June 16, 2012 -- "The battle for Helm's Deep is over. The battle for Middle Earth is about to begin."
No, I'm not out of my mind; no more than usual, anyway. I thought this quote from "Lord of the Rings" was a good way to start my postcard on the second set of Olympic dressage team selection trials.
There are two reasons I chose it:
1) The winner of the trials (and the National Grand Prix Championship) today was Legolas, Steffen Peters' number two horse (behind Ravel, who will ship in from California on Tuesday to prepare for training camp.) If you aren't familiar with Lord of the Rings, Legolas is a brave and resourceful elf. While Steffen didn't name the horse himself, he is a Rings fan and told me he is so glad his horse was named after a heroic character. And when you think of it, isn't Steffen really Lord of the Ring?
2) The battle for Helm's Deep (which I'm equating to the selection trials) was important, but the battle for Middle Earth was the big deal (like the Olympics!)
After riding against each other at the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation headquarters for two weekends, the U.S. competitors now have to focus on riding against the best of Middle Earth; excuse me, I mean the world, and it's going to be quite a task for them this summer in London.
Great Britain, Germany and the Netherlands are the favored players for team medals; but we're in the mix in the next group, which also includes Denmark, Sweden and Spain. With only three riders on a team and no drop score, anything can happen. Dressage is far less predictable than it used to be, and that especially will be the case in London because unlike Games past, when only the Grand Prix counted for the team medal, now the Grand Prix Special counts as well.
So if things stand as they are now, Steffen will be aboard Ravel, who also likely will be in contention for the individual medal he missed at the 2008 Olympics. A lot of people thought that he, not Germany's Isabell Werth and her bucking bronco, should have gotten the bronze then. Ravel was excused from the trials because of his resume (World Cup finals winner; twice World Dressage Masters champion, two medals at the World Equestrian Games, etc.) As a result of missing the trials, he had to be placed third in the rankings (that's just the way they do it) but he's everyone's first choice to be the team's anchor, pillar or rock; you pick the metaphor.
Legolas' total for the four trials (two Grands Prix, two Specials, each counting 25 percent) was 77.653 percent. Second in the trials with a total of 76.873 was Tina Konyot and her pet, Calecto V, the Danish-bred stallion who is in far better shape than he was in Florida the last time I saw him. In fact, he's so on the mark that he beat Legolas yesterday in the second Grand Prix of the trials, scoring a career-best 80.149 percent for Tina. (She started out serving notice that this was going to be a special ride, getting a 92 for her halt, then proceeding to be awarded two 10's from the judges.) Calecto came awfully close to edging Legolas again this morning, but the stallion's 77.889 percent in the Special was just short of 77.956 percent for Legolas, who has some issues with the tempi changes that no doubt will be corrected with more mileage. Don't forget, he's going to England as Steffen's spare.
Jan Ebeling finished third on Rafalca (his total was 73.169 percent), also much improved since the last time I saw her. Consistency and a long history between the two has paid off, in a big, big way.
In addition to the pressure of trying to make the team, Jan had to deal with the fact that Rafalca has been the center of attention in the media because one of her owners is Ann Romney, wife of presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and most of the coverage has been predictably snotty. Out-of-touch rich people and their horses, that sort of thing. Why didn't anyone write in that tone about Jackie Kennedy, who used to foxhunt a stone's throw from the historic USET stable here and compete in shows down the road?
I'll come back to Rafalca and company in a second; just wanted to? wrap up the team stuff by saying that Adrienne Lyle put in the ride of a lifetime on Wizard today to finish fourth in the trials with a total of 72.558 percent.? Since there are only three on a team (and no drop score) Adrienne would be able to compete as an individual (the U.S. hasn't been officially notified that it got an individual slot--only a few countries have them--but I think that's simply a formality.)
Adrienne is just 27, this is her first Olympic trials and she went out and did what had to be done this morning if she was going to get a ticket to the Games in London. She was third in the Special with 74.889 percent, ahead of Jan's 73.844.
