San Juan Capistrano, Calif., June 19, 2004 -- Here I am back in the O.C. again, and it seems as if I just left. For those of you unfamiliar with the TV show of that name, the O.C. stands for Orange County. It's one of the wealthiest counties in the U.S., the home of the Oaks Blenheim Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park, which also was the scene a month ago of the Olympic show jumping selection trials.
This time, it's a dressage team -- or part of it, anyway -- that is being put together in the Olympic trials here, with Robert Dover leading the way. He has swept all the competitions thus far on the amazing FBW Kennedy. But he still has to ride in tomorrow's Grand Prix Freestyle to clinch his spot on the squad.
Debbie McDonald, meanwhile, will have the luxury of watching the freestyle from the sidelines, as she has done with the other trial competitions. As was the case in show jumping with Chris Kappler and Royal Kaliber, Debbie already has been named to the team (or if you want to be technical, the short list from which the team will be taken).
Debbie's mount, Brentina, had suffered a slight tendon strain in preparation for the World Cup finals during a show in Dortmund, Germany, where the footing was "so awful." Debbie thought about scratching at Dortmund, but sadly, didn't.
"If I had that to do over again, I'd do it in a heartbeat," she told me after putting Brentina back in her stall following a relaxing trail ride. Oh yes, that 20-20 hindsight plagues us all, even a great athlete like Debbie. I use the word "great" advisedly, because she is more than just a rider, she's a terrific horsewoman. She cares so much for Brentina. Debbie is so in tune with her that she never carries a whip, communicating her pleasure with a pat or a need for correction with a light hand tap.
"I've probably been overly protective in bringing her back, but it worked out well," Debbie explained. Yes indeed, all that care has paid off. Brentina looked super threading her way among the hunter ponies during her informal ride in the indoor ring, which is a good distance from the dressage arenas where the trials are taking place. The few of us who were on hand to watch (including Peggy and Parry Thomas, Brentina's owners) glimpsed a real lightness that I haven't seen before. Brentina is as effortless as a floating feather in her passage, and the piaffe is as regular as a metronome.
So, back to the box scores. Debbie is already in, and yet another spot could go to a trials non-starter. It would happen if the fourth-placed rider after the competition here were two percentage points behind Lisa Wilcox's 74.963 percent record in Europe with Relevant. Lisa is based in Germany, where Relevant is a breeding stallion, so coming over here for the trials has never been a possibility for her.
Back to Robert, who earned an amazing 78.917 percent today. That topped even his fantastic efforts last weekend, when he got 76.292 percent in the Grand Prix and 78.640 percent in the Special. (The Grand Prix are worth 30 percent each, the Special 25 percent and the musical freestyle 15 percent.)
The surprises of the trials are Aragon and Floriano, who came into the trials as the "second horses" of Guenter Seidel and Steffen Peters, Robert's teammates on the 1996 Atlanta bronze medal team. Guenter and Robert also rode together on the 2000 bronze medal Olympic team, where Guenter's mount was Nikolaus. But that veteran was in the shade today, a bit tired after what Guenter said was a little too much work. He earned a score of 71.125 percent, finishing fifth behind Leslie Morse's ride, Kingston, fourth with 71.583; Floriano, who was third with 71.875; and Aragon, who was FBW Kennedy's runner-up with a score of 74.167 percent.
Neither Steffen, better known for his veteran mount, Grandeur, nor Guenter expressed any doubts about taking their younger horses to Athens if the chips fall that way.
"Six months ago, we had to make a grand prix horse out of him. Now we have to make a team horse out of him," Steffen said of Floriano, who tried to leap ahead in the canter at one point, but otherwise showed an amazing turn of foot.
So here are the rankings, with the scores weighted to give an overall total. Robert has 77.909 percent, to Guenter's 73.085 with Aragon, and 72.476 with Nikolaus. Steffen has 71.815 percent with Floriano, while Leslie and Kingston -- who made some mistakes today, particularly a break into the canter from the extended trot -- are on 70.994 percent.
Can't wait to see tomorrow's Grand Prix Freestyle. That will be the clincher, and I hear Leslie's dance to "Pirates of the Caribbean" with Kingston will be a real crowd pleaser.
Leslie also starred today in the Intermediare I Championships that is being run in conjunction with the selection trials. She and Tip Top, a Swedish stallion by Master, were scored at an impressive 75.5 percent, more than five percentage points ahead of Nicole Perry and Rubino Bellissimo.
We'll give you the final standings first thing Monday morning, as well as the details about what should be a very exciting day in the O.C.
Read Nancy's second postcard from the Final U.S. Olympic Dressage Selection Trial on June 21, 2004, and visit her postcard page to relive all the action at some of the world's top equestrian events.