Postcard: WEG Grand Prix Dressage

Wednesday was an exciting day in Spain for the Americans, with Debbie McDonald and Sue Blinks performing brilliantly in Grand Prix dressage. Vaulting also started today, with the Germans leading as expected.
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Wednesday was an exciting day in Spain for the Americans, with Debbie McDonald and Sue Blinks performing brilliantly in Grand Prix dressage. Vaulting also started today, with the Germans leading as expected.

Today was significant for so many people around the world because of the terrorist attack on America a year ago, but it has even more meaning for Debbie McDonald. Not only was she, like millions of others, devastated by the disaster at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but her mother also died that day, though it was unconnected to the attack.

"I knew she wanted to be here," Debbie said at the World Equestrian Games this afternoon, her eyes filling with tears as she remembered two tragedies. Now, however, Sept. 11 will have a happier connection for her, since it is the day she and Brentina performed a fabulous Grand Prix.

"Incredible," was the word Debbie used to describe her horse and the test that was good enough to earn 74.64 percent. She knew she nailed everything, raising one white-gloved hand high as soon as she finished, waving to the cheering crowd, and then being unable to resist punching it down, as if to say, "I got it!" The score put her second behind that white-stockinged chestnut German powerhouse Farbenfroh, who got 77.96 percent with Nadine Capellman aboard.

Sue Blinks, who went earlier in the day for the USA, also had a bravura performance with a very fit-looking Flim Flam, who got 72.24 percent. Flim, diagnosed with ulcers after the trials, has never felt better since being treated for the problem.

Flim lit up outside the ring, really listening to his rider. For the most part, he carried that brilliance through, a real contrast to the placid elevator music piped through the stadium as entries competed. She describes Flim, who is about to become a Breyer model horse, as her "buddy." In turn, Sue dotes on him.

"We call him His Royal Highness," she says. He gets treated well, with plenty of massages and other goodies.

"He expects that and we're glad to oblige," Sue says.

It was a great day for the USA, and now guess what? I never thought I would live long enough to write these words: The U.S. dressage squad is only 35 points behind the German team and this could be a neck-and-neck race. Forget the silver medal everyone was hoping American dressage riders would win. It didn't occur to me that the USA might threaten for more, until the Dutch chef d'equipe here, Ghislan Fourage, told me, "you have a very good team, perhaps good enough for gold."

Just a few years ago, American dressage riders were languishing far out of the spotlight. But a concerted effort by the U.S. Equestrian Team has boosted the country's fortunes in a sport once dominated by Europeans. As U.S. chef d'equipe Jessica Ransehousen, a three-time Olympian herself, said, going to Europe every year to show American proficiency has paid off in better judges' marks. And hiring former German coach Klaus Balkenhol didn't hurt, either.

Tomorrow, of course, will tell the tale of who gets what. European and World Cup Champion Ulla Salzgeber with Rusty is yet to appear for the Germans, and you can count on her to roll up an impressive score. But who is Klaus Husenbeth, the guy going third for Germany with Piccolino? I can guarantee he's no Isabell Werth, the gal who brought in gold medal after gold medal for her homeland.

Our anchor is German-based Lisa Wilcox with Relevant. She goes right after Ulla, so a comparison will be inevitable, and perhaps end up in Lisa's favor, elevating her score -- though I don't expect her to beat the consistent Rusty. Our third rider isn't shabby either. The very experienced Guenter Seidel, who's been there and done that through Olympics and other world championships, is up on the ever-improving Niklaus 7.

And what of the Dutch? They lost their best horse, Gestion Silvano, in the vet check here. "He had problems with his knees," said Ghislan, who feels the ground jury's decision not to let him show "was correct." It would appear the Dutch are out of medal contention, but the Danes and Spanish have a shot at bronze. The latter, with the home team advantage, got a whopper of a score courtesy of Beatriz Ferrer-Salat on Beauvalais, marked at 74.56 percent.

"I am very happy and very proud of my super horse," said Beatriz. She calls herself "the princess of the team" whose other members are all male.

A very full day included a press conference with Dona Pilar, president of the FEI (international equestrian Federation) and sister of the king of Spain.

I hit the well-tailored and well-coiffed princess with the first question, asking how she sees the proposal of the International Olympic Committee's program commission to drop eventing from the Olympics as of 2008.

"We are going to contest this recommendation," she said, noting "it is not a decision."
Then this very formidable lady turned her guns on the sport itself, saying the price-tag for setting up the cross-country course here was "scandalous."

"They kept asking more and more," she said, noting they wanted greenery imported from England, when it was available across the street from the course for $1,000. She couldn't break down the cost of eventing itself at this WEG. But the tab for setting up the venue where endurance, eventing, cross-country and the driving marathon will run totaled $3 million. You can bet eventing accounted for most of that.

Vaulting also started today with compulsory exercises. The team stands sixth, with Germany leading the way as expected; there will be no U.S. upset here. Individually, Pamela Geisler is ninth and Samantha Smith 14th in the women's individual, while Devon Maitozo is 10th in the men's, followed by Eric Martonovich.

Samantha's horse, Doc, is an 18-hand Belgian who is so hefty he almost unbalanced the plane that brought him here.

"You didn't tell me Doc weighed 1,860 pounds," the USET's transportation agent said accusingly.

Things are going to get even busier tomorrow, when eventing dressage starts. It was finally decided that David O'Connor will ride Giltedge rather than Custom Made, while Amy Tryon is taking Poggio II, not My Beau. Kim Vinoski, who also had two horses, will be aboard her Rolex-Kentucky winner, Winsome Adante, as expected.