April 17, 2009 -- Farewell, Brentina.
The chestnut mare who won two gold Pan American Games medals, a World Equestrian Games Silver, the World Cup finals and Olympic bronze took her final bow this afternoon.
She's been given the appellation "America's Dressage Horse," but to my mind, she'll always be the real queen of dressage (as opposed to a dressage queen!)
The minute Debbie McDonald rode Brentina into the arena at the Thomas & Mack Center, she began wiping the expected tears from her eyes with a white-gloved hand. The Hanoverian mare looked very well after a colic scare and operation during the winter that prevented her from doing her signature freestyle again, but it was enough that she was able to appear "in person" for her 6,431 fans, who saluted her often and enthusiastically.
Also there to greet her were her family; her owners, Peggy and Parry Thomas (Thomas & Mack is named after him) and their daughter, Jane; Debbie's husband, Bob; Adrienne Lyle, Debbie's assistant, and so many others who played a role in her life. Right beside Brentina was her devoted groom, Ruben Palomera, who looked as emotional as Debbie.
None of us will ever hear "Respect" and "She's a Brickhouse" without thinking of Brentina. As Debbie led Brentina out of the ring, the music to which she performed here so memorably at the 2005 World Cup finals was playing. Brentina knew what to do -- she began passaging and brightened the moment.
Next for her is life as a broodmare, though surrogates will be doing the heavy work of carrying babies. She'll have plenty of rest and relaxation, as well as the continuing devotion of her many nearest and dearest.
Debbie, as always, handled the occasion beautifully. She and Brentina had been together for 15 years, since she had been purchased as a 3-year-old. Debbie is retired from competition now, too, though she will continue to work with Adrienne and the Thomases horses, as well as giving clinics.
I caught up with her back at the stable to get her thoughts on how things went this afternoon.
I spent part of my day talking to people who admired Brentina to get their take on the "end of a chapter," as Debbie put it. Dr. Ludwig Christmann of the Hanoverian verband noted, "She was a very good ambassador for the Hanoverians. She stands for many qualities of the Hanoverian horse, like honesty and the willingness to perform. I think that made her very special."
Parry Thomas, dignified as always, summed up his feelings.
Jessica Ransehousen, a pillar of the dressage community, also had some thoughts.
Adrienne Lyle, Debbie's assistant, found the ceremony touching and emotional.
Everyone involved with Brentina was upbeat and grateful for having known her . I count myself among them. When I wrote the book, "Riding Through," with Debbie, I spent a lot of time watching her and Brentina and came to love the mare better known as Mama.
"It's been a wonderful ride," said Jane Thomas, Peggy and Parry's daughter, speaking for all of us whose lives Brentina touched.
"We've loved every minute of it."
Earlier in the afternoon, fans were all smiles as they saw how much fun dressage can be. A costume pas de deux was held for the first time here, and what a hit it was, pairing Olympic riders with their students for the performance.
Adrienne and Debbie pimped their rides on Wizard and Felix in cherry-colored jackets with zebra-striped lapels and hatbands to match as they rode to "Play that Funky Music, White Boy and "Soul Man." Felix amazed everyone with his fantastic front-leg reach and great animation.
I couldn't help thinking of my last conversation with Olympic multi-gold medalist Reiner Klimke, at the 1996 Olympics, when I hesitantly mentioned how nice it would be to have people wear tailcoats in several different colors for the freestyle.
"This is not circus!" he said with great emphasis, as I slunk away. I wonder what he would have thought of today's performances and the zebra-striped lapels.
Charlotte Bredahl, a bronze medalist from the 1992 Barcelona Games, rode Liberty Light while Charlotte Nielsen was aboard Midt-West Dacapo for a disco effort punctuated by rhinestone-studded polo wraps to "Saturday Night Fever" music.
But the best performance came from multi-Olympic medalist Guenter Seidel and Pan Am Games medalist Elizabeth Ball on Fandango and Orion, as they performed their interpretation of Phantom of the Opera. Guenter wore the appropriate mask; Elizabeth as Christine was in a white dress that draped artfully over her horse's back. It was an incredibly polished routine.
Announcer Brian O'Connor jokingly told the crowd that Guenter and Elizabeth had signed with the Bellagio to perform their act there, at $80 a pop. I could believe it, and I'd buy a ticket to see it again.
"It was just perfect. I couldn't ask for a better pas de deux performance," said judge Linda Zang, one of two officials for the event, which of course had nothing to do with the World Cup and everything to do with pure entertainment. Judges' marks weren't the only method of determining a winner. An applause meter was used to get the audience in on the decision, and they voted with their hands overwhelmingly for the Phantom.
Tomorrow night is the World Cup freestyle, which I expect will be spectacular, even if it isn't done in costume. But the jinx that seems to be rampant here has struck again. Sweden's Minna Telde, ninth in the Grand Prix yesterday, has withdrawn her stallion, Don Charly, because he twisted his right front foot. He earned a 10 from one judge in the Grand Prix for his walk. It's a shame, because now there are only 11 starters for the freestyle, as opposed to the 15 originally entered before the field was winnowed by mishaps.
At any rate, what we're really primed for is the battle for the title among Anky van Grunsven, Grand Prix winner Steffen Peters and Isabell Werth (with a dark horse shot by Hans Peter Minderhoud on Exquis Nadine). Let's hope they all stay safe and sound.
Check back tomorrow morning to read my next postcard on tonight's second leg of the show jumping Cup.