Aachen, Germany, August 18, 2006 -- "Go out on a limb," my editor said when we discussed how I would write my predictions for the World Equestrian Games (WEG), which start a two-week run Sunday at the celebrated showgrounds in the city where Charlemagne once reigned.
So I took her up on the invitation and here I am, teetering on a twig, as I handicap this world championships extravaganza. The USA's medal hopes are high. Will we live up to expectations? Here's my assessment.
The last time I was in Aachen for a show jumping title meet was in 1986, which also happened to be the last time separate world championships in the sport were held before the advent of the WEG concept in 1990. The U.S. was supreme in the sport then, with the classic style of the de Nemethy era still prevalent among our riders and the value of the dollar high enough against European currency so that Americans could easily purchase top-notch horses if their bank accounts were deep enough.
On that team was The Natural, the first $1 million jumper, ridden by Katherine Burdsall--who was to become the last American to win the World Cup show jumping finals the following year.
Michael Matz, now best known as the trainer of 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, was part of the squad with Chef, while Conrad Homfeld rode his 1984 Olympic team gold and individual silver medal mount Abdullah. The other member Katie Monahan (before she was married to Henri Prudent) competed on Amadia. Sure enough, we won the team gold, and Conrad took the individual silver.
I'd love to predict another USA team gold on the 20th anniversary of that auspicious occasion, especially since no U.S. show jumping team ever has been in the WEG medals (though Peter Wylde did gain an individual bronze in 2002). But it's going to be tough. Germany has so much depth in horses and riders that their multi-Olympic gold medalist Ludger Beerbaum might not even make the final team! But you can be sure that one of those going for all the honors will be 2005 World Cup Champion Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum. And then there's Marcus Ehning, a genius on a horse, whatever he rides. The Germans are on their home turf, which can be an advantage, because they know it so well and they'll have the crowd behind them. Yet that also can increase the pressure--though with such a seasoned squad, it probably won't be a factor.
I think Germany will win, as they did at the 2004 Olympics, before Ludger's horse tested positive for a forbidden substance and they had to give up the top placing to the U.S. Other key players will be France, whose brilliant riders are always a big threat (and who won the team gold at the last WEG); Switzerland and Canada, fielding its best squad in years.
Some favor the Brits, but I don't see them figuring in the medals, despite the presence of such stalwarts as Robert Smith and longtime team fixtures the Whitaker brothers, John and Michael. Nick Skelton, who wasn't chosen with Arko III after the horse showed poor form (which later was found to be a hoof problem) got a last-minute nod after William Funnell withdrew Cortiflex Mondriaan because of a soundness issue. (William joins his wife Pippa on the sidelines; she missed the British eventing team when Primmore's Pride had a soundness issue, too.) Nick is back on the squad with Russel, who is good in the speed and puissance, but he's no Arko.
So here's my bet: 1) Germany; 2) USA; 3) France (or maybe Switzerland or Canada; it's a little shaky out here on that limb).
The individual medals in show jumping at the WEG are hard to handicap because the unusual format for the final four has each rider in the group jumping an identical course on the others' horses (the same thing happens at the USEF Talent Search.) Some say it's not really the world show jumping championship--it's the world catch-riding championship.
Not everyone who has won the title went on to further fame and glory, and some suffered more than bad luck. Hartwig Steenken of Germany, the victor in 1974, died in a car crash four years later. Another German, Norbert Koof, who I watched take the prize in Dublin in 1982, was paralyzed in an accident. And the 2002 winner, Dermott Lennon of Ireland, broke an arm shortly thereafter and hasn't shown the same form since.
I would say two American riders, Beezie Madden (Authentic) and McLain Ward (Sapphire) have a shot at making the final four. Any one of the Germans could do it (my money's on Marcus and Meredith) and you always have to consider former World Champion Rodrigo Pessoa of Brazil in what could be the aging Baloubet du Rouet's last championships hurrah.
But I can practically guarantee the final four will include someone you wouldn't expect, and if he or she is a good catch rider, the gold could go to him or her.
