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Hong Kong, August 19, 2008 -- Almost. That's the best description of how the U.S. fared in the dressage medal hunt at the Olympics.
The squad finished fourth in the team competition and tonight, Steffen Peters missed out on the individual bronze medal by the slimmest of margins, 0.305 percent.
The exciting part, though, is that Steffen and Ravel, in his international Grand Prix-level debut, actually beat the eventual bronze medalist, Germany's Heike Kemmer on Bonaparte, in the freestyle by 0.550 percent. If this had been the World Equestrian Games, Steffen would have been up on the podium, since separate medals are given there for the Grand Prix Special and the freestyle.
But here, each contributes 50 percent to the total for the individual prizes, so he lost by a mere 0.305 percent.
"He was so with me the whole time," said Steffen proudly about his 10-year-old protege, who he got when the horse was at the Prix St. Georges level.
Although the overall test showed many flashes of brilliance, there were a few little glitches. Let Steffen tell you about his ride, which earned an impressive 76.5 percent.
Meanwhile, the big story from here remained Germany's superstar, Isabell Werth, and her rebellious mount, Satchmo. They claimed the individual silver medal while Isabell's friendly rival, Anky van Grunsven of the Netherlands, made history by taking her third individual Olympic gold medal in a row, riding a vivacious Salinero who passaged and piaffed up a storm in the freestyle.
You'll remember that Satchmo nearly backed out of the ring in the Grand Prix Special Saturday night, but Isabell still managed to pull off a victory over Anky, who had some mistakes of her own.
I kept my camera trained on Satchmo during his freestyle performance to "Hymn of Emotion," and sure enough, he showed some emotion--as in "Get me out of here!" during the piaffe. He backed up again and arched his back in protest. Isabell once more showed what a great rider she is by getting the light-footed Satchmo going forward, and she finished her test without further incident, earning 78.100. That would be far behind Anky, though, whose score was 82.400, even though she didn't perform the final halt, which is not one of Salinero's favorite things to do. The total of the Special and the freestyle for Anky averaged 78.680, while Isabell's score was 76.650. Heike had 74.455 for her total and Steffen 74.150.
Satchmo's two disobediences are turning the spotlight on dressage judging. A lot of people felt Isabell wasn't being penalized severely enough. In fact, she got two 6's and three 5's on the piaffe, and straight 6's on the transition from piaffe to passage and back.
Once more, the officials faced grilling about why, in the opinion of the questioners, Isabell got away with something.
Germany's Gotthilf Reixinger, president of the ground jury, said that Isabell had a fabulous over-all test, aside from her piaffe problem. In a way, I was surprised thinking that considering it was a second offense, Isabell would be punished more severely for the transgression.
Gotthilf explained her score in the context of Steffen, noting his mistake in the tempis and contending the horse's neck at times was a little too short (compressed). Isabell, meanwhile, had a test that was otherwise impressive.
But I think the days of letting superstars skate by when they have trouble are coming to an end. Judges are being questioned more relentlessly, and I believe they will feel the pressure and perhaps think twice about giving their favorites a break.
Anky talked once more about retirement, saying she thinks she'll put in another two years and then call it quits, as I hear Sweden's Jan Brink is doing at the same time as his longtime partner, Briar, who was 10th overall. Anky isn't planning on the 2012 Olympics in London, but Isabell is.
In the meantime, she will work on straightening out Satchmo.
She noted he got scared in the Special and didn't forget that today.
"Maybe I took a bit too much risk with the piaffe/passage," she mused. But with Anky coming behind her, how could she not push?
Anky was still glowing from her performance to the specially composed "Dance of Devotion" that showed off Salinero's piaffe/passage and pirouettes to best advantage.
America's other entry in the freestyle was Courtney King-Dye, who finished 13th overall and 14th in the freestyle with the still-developing Harmony's Mythilus. Her scores were 70.175 percent for an average of the Special and the freestyle, and 69.550 for the latter.
I caught up with Courtney after she rode and asked her about her test.
She had problems in the one- and two-tempis, as well as transitions that are usually a strong point, but weren't up to par.
"He wasn't feeling himself," said Courtney of Myth, noting, "we had to do a lot of work to get him ready for the team competition, which was our main focus." Once that was past, anything else he did "was just the icing on the cake," she said.
The two American riders had a great time here at a venue that has received a huge amount of praise.
"The whole experience was incredible; I absolutely loved it," said Steffen, who seemed to have no trouble with being fourth.
Whatever your opinion about dressage and how fair it is, remember that it is a subjective sport and anything in that mode will be controversial at some time.
Here, however, it seems to have had more than its share of intrigues. The latest involved a cryptic memo from the FEI (International Equestrian Federation) about an investigation of a 1:30 a.m. (yes, a.m.) meeting on Monday among the chefs d'equipe of the U.S., Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands--the first four in the grand prix--and a group of officials. What it is about we don't know, and I was rebuffed for asking. We'll be told when the investigation is complete, apparently.
Things are rapidly drawing to a close here. Wednesday is a rest day--hooray, I can barely keep my eyes open anymore--and Thursday is the last day of competition, with individual show jumping medals at stake. I rarely get to bed by 4 a.m. and generally it is more like 6 or 7 a.m. It's a tough schedule, but it's the Olympics, so we keep plugging away for the greatest sporting event on earth. 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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