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Hong Kong, August 14, 2008 -- The endless predictions about who would win the Olympic dressage medals followed many scenarios, but tonight, sadly, the reality involved an unimaginable nightmare.
Debbie McDonald and Brentina, who have been bulwarks of the U.S. team since 2002, had a test in which everything fell apart. The 17-year-old Hanoverian, making her final appearance in competition, looked off-balance in the extended trot, fumbled in the two-tempis and had a ragged pirouette.
Her score was 63 percent, unbelievable for a mare who helped bring the U.S. the silver medal at the World Equestrian Games six years ago and delivered the bronze at the last Olympics.
This time, the U.S. could not bring home its accustomed bronze, finishing fourth to Denmark by 1.056 percent and breaking a medal streak that started in 1992. The Danes, whose total of 68.875 brought their first equestrian team medal, knew the U.S. was the squad to beat. Danish team member Natalie Zu Sayn-Wittgenstein said she didn't see U.S. anchor rider Steffen Peters' ride.
"I was in the stable crossing fingers," she said.
Brentina, who did so well in June's selection trials, uncharacteristically spooked at something in the arena, though Debbie didn't know what.
"She was looking at something on the left. I could feel her much different than in the warm-up," Debbie said. "She's fitter and hotter than she's ever been. This took me by surprise as much as everybody else."
What was meant to be a triumphal farewell to the show ring turned into a calamity for the pair who had been the team's heroines so many times.
"I felt terrible," said Debbie, who is a real team player and understandably devastated by the situation. "I knew when it was the pirouette there was no hope. It was a bad day."
With the new three-member team format, there wasn't a drop score available to offset the low score. Steffen tried valiantly with Ravel to make up the difference between the U.S. total and that of the Danes, but he fell short at 70 percent.
Still, he wasn't unhappy with his ride.
Debbie's teammates lined up behind her.
"Right now, it's all about supporting Debbie," explained Steffen.
"She apologized over and over again. I said we've all been in the same situation many times and there's no need to apologize."
He added, "Brentina gets a little sensitive. The past four or five weeks, she was extremely consistent. This can happen; they're horses, not machines."
Michael Barisone, the alternate on the team, said he wished it had happened to him instead of Debbie.
Meanwhile, the Germans held onto their gold medal dominance, having won at every Olympics since 1984. A brilliant ride from Isabell Werth on Satchmo kept Germany (72.917 percent) ahead of the Dutch (71.750), who were looking for an upset similar to the one they enjoyed last year at the European Championships.
The Germans saw that as a wake-up call, and they came here prepared. Isabell's score of 76.417 percent, the best of the Grand Prix, was 1.667 percent ahead of her rival, the Netherlands' Anky van Grunsven on Salinero, who decided it was better not to risk everything and held back somewhat.
"I had to. He got very excited coming in the arena," said Anky.
"It is a team test and I could not take all the risks. You don't want to make big mistakes in a team competition."
The two will battle it out for individual honors starting in the Grand Prix Special, for which the top 25 riders qualified.
It could be the last Olympic face-off between the two. Anky doesn't believe Salinero will be around for the next Games in London in 2012, and she may not be, either.
"I don't want to go on until I'm 80," she said with a big smile, noting that she is the mother of two small children, who were very much in evidence during the evening.
The U.S. team's Courtney King-Dye, who was seventh individually with Harmony's Mythilus and Steffen, who finished 10th, will both be in the Special. The Grand Prix scores don't count toward the individual medals; they are simply used to qualify competitors.