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Hong Kong, August 16, 2008 -- When Brentina imploded in the Grand Prix last week, it seemed as if the U.S. would go home without a dressage medal.
But while the team bronze slipped away, an individual medal is glinting as a real possibility.
Steffen Peters ramped up his performance with Ravel in tonight's Grand Prix Special from what he did in the Grand Prix on Thursday night. It paid off with a percentage of 71.8, putting him fourth (can you believe it!) going into Tuesday's freestyle, which will decide those individual medals.
He obviously was elated, and planning to go for it. The situation is reminiscent of the 2006 World Equestrian Games, where he finished fourth in the Special on Floriano, a much more experienced horse. He'd like to do even better this time, of course.
Steffen is close behind Germany's Heike Kemmer on the meticulous Bonaparte (72.96). Of course, barring a disaster of Biblical proportions, no one is going to catch the biggest stars, the Netherlands' Anky van Grunsven, second on 74.96 percent with Salinero or the leader, Germany's Isabell Werth on Satchmo, with a score of 75.2. The gold and silver here were always going to be about them, just as it was at the WEG. There, however, a medal was provided both for the Special and the freestyle, which is not the case here. At that time, the women split it; Isabell getting the Special gold and the very artistic Anky getting the freestyle gold. Here, the Special just counts half of the formula for the individual medals, with the freestyle making up the other half.
I asked Steffen what had improved since the Grand Prix last week, where Ravel didn't look as electric as when he won the selection trials at the national championships in California during June.
"The piaffe, the half-pass is always strong, the (flying) changes felt more expressive and straighter, pirouttes were better," he told me about Ravel's star turn.
"The biggest difference was the relaxation in the walk tonight. When I gave him the rein after the passage, he kept one ear on the big screen (the jumbotron), then settled down immediately. For him to settle down that much in a big arena is just unbelievable."
Steffen dedicated his Special to Brentina and her rider, Debbie McDonald, who had a heartbreaking disappointment in the Grand Prix when the mare spooked at something in the ring and got so tense she was nearly unrideable.
Courtney King, the other American in the competition, finished a very respectable eighth with Harmony's Mythilus, who earned 70.8 percent for a smooth test. Courtney won't be in medal contention, but she's done a great job to rank so high among the 15 who qualified for the freestyle, a ride she's really looking forward to.
Last night, Courtney was bubbly.
"I'm really happy. Who cannot be happy with eighth place at the Olympics? I really wanted to go for it. Myth has a ton of expression I haven't tapped into yet because I always have to control him and use the half-halt," she said.
"I compromised a little on the half-halt and said, 'Let's show some expression.'
"It didn't work out exactly the way I wanted it to. I needed more of a half-halt to have a better test. I went for it and I don't regret that, but...it wasn't my best-feeling test.
The evening was full of drama from the top contenders. I couldn't believe my eyes when Anky had to ask Salinero three times to go into the half-pass from the collected trot. There was a real miscommunication there. As Anky explained it, "He was really, really excited...I thought if I put my leg on I don't know what's going to happen."
After the false starts, Salinero got back in his impressive rhythm, but Anky noted the heat has no effect on him, as it does on other horses, and she expects him to be fresh for the freestyle.
Isabell went last and was putting in her usual fantastic test with enormous marks. I thought she might be on the way to setting a record. Then I couldn't believe my eyes yet again (when you're sleep-deprived, the way so many of us are, you get suspicious when you see something strange.) Going into piaffe, Satchmo suddenly started backing up and threw his head in the air.
My first thought was that this could turn into another Brentina scenario (remember how she spooked in the Grand Prix and the way her test fell apart?)
I asked Isabell what her first thought was, and understandably, she mentioned a four-letter word.
Somehow, she was able to push Satchmo forward and accomplish the rest of her test nicely, the incident forgotten -- at least by her horse.
I took a little poll about how a horse should be marked for what Satchmo did. Michael Barisone, the alternate for the team, told me a performance at that level would be marked less harshly for something like that than a 68 percent performance.
A dressage judge (not one officiating here) said a one-time thing like that wouldn't be marked hard, but if it happened again, watch out. Coach Klaus Balkenhol gave great credit to Isabell's riding and suggested it was just a blip in the overall picture.
Okay, so now I know. And I will say Isabell did exactly what you're supposed to do when a horse spooks; she rode him forward and got him paying attention to her again. But the incident certainly caused her concern.
"I was a bit upset. I don't know what happened. I really have no idea what he saw, but then he was going back to the exercise,"
I should mention that two other North Americans made it into the freestyle. Ashley Holzer of Canada and Pop Art are 15th on 68.7 percent, while Bernadette Pujals of Mexico is sixth on Vincent (71 percent.)
I'll be interested in how it all works out in the freestyle. So glad two Americans are in there and way up high.
Oh, one other thing: Heike was one second over on the start clock (you have a deadline by which you're supposed to be performing, and are penalized two points if you are not.) Nothing happened to Heike, because it was deemed one second was insignificant. But I have a feeling there could be a complaint about this. Stay tuned.
Sunday, we go back to show jumping, first leg of the Nations' Cup. We'll see how different the Germans are from the seemingly casual way they rode on Friday, making the first class a kind of schooling round. That had everyone scratching their heads.
Oh, a side note--eventer Amy Tryon, who fell off during cross-country, has been hospitalized with an infection above her knee. She's on antibiotics and will be fine. Sadly, her husband Greg's father died, adding another burden on a couple who have had a lot of stress in the last week.
Award-winning equestrian journalist Nancy Jaffer is covering her eighth Olympics. Her columns, photos and articles appear regularly on EquiSearch.com.
For complete official results, click here.