The most predictable of the three Olympic disciplines being held at the WEG, dressage tends to run true to form because riders perform the same tests they've been doing at other venues during the season(s) past, and there's no unknown variable of a course designer's whimsy as in show jumping and eventing.
So figure Germany for gold and the Dutch for silver. Although everyone's been waiting for the Dutch to overtake the German gold medal monopoly in this discipline, there are only two really strong entries on the Dutch side, World Cup and Olympic champion Anky van Grunsven (Keltec Salinero) and her pupil Edward Gal (Lingh). The Germans are so deep that when Klaus Husenbeth had to withdraw Piccolino after an injury, the team didn't miss a beat as Olympic veterans Hubertus Schmidt and Wansuela Suerte stepped up to the plate.
The real excitement in dressage is who will win the bronze. The U.S. has taken that medal at every Olympics and world championships since 1992, with the exception of the 1998 WEG when it went medal-less, and 2002 when it made history by taking the silver over a Dutch squad lacking the strength it would show two years later in the Olympics.
But America has competition in the form of the Danes and the Swedes this time. The Spaniards, who also might have been considered a factor a few weeks ago, became non-contenders when their strongest combination bowed out. Beatriz Ferrer-Salat won't be appearing because her 19-year-old Beauvalais had soundness woes.
Individually, Anky seems likely to dominate the gold medal ranks. Germany's Isabell Werth, a multi-gold medalist whose Warum Nicht had a
last-minute injury, prompted her switch to Satchmo that might narrow the tiny gap between Germany and the Netherlands in the team medals, could be duking it out for individual silver with teammates Heike Kemmer (Bonaparte), the German national dressage champ this year, and Nadine Capellman (Elvis). Nadine was world champ last time out at the WEG with Farbenfroh, who died two years
ago. A non-German who could also be on hand for individual medal ceremonies is Sweden's Jan Brink with Bjorsell's Briar.
An American might have a shot, though, especially because there are more individual medals available than there were last time. Medals will be awarded for the Special as well as the freestyle. In making my predictions, I can't really break it down to say who could get the Special medals as
opposed to who gets the freestyle medals. It could be all the same people, but with more opportunities to make mistakes, that may open the door for others than those one might otherwise envision as the top three or four.
I must tell you that I dreamed an American got an individual bronze. I couldn't see who it was, since my dream view was from the back and side, but it looked like a man. In that case, it would be Steffen Peters with Floriano, but I have to say, psychic messages aside, our best shot for individual glory is Debbie McDonald with Brentina. Debbie and the 15-year-old mare deserve individual recognition, having narrowly missed the individual bronze both in the 2002 WEG and the 2004 Olympics.
I think the team dressage will go this way: 1) Germany; 2) Netherlands; 3) USA.
For my predictions on eventing and the non-Olympic disciplines, click "Next."
It's no secret that Germany is poised to dominate the WEG, and it is in nearly as strong a position in eventing as it is in show jumping and dressage. Bettina Hoy on Ringwood Cockatoo will be wanting to make up for the pair of gold medals that were lost at the Olympics in Athens when she went over the start line twice. The rest of the team is really clicking over too, but there are perhaps more potential winners in eventing than in the other two Olympic disciplines. Add the fact that anything can happen on cross-country, and you can understand why the Germans can't be overly confident about their chances, even in the first world championships without steeplechase and roads and tracks, which cuts down the risk factor a bit.
The key Australian player is Andrew Hoy, Bettina's husband and the winner of both Rolex and Badminton this year. He hopes to take Burghley in September and sweep the Rolex Grand Slam of Eventing, a la Pippa Funnell, the only winner of that triple crown so far.
U.S.-based Phillip Dutton also is a contender, and some Australian-based riders, including Wendy Schaefer, the heroine of the 1996 Olympic gold medal squad, will make this team one to beat.
Britain's chances are good. William Fox-Pitt, who hasn't had the greatest season this year, could make up for that with Tamarillo and lead the team to gold. He'll be helped by Zara Phillips (Toy Town), the daughter of U.S. Coach Mark Phillips and ex-wife Princess Anne. Then there's Mary King (Call Again Cavalier), who has mileage to burn in these kinds of events.
