The 2020 FEI Dressage and Show Jumping World Cup Finals were scheduled to take place this week in Las Vegas. They were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe. In honor of the event, we’ll be hosting a variety of articles on coth.com highlighting special moments and horses from previous World Cup Finals.
Ask Debbie McDonald about her favorite FEI World Cup Final memory, and she won’t hesitate to answer.
“The last one [Brentina] did in Vegas [in 2005]. That one was the most memorable,” she says. “It’s one of those things that when you make a new freestyle—it was a new freestyle, new music, and it was designed to have people enjoy because, one, I thought it needed to happen. I thought everybody was getting way too stuffy, and everybody was always going, ‘Shhh.’ And I had a horse that actually could handle [crowd participation].”
Sometimes it’s hard to remember that 2005 wasn’t the year McDonald and Brentina became the first U.S. pair to win a World Cup Dressage Final.
Two years earlier McDonald and the Hanoverian mare (Brentano II—Lieselotte, Lungau) initially placed second to Germany’s Ulla Salzgeber on Rusty at the final in Gothenburg, Sweden. But when Rusty tested positive for testosterone, McDonald ascended to the top spot, albeit two months after the competition was over.
That strange victory was sandwiched between two heartbreakingly close individual fourth-placed finishes in world championships, first in the 2002 FEI World Equestrian Games in Spain and then again at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.
By 2005, McDonald was feeling a little over it.
“I had to find a way to bring more fun back into my freestyle,” she told the Chronicle that year. “I had lost that joyful feeling I had back when I first started to ride my freestyle, and what I really wanted was to have fun again.”
So she stopped worrying about what the judges would like and focused on the fans, choosing a compilation of 1970s hits such as the Commodores’ “Brick House” and Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” to express her horse’s “diva” personality and McDonald’s own sense of humor.
“I also want this freestyle to be fun for the audience,” McDonald said at the time. “And if they know a little about Brentina’s [competitive] history, I hope they can see the humor in my musical choice—and I hope it brings a little laughter.”
McDonald got her wish. When she and Brentina began their final piaffe on the centerline in perfect step with “Respect” at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, named for Brentina’s owner, Parry Thomas, the audience started clapping in time with the beat. A huge grin broke out across McDonald’s face as the crowd noise grew along with Brentina’s passage. When the beloved chestnut mare planted her feet squarely in a halt, the audience roared to their feet, and McDonald punched the air.
“Like a kid, when you dream that you’re going to stand on that Olympic podium, I had these visions, like, ‘God, wouldn’t it be cool if, in Parry Thomas’ arena, I could go down centerline, and the whole audience gets involved and loves every moment of it,” McDonald says. “And it happened. It’s just one of those things that really truly happened. There’s no way I could ever forget that.”
What was she thinking as she came down that final centerline?
“I was going, ‘Oh my God, this is really happening,’ ” she says with a laugh. “The music I could hardly hear because the crowd was so loud. It was crazy. It just makes me smile and laugh.
“Now when I watch it, I have to admit I get a bit teary-eyed just because it was one of my most memorable times on her, and knowing you won’t have another one like that, it’s emotional when you look back at it, but in a good way,” she adds.
Does McDonald mind that she finished third behind Dutch riders Anky van Grunsven and Edward Gal?
“I didn’t care at all,” she says. “I never even thought anything negative about it. The reaction from the crowd was obvious to me that it was enjoyed, and that’s what it was supposed to be. The thing that tickles me the most? I see people from all over, and they’ll say, ‘Oh my gosh, I still remember that freestyle that you did in Las Vegas.’
“For me, this was the celebration that should have been [when I won the final],” McDonald adds. “It was just truly special in every way.”
Four years later, Brentina stole the show once again in Las Vegas, this time with her retirement ceremony. The audience danced in their seats as they watched that 2005 freestyle on the Jumbotron, and then McDonald rode Brentina into the arena, tears freely flowing.
As she returned to the Thomas & Mack Arena, Brentina appeared confused at first. She couldn’t understand why her groom, Ruben Palomera, was untacking her in the ring. But then “Respect” blared over the loudspeakers one last time as McDonald led her out. Thunderous applause filled the arena, Brentina’s ears pricked, and she began to passage. You could almost see her thinking, “Oh! That’s what we’re doing!” And she left the ring puffed up and proud. Everything was right in the world if the crowd was cheering for her.
“I could never have envisioned anything more proper for what she’d done,” says McDonald. “Parry’s health was still such that he could be there, which was important. Most everyone in our country had watched her since she was training level, go all the way through the levels. There was a definite connection for a lot of people I think watching her throughout her career.”
Brentina, 29, is still alive today, enjoying her retirement with Christi Sulzbach at In The Irons Farm in Santa Barbara, California.
“You can get that call anytime at this point, but so far I keep getting pictures of her eating grass out in the pasture and passaging her way up to the pasture out of her back stall,” says McDonald. “She’s still got a lot of life in her.”