August 2, 2012 -- At the 2011 European Championships, the stands were packed for dressage, and less so for show jumping. There was much conversation about that, until the Brits made headlines with their first dressage gold medal.
Dressage has become the "in' thing in Britain, and most in the prediction business see the home team and Germany squaring off over the team gold at the Olympics. As Grand Prix dressage got under way today, there were very few empty seats, less than there were for eventing, which I always think of as the British national equestrian pastime.
British riders didn't let their fans down, finishing 1-2, with Carl Hester topped the rankings on the black stallion Uthopia (77.720 percent). Teammate Laura Bechtolsheimer finished on 76.839 with the flashy chestnut, Mistral Hojris.
Then it gets tricky. The British team leads (there are only three riders on a team) on 77.280 percent with perhaps the strongest combination, Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro yet to come. Denmark is second with 73.305 and Spain third on 70.887. (While I had said in my preview that Spain might have an outside medal shot, I take it back because its strongest rider, Beatriz Ferrer-Salat, is not competing. Her horse, Delgado, is on the injured list.)
Germany and the U.S., however, are among the teams that had only one rider take part today, so it's not possible to come up with a definitive standing. However, Dorothee Schneider, riding the lovely Diva Royal, stands third for Germany with 76.277 percent. This black mare is as fluid as ink. When she walked out of the arena, I thought how well she fit her long-limbed rider, and was amazed at how supple and relaxed she seemed, despite the pressure.
Speaking of pressure, Jan Ebeling did a terrific job with Rafalca for the U.S., finishing 13th on 70.243 percent. His pressure involved not only the Olympic tension, but also the fact that Ann Romney, wife of presidential candidate Mitt Romney, is one of the owners of the mare and was watching with the other owners, Beth Meyer and Amy Ebeling, Jan's wife.
Much has been made in the media about Ann's ownership, particularly by those who characterize dressage as an elitist sport in an effort to zing her husband, so Jan has been much in demand for interviews. But he's incredibly good-natured, from my perspective, and naturally was all smiles about the mare's performance today during his first Olympics, an experience he summed up as "Wow."
Rafalca looked livelier to me than she did at June's Olympic trials, but the sizzling atmosphere in the arena can do that.
"She was amped up...more oomph in her movement," said Jan.
Of the media attention that came his way, he said, "I think it ended up being a good thing for the sport. I don't get distracted by these things. I have a pretty good way of focusing. If I don't want to talk to anybody, I just don't answer the phone." He pointed out that the Romney connection means, "it's given our sport a lot of opportunity to be seen."
As for Ann Romney's advice to him, he reported she said, "Do what you know to do and do what you do best."
While Jan seemed happy with his score from the seven-member judging panel (an innovation, it used to be five), Laura wasn't thrilled with her mark.
"I'm pretty gutted for my team," she said.
"The score didn't reflect what we thought it would be. It's by far my lowest percentage I've had in a few years. I hope it's just because the marks are low at this stage. I thought it was going to be a much bigger score. We'll wait and see what happens with the rest of the competition because tomorrow a lot of the stronger combinations come. If they go well ahead, then we're going to have to think hard about how to change our performance," she noted.
Coincidentally, both she and Carl had the same mistake, an unprompted lead switch in the extended canter.
But that was minor stuff compared to what happened to poor David Marcus of Canada, whose horse, Capital, freaked out at a TV camera and the crowd moving around as rain came down. He couldn't get the horse going again, and was eliminated, which also eliminated the Canadian team, since there is no drop score.
There were so many good stories today. Hiroshi Hoketsu, who stands 17th for Japan on Whisper, at 71 is the oldest competitor at the Games. Will he try for Rio in 2016? No: "My horse is too old for that and it's too hard to find another one."
Minna Telde of Sweden rides a one-eyed horse, Santana, 20th on 67.477 percent.