San Juan Capistrano, Calif., June 21, 2004 -- Now all we need is a little luck. The Olympic dressage selection trials produced the makings of a team that promises to be neck-and-neck with the USA's chief rivals in the discipline, the Germans and the Dutch, when they battle it out in Athens later this summer. Silver is definitely within reach, and judging by the performances I saw here this weekend, gold may be a possibility.
We even have a couple of prospects for individual medals. In that regard, Robert Dover has to be getting some serious consideration. His scores with FBW Kennedy improved throughout the two weekends of trials, winding up with a whopping 81.700 percent in yesterday's musical freestyle.
"I have had wonderful horses and great support from a lot of people in my past, but with that I would say I have never been as fortunate as to have a horse like Kennedy underneath me," said Robert, thanking Jane Clark, who bought the horse last year to bring him out of retirement.
It's great to have Robert in the mix again. His ride on Kennedy was done with flair. Robert told us the experience was as much fun for him as for the capacity crowd that created its own brand of excitement with an enthusiastic reception of all the riders' efforts.
Don't forget, Robert is a great showman who knows how to play to an audience. I got a laugh out of the tune to which Kennedy entered the ring. It was "Just a Gigolo," the theme song of Olympic champion Isabell Werth's great Gigolo, now retired.
It went on from there to "Mr. Bojangles" and the lively "Steam Heat," with Kennedy stepping in sync to the rhythm as if he were an equine reincarnation of Fred Astaire. The music, "Kennedy's Melodies," was designed by the same people who do it for World Cup Champion Anky van Grunsven, and it was recorded by a live orchestra. Pretty impressive.
The ride went so well the judges didn't even seem upset by a stumble at the walk, being more impressed by the smooth transitions and steady piaffes, as well as Kennedy's overall flowing picture.
More than three points behind Robert in the freestyle was Guenter Seidel with Aragon, who just nipped his stablemate, Nikolaus, in both the kur and the overall rankings.
I loved Guenter's freestyle with Aragon. The statuesque gray gelding, who demands a second look even when he's just standing still, entered in the passage to the dramatic music from the movie "Backdraft." Its power suited the horse perfectly, since Aragon's energy often seems ready to explode. And it did twice today, actually, when he went into the canter from a medium trot on the diagonal. Then he flew out of the ring after the crowd erupted in applause just after Guenter's final halt. But Aragon's piaffe is spectacular, and as soon as he came off the center line, he turned and went right into that movement in front of the judges, emphasizing his special talent. It was an in-your-face assertion that was just the right bold stroke.
Steffen Peters on Floriano was fifth in the freestyle with 75.625 percent on a horse whose unambitious piaffe was a bellwether of his ride, at least as I saw it. Fourth in the freestyle with 77.025 percent was Leslie Morse aboard the powerful stallion Kingston, a gleaming mahogany bay who really did dance to the theme from Pirates of the Caribbean, earning a 10 from one judge for a pirouette. But the freestyle counted the least in the team candidates' total, so Leslie couldn't overtake Steffen for the fourth spot on the squad that's going to Europe.
Robert's total for the trials was 78.478 percent, weighted at 30 percent for each Grand Prix, 25 percent for last weekend's special and 15 percent for the freestyle. I can remember the days long gone when Robert would tell me that we needed to scratch up three horses able to score over 70 percent if we were going to medal. It often seemed as if we were huffing and puffing to get to that magic number.
Aragon's total was 73.886, to 73.181 for Nikolaus and 72.386 for Floriano, while Kingston finished on 71.899. Leslie and her impressive mount will be heard from again in a big way. After Leslie rode Tip Top to win the Intermediare championship for the third time in her career during the morning session yesterday, she mused about doing her Grand Prix test to music at home, just to get into the rhythm better. It will be interesting to see how her efforts with Kingston benefit from that approach.
The short-listed riders, including Debbie McDonald and Brentina (ranked number two in the world and excused from the trials), are heading to Europe to compete at Aachen and a few other shows in preparation for Athens. That is going to be most important for Steffen, because he has to fight it out in Germany with Lisa Wilcox for the fourth place on the squad. If Lisa's horse Relevant is at his best, the far less-experienced Floriano probably will be out of luck. But it has not been the best year for Relevant, so who knows?
Interestingly, Robert, Guenter and Steffen were teammates in Atlanta eight years ago when our team won the bronze, though of course these guys all were on different horses. Even before the trials it was a good bet that they'd be in the group going to Europe, though it was a little surprising that Aragon and particularly Floriano would come to the fore.
So now we'll see what happens in Athens. As one experienced international competitor told me, we just have to hope that the judging is down the middle. (We all remember how Debbie got robbed of that individual bronze at the 2002 WEG, don't we?)
Coach Klaus Balkenhol pointed out that it was good the scores were so high here, because that kind of ammunition is necessary to carry into a big event. Reputation counts a lot in dressage, and, as he noted, the judges at the Games won't dare overlook these riders now.
Klaus hopes all the best from the other countries will be at their peak in Athens, and that "the whole world is going to talk about the American dressage riders."
This was a gratifying weekend for me because it's great to tell you about all these performances and to see how far the sport has come in this country. When I first starting writing about dressage a few decades back it was often hard to find the words to continually describe the struggling American dressage effort. Everyone was trying, but it was discouraging to get to the Olympics or World Championships and see how many countries were far ahead of us.
Now we have to hope that Brentina, who has been out of action for months, can be at her best in Athens; that Kennedy can continue his streak, and that Guenter and Steffen or Lisa will be able to make what we once thought was the impossible dream come true for the U.S. dressage team and all its fans. And I'll try to make you feel like you're right there with me in Greece when it happens.
Read Nancy's first postcard from the Final U.S. Olympic Dressage Selection Trial on June 19, 2004, and visit her postcard page to relive all the action at some of the world's top equestrian events.