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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.
There were so many people for whom the night did not go smoothly; Debbie was not alone.
I was looking for a big effort from Canada's Ashley Holzer and Pop Art, but he tripped twice during the test and that shook his confidence. He finished 19th on 67.042. Ashley said that going last in her segment, the ring already was a bit cut-up; it's the kind of footing that cups, rather than sliding away like sand.
At any rate, she's looking forward to the Special, which she sees as her test.
"Keep your fingers crossed for the Special," she said, noting she has "a really good freestyle." Only the top 15 from the Special go into the freestyle, which counts for half of the individual medals.
Laura Bechtolsheimer, riding Mistral Hojris for Great Britain, was expected to deliver a high score and perhaps get her squad into the medals. But the best she could do was 65.917, good enough for 24th and just sneaking into the Special.
"The horse was ready to go for gold, but I wasn't with him," said Laura, who got lost partway through her test after a brilliant start in which she scored over 74 percent.
The debate continues over the lack of a drop score. The Danes like it, because they are a small country with few top riders, and if the larger countries lack a drop score, it puts them on a more even footing with the nations that aren't powerhouses.
But the American loss showed how important a drop score is. It doesn't seem fair, since the eventers have two drop scores and the jumpers one drop score.
FEI Dressage Committee Chairman Mariette Withages, who had pushed for the three-member teams so more nations could be represented at the Olympics, said she liked the way it had worked out, but guessed it might go back and forth between three and four in the future.
All I know is it would have made a difference for the U.S. It could have made a difference for the Dutch as well, if their talented reserve rider, Adelinde Cornellisen, had been allowed to ride. If the other disciplines have drop scores, dressage should too.
My final thought on a difficult evening is that I hope Debbie and Brentina will be remembered for all the things they did right, rather than their final competition. Riding is an imperfect science because horses are masters of the unexpected. We should marvel at getting any consistency when you consider all that is asked of these herd animals with an instinct for flight, who live in an unnatural environment and perform under our terms, which are foreign to them. Debbie is a great rider and Brentina is a great horse; this just wasn't their night.
The morning after the grand prix, U.S. team veterinarian Dr. Rick Mitchell gave Brentina a thorough exam and pronounced her fit, as he had just before she went into the warm-up for the competition. "I was totally caught by surprise when she started spooking in the ring. She got tense and tight and became unrideable," Debbie noted. Choi keen.
Award-winning equestrian journalist Nancy Jaffer is covering her eighth Olympics. Her columns, photos and articles appear regularly on EquiSearch.com.
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