfits go sliding off.
As I continue telling you about the dressage, I want to briefly introduce Lisa, because you may not be as familiar with her as with the other team members, all of whom went to the selection trials in the U.S. Lisa skipped them because she's based in Germany and shows there, where she trains with her boyfriend, Ernst Hoyos of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. Today, she spoke of how he much he has helped her, and couldn't help shedding a tear when she thought of his contributions to her efforts.
Lisa, by the way, looks like a fashion model. I noticed that her eye makeup somehow was still perfect after her intense ride in the heat before thousands of fans knowledgeable enough to gasp at Relevant's piaffe bobbles. She could do a mascara commercial.
Her turn in the arena came right after European Champion Ulla Salzgeber, who was the favorite for the individual title with the reliable Rusty. However, Ulla was scored below her teammate, Nadine Capellmann, and the fabulous Farbenfroh, my white-stockinged chestnut favorite who went before the judges yesterday and earned 77.960 percent.
Ulla thought her horse did very well to be marked at 75.640 percent, considering he had a high fever earlier this week and missed several days of training. Impossibly slender, with smartly cropped black hair and a very positive approach, Ulla said she prefers being in a come-from-behind position and does better that way.
We'll see how she fares tomorrow in the Grand Prix Special, where she'll also face competition from the highest-scoring American rider, Debbie McDonald, who stands third on Brentina (74.640). Going into these Games, no one was thinking about an individual medal for the U.S., but it's a real possibility now.
It's tough to cover the WEG, because so much is going on at the same time. I was hopping between the main arena and three-day dressage in a grass arena a short walk away, where the seating capacity is about 1/10th of that in the big stadium and the backdrop is part of the Jerez skyline.
David got a big cheer from the fans after his final salute, and I'd like to think a good part of that applause was for Giltedge. It will be the last time David appears in a championship on his "old friend," because the 16-year-old horse will end his career next year with Badminton, if he's fit to run.
David thought about that before he rode down the centerline.
"There's a moment of nostalgia, almost," he said about the experience.
While U.S. supporters were literally jumping with joy after the performances by David and John, this event most certainly will be most influenced not by dressage, but by what happens in the cross-country Saturday at a facility a short drive from the main stadium in Jerez.
David called the course "very tough. I think it's a little unpredictable. There are places where you are not going to be quite sure what's going to happen. It's going to be a real rider instinct course."
Asked about his chances for an individual medal here, he replied, "When you're with the team, you have other jobs besides yourself. The experts will tell me what I need to do, and I'll go do that."
The Australians, gold medalists in the last three Olympics, will be tough to beat. While USA-based Aussie Phillip Dutton stands first on House Doctor with 33.6 penalties, he is riding as an individual, rather than a member of the team. But without him, his nation is second to the Americans on a total of 84.80, to the USA's 68.40. Britain is third on 87.60, but their biggest gun, European Champion Pippa Funnell has yet to compete in dressage.
Each day brings more excitement here, and it makes you realize what a terrific concept the WEG is. Anyone who loves horses can find their niche at this event.
Dona Pilar de Borbon, president of the FEI (international equestrian federation) said a decision will be made next week here on whether the next WEG, in 2006, goes to Aachen, Germany, or Lexington, Kentucky. If the latter gets the nod, it will be the first time the WEG is held in the U.S. And it sounded to me like the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington might have a good shot.
Dona Pilar has not been to Lexington, but she said she liked the concept of being able to hold everything in the park, and she thinks it belongs in a small city where it can be a main attraction. If that's the case, Lexington fills the bill.