August 10, 2004 -- It's down to the wire now, with the Olympics that we have all been waiting for over the last four years finally starting for equestrians on Sunday, August 15.
Although opening ceremonies are Friday night, the first competition is two days later, when the eventers begin their dressage. The venue is in Markopoulo, just an hour or so from Athens, depending on road conditions and traffic which, I hear, are always dicey in this part of Greece.
The line-ups are finalized for the teams from around the globe. There are inevitably some last-minute adjustments, like the one the Germans just had to make when the world's No. 1 show jumper, Marcus Ehning, dropped out of the Games because his 18-year-old mount, For Pleasure, had a tendon problem.
Two other nations also had problems as they prepared to leave for Athens. Great Britain's eventing team lost Sarah Cutteridge when The Wexford Lady suffered a minor injury that was just enough to keep her out of the Games. But they have a very experienced replacement--eventing legend Mary King with King Solomon III.
In dressage, the Dutch suffered a cruel blow when Edward Gal's mount, Gestion Lingh, was hurt stepping off a van. Edward had been mentioned as an individual medal possibility and was crucial to Dutch hopes of overthrowing the German gold medal dressage juggernaut. Filling in for Edward and Lingh are the less-seasoned Imke Schellekens-Bartels and Lancet.
Subbing for Marcus Ehning will be Olympic newcomer Marco Kutscher with Montender, but this duo is hardly a replacement for a pairing with plenty of Games mileage. It's the second setback for the German show jumpers who lost Meredith Michaels Beerbaum when her mount, Shutterfly, came up positive for a prohibited substance at the World Cup finals, barring her from being nominated for the team.
That's the way the sport goes, and it puts the U.S. in a better position to take the team gold. In fact, you could consider the squad of Beezie Madden (Authentic), Peter Wylde (Fein Cera), McLain Ward (Sapphire) and Chris Kappler (Royal Kaliber) to be the favorites now. The major obstacle in the way is the world champion French team, who can never be taken too lightly.
Royal Kaliber has bounced back from the strain he suffered in July and appeared fine at a recent Dutch show where he slowly cruised the course to get into the swing of things again.
Individually, medal contenders include Rodrigo Pessoa of Brazil with the unpredictable Baloubet du Rouet, who lost him a medal in Sydney with unexpected refusuals; Ludger Beerbaum of Germany, who already has one Olympic individual gold and could get another on Goldfever; and Marcus Fuchs of Switzerland, the former world No. 1, who won at Aachen with Tinka's Boy. Another possibility is Sweden's Malin Baryard with Butterfly Flip.
All the American contenders have a shot (though only three can go in the finals if four qualify) but at this point Beezie and Peter would have to be the favorites. McLain's horse is a little inexperienced (while it must be said he has been going great guns on other horses in Europe) and Chris' fortunes will depend on how well Royal Kaliber holds up after the team fray, since he was sidelined for a few weeks last month.
In eventing, look for Kim Severson on the medal platform, twice probably. The team has been training well in Britain and could definitely earn gold. The squad of Kim (Winsome Adante), John Williams (Carrick), Amy Tryon (Poggio II, in a
last-minute switch from My Beau), Darren Chiacchia (Windfall II) and Julie Richards (Jacob Two Two) need to get by the British and the French to rule the day. Australia and New Zealand could also weigh in.
Individually, Kim will have to watch out for Britain's William Fox-Pitt with Badminton winner Tamarillo; France's world and European champions, Jean Teulere with Espoir de la Mare and Nicolas Touizant with Galan de Sauvegere; and the Kiwis' master cross-country rider Andrew Nicholson on Fenicio. This will be the swan song for another Kiwi, Blyth Tait, who is retiring and will be bowing out aboard his 1996 Olympic gold medal winner, Ready Teddy. The chestnut had a soundness problem in Sydney, and he's four years older now, but he won Punchestown in great style and might just give one of the greatest figures in the sport a dramatic exit.
World Cup Champion Linda Algotsson of Sweden with Stand By Me could be in for an individual medal, too, since the Cup is run in such a similar style to the untried Olympic format.
The Dutch and the U.S. likely will battle it out for the silver. The Dutch are led by defending Olympic gold medalist Anky van Grunsven on Gestion Salinero, but overall are not as strong as the Americans without Edward Gal.
The Germans don't have their strongest team ever, but never underestimate Ulla Salzgeber and Rusty, who are also bowing out after the Games.
The U.S. should be good for bronze at least and maybe better if Debbie McDonald (Brentina), Lisa Wilcox (Relevant) and Robert Dover (FBW Kennedy) go at their best. The fourth member of the team, Guenter Seidel, is a fabulous rider, but he is on the still-developing Aragon, so it's a toss-up as to how he'll do in the biggest pressure cooker of all.
The U.S. will be feeling the heat for the bronze from a surprisingly rejuvenated team from Denmark, the nation that nearly nipped America in Sydney, and the Spanish contingent.
A big plus for the U.S. is the presence of Wilcox, who hadn't shown Relevant for months until last weekend, when she was a winner at Lingen, Germany. She can do far better than the 72 percent-plus that she scored there when the stallion is "on."
Individually, though, Debbie seems to be America's best hope for a medal. Everyone will keep their fingers crossed for one of the nicest people in equestrian sports. Another individual medal prospect is Sweden's Jan Brink with Briar, and there are also several Germans who could share a podium with their compatriot Ulla.
Anyway, that's how I see it. What do you think? We'll find out soon enough who's the best at predictions.
Our coverage on EquiSearch will start Sunday. I'll be sending you my postcards daily after that, keeping you advised on everything that happens in Greece over what should be a very exciting two weeks.