San Juan Capistrano, Calif., June 30, 2008 -- It's hours after the Olympic dressage selection trials ended, but I still have goosebumps when I think of the thrilling freestyle rides I was privileged to see.
Read the bulletin I posted last night for the details of performances and results, etc., because I'm just going to go ahead and elaborate on what happened.
To get you up to speed quickly: The trials were part of two very busy weekends called the Collecting Gaits Farm/U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) Dressage Festival of Champions.
I wasn't here at Oaks Blenheim with its beautiful mountain backdrop last weekend. I'm told it was very, very hot. That presented quite an appropriate test for the horses being aimed at the Olympics in Hong Kong, where it will not only be very, very hot, but also very, very humid, as in "typhoon season."
This weekend, happily, the weather was just warm enough and beautiful, the perfect stage for an audience to watch sporting history.
Excitement had everyone at fever pitch. That's understandable; making the team is special. For so many people, the Olympics are something to which they aspire, but never reach. The lucky ones who get to go know how momentous the opportunity is.
"To represent our country is such an honor," said Debbie McDonald, who is on the team with Brentina after finishing second to Steffen Peters in the National Grand Prix Championship and trials. Steffen swept all four classes (two Grand Prix, one Grand Prix Special and one musical freestyle) with the undefeated Ravel, who is the color of melted bittersweet chocolate and just as slick. They are being joined by Courtney King-Dye on the light-footed Harmony's Mythilus, third overall in both the rankings and the freestyle.
While Debbie is thrilled, she also noted that in making this team, she has mixed feelings. "As far as the trip, I think we're all a little concerned. It's a long journey for the horses. We just have to have a little luck for the whole team to get there safe."
Debbie, who got a standing ovation for her freestyle, was perfectly in sync during the ride with Brentina, who is obviously her best friend. The simpatico between those two is so obvious. They very definitely are having a conversation, and Brentina certainly was on her game.
"She was really ready," said Debbie, who lives in Idaho but has spent a lot of time in California this year. "I always kind of judge (from) that first circle of twos (the two-tempis at the beginning of her freestyle)...how she's going to do. When she stays really on the aids for that, then I pretty much have to say I'm usually very comfortable in knowing she's going to be with me for the rest of the ride."
Asked why she requested the fans to clap to the rhythm of "Respect" as she ended her ride, she said, "For me, the fun part of the freestyle is to get the audience involved...I've got a horse who loves it, so why not."
Steffen, a Californian, knows how to get the best out of his horses. His magic touch has worked wonders with Ravel. He has great admiration for the horse, who I suspect will get even better in the weeks before the Games.
Selectors will decide today how many horses head to quarantine in Aachen, Germany. It seems more than likely that Idocus (he had another terrific freestyle) and Lombardi, the second horses of Courtney and Steffen who finished fourth and fifth respectively, will be making the trip. Leslie Morse and Kingston also should be going, and possibly Michael Barisone and Neruda, who finished seventh.
The USEF wants as many horses as possible to make it through quarantine, because you can never have too many at your disposal in a case like this. As examples, there already have been several horses from the eventing Olympic short list who won't be going on, and the same just happened to a key horse in show jumping.
The way things went for Michael this weekend illustrate the type of problems that can crop up. Here's what happened to him.
Since Michael couldn't compete, he had to rely on his scores from last weekend and his qualifiers for the selection trials to get ranked.
If all goes well, the U.S. should have a good shot at a medal. To confirm that, I asked judge Axel Steiner what he thought.
The Grand Prix group and their selection trials may have dominated the proceedings here, but there were plenty of other competitions going on that were worthy in their own right.
Michelle Gibson's victory in the National Intermediaire I Championship with the personable stallion Don Angelo was practically a coronation. The Floridian won all three classes in style, finishing nearly two percentage points overall ahead of Steffen (the show's busiest rider) and Montango. Michelle's close friend and training partner, Shawna Harding, was third with Come On, dropping below Steffen overall when her freestyle wasn't quite on point.
Michelle's mount was the Developing Horse Champion last year, and before that was reserve in the Young Horse category. His progression shows the value of those programs.
But Michelle isn't pushing him and doesn't know when she'll bring him out in Grand Prix. Her attitude toward the freestyle explains her viewpoint on how he should develop.
"He is eight. I'm sure there were more difficult freestyles. It was more important to me to have a freestyle that shows off all of his best qualities and is going to technically work. If you have a high degree of difficulty and then you can't pull it off, it's like adding insult to injury," Michelle said.
On Saturday, Debbie's protégé, Adrienne Lyle, rode Wizard to win the Brentina Cup in a similar sweep. This competition, named after you-know-who, is designed to give riders a place to go after they leave the junior and Young Rider ranks before they have to go into open Grand Prix. The trophy was donated by the Thomases, and Debbie coached Adrienne to the win, so taking the title was particularly meaningful.
When Adrienne took her victory gallop, announcer Brian O'Connor appropriately played "We Are Family," which accurately depicts the feeling at the Thomases' River Grove Farm just south of Sun Valley.
I hadn't seen Adrienne ride Wizard (known as "Eddie" around the barn) for several years, since I did a story on her for the December 2006 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. He has really bloomed.
Coach Klaus Balkenhol has his eye on this duo. Word is Adrienne and Eddie are good prospects for a European tour next summer.
Going to the Olympics and all the other international championships and tours takes money. No one raises it like the U.S. Equestrian Team (USET) Foundation, which raked in $280,000 for those good causes at a spectacular party under a tent on the showgrounds.
Elma Garcia, who hooked up with the USET after making one of the winning bids for a training session with Debbie during another USET party at the same location in 2004, designed a spectacular "set" for the gathering, with red Chinese paper lanterns hung in rows and an abundance of "One Team, One Dream" posters.
"Greeters" dressed in colorful Chinese costumes met guests at the door, and Chinese dancers performed a routine as two "lucky lions."
Debbie and Steffen had to wake up the lions by "dotting" their eyes with a stick (it's tradition). During the dance, one of the lions "threw up" what looked to me like shredded cabbage (I didn't want to get too close). Guess that's tradition too. Hope all these lucky omens pay off in Hong Kong.
There was a calligrapher seated next to the dance floor, writing people's names in Chinese characters on red fans. Adrienne had him put Wizard on hers.
An auction highlighted the evening and bidding was brisk, especially when the riders got on stage to coax the guests to pledge their money. A dinner cooked by a "chef to the stars" with Debbie, Steffen, Sue Blinks and Guenter Seidel around the table went for $12,000 to Alanna Sellers of Colorado.
As the night went on, an inducement to get the guests to open their wallets was the baring of Olympic ring tattoos by several male athletes, who went shirtless for the occasion. Oh, okay, I'll name names--Guenter and Robert Dover. I can tell you it was the talk of the showgrounds the next day.
Don't forget to check out my photo gallery on EquiSearch.com from this weekend.
That's it for me from here. I'm getting ready to gear up our Olympic coverage. I'll be sending postcards daily from Hong Kong. I know many of you will be watching the competition via either the Internet or TV, but none of the commentators will be on location, so I'll tell you what's really going on.