Markopoulo, Greece, August 23, 2004--The German Olympic offensive in dressage started falling apart today, as the U.S. mounted an impressive charge in the Grand Prix Special.
It's too late for the team medal, of course; Germany won that last weekend, with Spain second and the U.S. third. But in the Special and Wednesday's musical freestyle, the individual medals are at stake.
Ulla Salzgeber of Germany is leading the overall standings, but just barely because she only placed third in the Special with 74.840 percent. Her usually reliable Rusty got set off in the warm-up ring when the letters around the fencing started blowing down in the Meltemi, that brisk Greek wind. It cools everything off, but it also upset several of the horses as the flags snapped and flapped around the atmospheric dressage arena.
Rusty apparently is extremely sensitive. We got a memo from Ulla in the press room this afternoon advising photographers not to move during her test because that bothered Rusty today. Give me a break; the horse was competing in a packed stadium where a lot of things could have caught his eye.
He was indeed edgy, but I think it was caused by something other than an errant photographer. He spooked, demonstrated more hitch in his right hind than usual during the piaffe (it's scary to watch from the back) and had other bobbles along the way.
Ulla conceded that "we made too much mistakes." Her countrymen, Hubertus Schmidt on Wansuela Suerte and Martin Schaudt on a lathered-up Weltall could only manage seventh and 14th places, respectively, which was not the usual German dominance.
Second in the Special with 75.760 percent was Beatriz Ferrer-Salat of Spain on Beauvalais, who put in a smooth test which probably looked even better than that to the judges when they compared it to Rusty's on-the-brink performance.
Beatriz beat Ulla in the medals at the 2002 World Equestrian Games (WEG), and I'm betting she can do it again here. When you add her Grand Prix score to that of the Special, she stands third overall with 75.213 penalties to Ulla's 76.524. (Don't you love all these numbers? They could make your head spin.)
A lot of people overlooked Beatriz in handicapping the medals because she hadn't shown since January. A shoeing mishap led to a leg problem for Beauvalais. Even when he had recuperated, Beatriz decided not to ride at Aachen because "I didn't want to risk anything."
The Special was won by the Netherlands' Anky van Grunsven on Salinero, who, despite the conditions, was behaving far better that he did in the Grand Prix. I guess the photographers must have been motionless for her test. Anky's score was 77.800 percent, putting her second overall with a total of 76.004 percent, just 0.52 penalties behind Rusty.
"The feeling was very good," said Anky, who has found coping with a 10-year-old in his first Olympics is more challenging than riding her old friend Bonfire, on whom she won the 2000 Olympic title.
But Anky doesn't consider herself the defending champion because she is aboard a different horse here than the one she had in Sydney. Some have said Salinero is better. He certainly has the potential, but a few understandable kinks need to be ironed out -- and Anky's just the person to do it.
She was her usual blonde bubbly self with a happy smile as she found herself in contention, which is where she loves to be when her orange-shirted fans are going crazy in the stands.
So where exactly was the U.S., you're wondering? Debbie McDonald, who was not happy with her score in the Grand Prix, added some more oomph to Brentina's presentation today to finish fourth on 74.760 percent. Her overall total is 74.067 percent, making her fourth in the grand scheme of things.
She felt some of her transitions could have been better, but Brentina demonstrated her fluidity again, along with absolute composure and attention to her rider.
"The flags affected her more than I thought they would," said Debbie, but you would never have noticed it.
"Coming into the first piaffe from the walk it was very difficult to keep her walking all the way to the point," she said.
When asked about the possibility of getting a medal, Debbie was conservative in her reply.
"If I can stay in the hunt, that's what I care about," she said. "It's kind of a longshot to think about an individual (medal), but it's not over until it's over, and I'm not going to go down without a fight."
On the other hand, it is her 50th birthday Friday, so maybe she'll get a surprise package in the form of a medal. She was fourth at the WEG, just missing the bronze she deserved. This is a chance to right that wrong.
Robert Dover couldn't stop smiling after his performance on Kennedy that brought him a 74.040 score, putting him fifth in the Special and sixth overall with 72.833. I don't think in two decades of writing about Robert that I've ever seen him happier.
"That was fun to ride. Every day, I learn from that horse," said Robert after he dismounted. He noted most of the other riders had been with their horses for years, but he and Kennedy got together only last fall.
"For me, every time has been a little new," he said, and it's obvious he's enjoying his voyage of discovery.
The only flaw was the second pirouette, where Robert overcollected Kennedy who lost his balance a little. He lost points there, but that paled against the overall picture.
"I trusted the horse and I rode him forward to the relaxed feeling that he gives when you let him. By the time I finished, I was so happy with my performance," said Robert.
Not only was he ecstatic about what happened in the arena, but he was also happy that his parents were there to see it. They inspired him to make a comeback after he "retired" after the Sydney Olympics. Both of them had been ill last year and their one wish was to see Robert in another Games.
"Four years ago, they saw me go off-course at the walk in the Grand Prix Special. So I'm really thrilled that they could be part of the experience here," he said.
Guenter Seidel also acquitted himself better on Aragon than he had in the Grand Prix. He hadn't been happy with the way he was scored then. Guenter was okay with what the judges gave him this time, coming in 13th with 71.040 percent to make him 14th overall on 70.270. That number 14 is important, because only the top 15 get to ride in the freestyle from the field of 25 for the Special.
I should mention that two members of the five-person judging panel were changed from the Grand Prix to the Special, part of an ongoing effort to improve the scoring that often causes so much controversy.
As far as the Olympics go, I had wondered if the Special was really necessary. When the freestyle was instituted at the Games traditionalists were concerned it wouldn't work and wanted to keep the Special as part of the package. Now that we have the far more interesting freestyle securely in place, the Special could be superfluous. On the other hand, it drew a surprising crowd for a Monday morning and gave an extra 10 riders the chance to compete again, so I guess it has its uses after all.
Tomorrow is the team show jumping, and we'll see if the U.S. squad is as good as I think it is. That's a marathon session that won't end until about midnight our time (we're seven hours ahead of the east coast U.S.) so it should be a day and night of excitement for me to share with you.