San Juan Capistrano, Calif., June 29, 2008 -- Fabulous freestyle performances, incredible scores and a wildly enthusiastic crowd made the finale of the Olympic dressage trials an afternoon to remember.
Steffen Peters guiding the amazing Ravel, Debbie McDonald on an equally splendid Brentina and Courtney King-Dye aboard the lithe Harmony's Mythilus will do the U.S. proud as the team we send to Hong Kong.
Oh, sorry; it isn't official yet. The selection committee has to meet tomorrow morning to work out the details. But these three horses and riders dominated the proceedings at the Collecting Gaits Farm/U.S. Equestrian Federation Dressage Festival of Champions here.
The freestyle was like a giant wave of emotion. The most moving performance was given by Debbie. It was her last competition ride in the U.S. on her 17-year-old partner, who will be retired at the World Cup Finals in Las Vegas next year.
Today was the 87th birthday of Parry Thomas, who owns Brentina with his wife, Peggy. What a present he got from Debbie, a freestyle that earned 78.750 percent. Debbie rode beautifully to the music that she made famous at the 2005 World Cup finals. And just as she had in Vegas that year, when she went down the centerline for her finale to "Respect," Deb prompted the crowd to applaud. She got a well-deserved standing ovation from the VIP tent. The whole thing brought tears to her eyes, as she wiped them away with a white-gloved hand after raising her arm in triumph and giving Brentina a hug.
"I couldn't have asked for more," said Debbie simply.
Courtney's ride was as lyrical as her horse, a study in elegance done in part to a Cat Stevens' song, "Sad Lisa." She was right behind Debbie with a 78.050.
Making the team is "the culmination of 21 years of work," said Courtney, who seemed awed at finding herself on an Olympic team with two riders "I admired from afar for years."
Steffen wrapped up the proceedings, getting a mark of 79.500 percent. Judge Janet Foy liked him even better than that awarding him 84.500 (the final mark is an average of all five judges' scores).
The liveliest part of Steffen's music was the theme from the 2002 FIFA World Football (soccer) Championships, a contrast to the tender "Romeo and Juliet" piano concerto that was his walk theme.
Steffen pushed Ravel a bit more than he had in yesterday's Grand Prix, which he also won, and got what he asked for from his willing partner.
"I haven't found his limit. It felt unbelievable," said Steffen. And don't think the effort wasn't appreciated.
"I never heard a crowd scream louder than today," said Steffen as he marveled at the spectators' fervor. Talk about hot tickets. All the bleacher seats, at $75 each, were sold out, as were the standing room spaces at $40 each. And they were hot in another way too; the sun was beating down hard in lovely California weather, and no one went for cover because they didn't want to miss a minute of this special event.
A well-deserved 76.400 mark went to Leslie Morse on the powerful stallion Kingston, doing a routine to her old favorite, "Pirates of the Caribbean," that earned her fourth place. Kingston spent a few years on the sidelines but is back better than ever. Leslie likely will be the alternate, since this year the Olympic team will have only three riders under a new rule that I hear will be changed back to a regular four-member team with a drop score for the next big championship. Of course, I don't want to pre-empt the selection committee's announcement, but this is how you can expect it to come out.
Overall, Courtney's other ride, Idocus was fourth and Steffen's back-up, Lombardi, fifth, so they will be going to quarantine in Germany with the other horses, but they're spares. Since each person can only ride one horse, that puts Leslie into the picture.
I have so much more to tell you, but you'll have to wait for tomorrow for my EquiSearch.com postcard with all the details. Be sure to check back late morning. We'll be putting up a photo gallery, too.