I was in Idaho in 2006 when Adrienne began riding Wizard under the tutelage of Debbie McDonald, and believe me, he wasn't easy. Adrienne and Debbie polished this horse's talent over the years and made the most of his potential. I talked with Adrienne and Debbie after the competition about the clutch performance that earned Wizard a trip to London.
It was so cute to see Steffen lift Debbie so she could hug Adrienne after her ride while she was still in the saddle. Debbie, as you may know, is vertically challenged.
So back to the big story of the day, the U.S. Equestrian Federation's clever rebuttal video of a snide (see above) video bit by satirist Stephen Colbert on dressage in general and the Romneys/Rafalca in particular, complete with a mocking poem set to the music for "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
For the counter-attack, Jim Wolf of the USEF ordered hundreds of red foam fingers (the kind fans wear at football games) saying "Dressage is # 1."? Colbert waved one of those fingers (which did NOT say "Dressage is #1") when he did his piece.? After the awards ceremony, the fingers were handed out to the crowd, who provided a backdrop for announcer Brian O'Connor as he sang his clever version of the Colbert song:
"Take me out to New Jersey, where dressage is the sport of the year. The horses and riders are making the day, to be Olympians for team USA. So root, root, root for equestrians, who have won medals of every type. So it's one, two, tempis that make dressage live up to its hype."
You can see the Colbert rebuttal on You Tube.
USEF CEO John Long was a big advocate of making lemonade out of this lemon. There is a school of thought that believes any publicity is good publicity. The whole thing certainly heightened the profile of dressage. I talked to John about l'affaire Colbert.
Ann Romney, who was on hand to watch the horse she owns with Jan's wife, Amy, and Beth Meyer, was incredibly gracious about the whole thing. When I asked what she thought about the Colbert piece, she called it "hilarious." Ann even waved a red foam finger along with everyone else and really got into it.
We had a wonderful chat about dressage and the Olympics. You'll remember her husband saved the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002, so there is a long connection between the Romneys and the Games. Even before Rafalca qualified, the two planned to go to London for the Olympics.
Listen to part of our conversation.
You probably know that Ann became involved with riding regularly because she has multiple sclerosis. Nothing seemed to help her symptoms until she got on a horse.? As a result, she has an interest in therapeutic riding and para-equestrian. She was the perfect choice to present the national para championship trophy to Becca Hart, who has taken that title five times. Becca, who trains with Jessica and Missy Ransehousen (Missy is the para team coach) will be going to the Paralympics, which are held after the Olympics.
Between the two Grand Prix weekends, the para trials were held in the Pine Meadow section of the Foundation's property. It's the area where the old Gladstone Driving Event was held (this summer they're having a driving trials there) but it hasn't been used much. It's all spruced up and looks wonderful.
I attended the para trials and was incredibly impressed. Everyone participating has some sort of a challenge that would stop lesser people in their tracks. Some can't walk; some walk haltingly. But all have a "can-do" attitude and when they get on their horses, they're in a different zone, enjoying the freedom that they can't find outside the arena.
We've had gorgeous weather for most of the show here, but would you believe that the one day of rain was during the para trials? That hardly seemed fair, but need I say that these folks were undaunted.
I ducked under a tent to speak with Mary Jordan, who has multiple sclerosis, and rode in para at the 2010 WEG. Here's what she had to say:
If you ever get a chance to see a para competition, do it. You'll be amazed and inspired.
I'll be back with you tomorrow for a final update from Gladstone. Caroline Roffman and Pie (named after the horse in National Velvet) are in the lead for the Intermediaire national title, and the Brentina Cup will be decided too. The idea of the Brentina Cup (named after Debbie's famous mount, who, like Wizard, is owned by Peggy and Parry Thomas) is to serve as a bridge between the Young Rider ranks and the professional ranks. It's an important milestone. Adrienne won it in 2008. That says it all.