The U.S. is bolstered by half of its 2002 WEG gold medal team: Kim Severson with the brilliant Winsome Adante and Amy Tryon with Poggio. Will Faudree (Antigua) and Heidi White (Northern Spy) also were named to the squad. Riding as individuals will be Jan Byyny (Task Force and Karen O'Connor (Upstage), who persevered after a cross-country diaster at the final outing and a freaky elimination at Gatcombe. At Hartpury, an English event on the weekend of Aug. 12, Karen proved she and her plucky mount could get around a
cross-country without mishap. The U.S. lost Rolex Kentucky earlier this year in the show jumping, so let's hope this phase has been improved if we are to keep the WEG title. Kim is the only U.S. rider with a likely individual medal shot
Oh, let's not forget the defending champ, Jean Teulere and Espoir de la Mare, who will lead the French team--which won the championship at the 2004 Olympics.
New Zealand, long an eventing powerhouse, is in a rebuilding phase with former world champion Blyth Tait doing the coaching. The biggest name on that squad is Andrew Nicholson, but don't expect the Kiwis to be in the medals.
My team eventing picks: 1) Great Britain; 2) Australia; 3) USA (I'm betting against a German sweep of the Olympic disciplines.)
Individually, I like Kim and Willieam Fox-Pitt (if he finds a four-leaf clover), but Andrew Hoy's on a roll and I think he could take it all.
Now for the non-Olympic disciplines. Click "Next" for my predictions.
Next to show jumping, this probably has the most contenders for medals. Germany, Belgium, the USA, the Netherlands and Hungary all are in the running, and running hard. I don't think America will repeat its silver medal triumph of 2002, but national champion Chester Weber is tough and could lead the way to a bronze.
Realistically, I think the Americans will probably be fourth or fifth behind the winning Germans (them again!), the Dutch and the Hungarians. Individually, Michael Freund of Germany, who was just deposed as 2004 World Championships gold medalist after a long legal battle involving one of his horses that tested positive for a prohibited substance, would love to wrest his title back from Zoltan Lazar of Hungary. And Ysbrand Chardon of the Netherlands should be in for a piece of the action too.
Like dressage, reining is predictable based on form during the season. The U.S. dominated the sport's WEG debut in 2002 and is likely to do so again, even with a different team. Canada should get the silver and Germany may be in for the bronze. Europe is catching up to the American cowboys, but at this point, it's still the USA's game.
There could be two Americans in the individual medals, and a Canadian probably will pick up the other.
As for the teams, let's go with: 1) USA; 2) USA; 3) Canada.
Oh wait, the USA can't win two team medals, despite its strength?
How about this then: 1) USA; 2) Canada; 3) Germany.
The time is ripe for a big upset, and America is the country that can do it. The USA's FAME team, coached by Devon Maitozo, a world championships individual bronze medalist in his own right, upset a top German squad at a competition in Munich this summer and will set its sights on doing it again at the WEG.
So my team picks (out on that shaky branch yet again) are: 1) USA; 2) Germany; 3) Switzerland (or maybe European Champion Slovakia).
And honestly, I can't give an authoritative prediction on the individual medals (they're divided male/female) so don't ask me!
This is the only discipline in which the Germans don't figure. Look for an individual medalist from the United Arab Emirates, which is just how it went down at the last WEG, where a 16-year-old sheik won. France should be strong in the team fray, ditto Australia and Italy, and let's not count out the USA, led by our multiple world champion Valerie Kanavy, who took over the team leader duties this summer. But like eventing, this is a sport where anything can happen, especially considering the strain of going 100 miles and the odds on having a sound horse at the end of it.
This is the way the teams could end up: 1) France; 2) Australia; 3) USA.
And as I said, figure on at least one individual medalist from the UAE.
I'll be filling you in daily on what really happens starting Sunday, so do your own set of picks, and we'll see who's the better prognosticator. Auf Wiedersehen!