For the first time ever, the U.S. dressage team is considered a true medal contender, writes
Before the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, the U.S. dressage team's chances at any kind of medal were considered slim. But that team achieved the bronze-medal breakthrough, a performance repeated in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics and then improved upon with an unprecedented silver medal at the 2002 World Equestrian Games. That team's high scorers--Debbie McDonald on Brentina and Lisa Wilcox on Relevant--are back, along with teammate Guenter Seidel on the exhilarating Aragon. And since Robert Dover has joined them on the proven FBW Kennedy, they're seeing nothing less than silver. Maybe even gold.
Anchored by the indubitable pair of Brentina and McDonald, this year's team has a depth and breadth never seen before. Dover, on his sixth consecutive Olympic team, partners FBW Kennedy, himself a veteran Olympian. Seidel, on his third consecutive Olympic team, has chosen the inexperienced but brilliant mount Aragon. Wilcox, with Relevant, has consistently challenged German powerhouses like Ulla Salzgeber and Rusty and on her best day can beat them. Each one of these competitors can score above 70 percent in the Grand Prix (the team test), and Relevant and Brentina can usually be counted on to score 74 percent or above. Those are medal-winning percentages.
Of the four riders, McDonald is the least show-experienced. She admits that she still gets extremely nervous before she rides, even though she and Brentina have won the FEI World Cup Final and fell just shy of garnering an individual medal in the 2002 World Equestrian Games. But whatever nerves McDonald has, the sheer lyrical beauty of her partnership with the chestnut mare always overshadows them. The pair is fluid and graceful, and they exhibit the kind of iconic harmony the sport demands.
The Aachen CDIO (Germany) on July 14-18 (see Dressage section) was Brentina's first outing since straining a tendon at the Dortmund CDI (Germany) in March. "I couldn't say that our fitness is perhaps 100 percent, especially with it being so warm here, but [by competing here] it gave me a good idea of where we are. That's kind of what I'm doing, just getting back in the ring and not going crazy," said McDonald after her Grand Prix ride. Even riding conservatively, the pair still scored 74.16 percent, finished fourth, and led the U.S. team to third in the Nations Cup. If Brentina can start with scores like she got at Aachen in Athens, and then add to them with brilliance from additional fitness, the Germans and the Dutch will have to beat her for the individual medals.
Despite not having shown all spring, Wilcox and Relevant have to be considered candidates for an individual medal too. An injury to the stallion's mouth and then his busy breeding season have kept the pair from the arena. But the team selectors have watched Wilcox work the stallion at home, and they've said they're confident that Wilcox has him on track.
The Oldenburg stallion has remarkable presence, and the pair is very experienced at pitting themselves against their European rivals. With Relevant, Wilcox became the first American to enter the top 10 of BCM/FEI World Dressage Rider Rankings, and they won the silver medal in last year's Open European Championships. On their day, Wilcox and Relevant have beaten some of the best horses in the world, and the team will need a strong one-two punch from Relevant and Brentina to repeat their silver medal and to think about threatening Germany.
FBW Kennedy and Dover don't exhibit the same kind of ethereal harmony as McDonald and Brentina, but they have a wealth of combined experience. Jane Clark bought Kennedy in November from Danish star Lone Jorgensen, who rode Kennedy to seventh in both the 2000 Sydney Olympics and 2002 WEG. It didn't take long for Dover to form a partnership with Kennedy, and they were the runaway stars of the team selection trials, scoring 76.29 percent and 78.91 percent in the two Grand Prix tests. Dover is a master at riding the Grand Prix. He's thorough and careful and knows how to squeeze every point from every transition and every movement.
Kennedy didn't receive the same kind of scores at the Aachen (71.45% in the Grand Prix) as they did at the team selection trials, but Dover said the hectic atmosphere at Aachen was an invaluable learning tool for him. "This is the first time that I've competed this horse in an environment like [Aachen], and each day I knew more what to expect," said Dover. "When we first got here, the environment had him wild, and I over-prepared him for the first test and warmed him up too much. I didn't have confidence in his rideability." With that knowledge under his belt, Dover could be able to deliver the key third mid-70s score.
Aragon, the team's wild card, might do it too--and then some. Seidel chose to take the less-experienced horse to Athens after his veteran Nikolaus under-performed in the Nations Cup at Aachen (67.58%). At Aachen, Aragon defeated the likes of Anky van Grunsven's Gestion Krack C to take the open Grand Prix, after finishing second to Kennedy and in front of Nikolaus in the selection trials. The gray gelding has a magnificent piaffe and passage tour, but he's a very hotheaded horse. and Seidel will need to use all his considerable skill to ride him through the excitement.
Brentina: ch. m., 13, German-bred Hanoverian by Brentano II--Lieselotte, Lungau, owned by Peggy Thomas.
Debbie McDonald: age 50, Hailey, Idaho.