Robert Dover has emerged as No. 1 from the cauldron of Olympic or World Championship selection trials five times before, but this time it was different. This time he was on the best horse he’s ever ridden, and, at the Oaks/Blenheim in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., on June 12-13 and 19-20, he achieved scores never seen before in U.S. selection trials.
Dover and Jane Clark’s FBW Kennedy decisively captured all four classes over the two weekends, climaxing the show by scoring 81.70 percent in the freestyle. That extra-ordinary score gave Dover and Kennedy a weighted total score of 78.47 percent (30% for each Grand Prix, 25% for the Grand Prix Special, 15% for the freestyle).
And it put him on the short list for his sixth consecutive Olympic team since 1984, along with Guenter Seidel (second on Aragon and third on Nikolaus 7) and Steffen Peters (fourth on Floriano).
They’ll join Debbie McDonald and Brentina, who got a bye from the trials but were in San Juan Capistrano during the trials to train with Klaus Balkenhol, and Lisa Wilcox and Relevant, whose European scores put her on the list by being more than 2 percentage points higher than Floriano’s.
Making an Olympic team certainly isn’t anything new for Dover, 48. But what is new is the way he did it, the way he rode. Instead of presenting a look of scrubbing hard for a piaffe or pirouette”sometimes almost in desperation”he rode quietly and confidently. And he looked and acted as if it was fun.
In fact, after winning the first Grand Prix (76.29%), Dover was nearly overwhelmed by Kennedy’s generosity and honesty. “You know, I came out of that test thinking that if I didn’t ever ride again, that would be OK,” he said with a broad smile.
Dr. Joseph Knipp of Germany, who judged the first weekend, was impressed with the partnership Dover has developed since November with Kennedy. He’d judged Kennedy often with former rider Lone Jorgensen of Denmark, and he gave Kennedy the highest marks in both tests, 79.16 percent in the Grand Prix and 80.80 percent in the Special.
Knipp said that Kennedy, 15, “has improved a lot, and Robert gives him the opportunity to work for himself. There was a harmony you see very seldom, like with Debbie and Brentina.”
Dover said that’s because the chestnut gelding has much more than just exceptional gaits. “He has the most unbelievable heart. He just wants to do for his rider. In my whole life I’ve never had a horse who would go down the centerline with 100 percent of what you had in the warm-up,” said Dover.
One of the hallmarks of all four tests was Kennedy’s patience, his willingness to wait for the next movement, to wait for Dover’s aids, especially on tough transitions like collected walk to piaffe or passage to canter.
Janet Brown, who judged both weekends, called Kennedy’s work with Dover “absolutely harmonious. It was a partnership.”
Dover said that’s “because he’s constantly communicating with me, and I have to give the credit for that to Lone. He knows that he is loved because he’s always been loved, and so he wants to do it for you.”
Dover highlighted Kennedy’s suppleness, correctness and willingness in the freestyle, the test that’s always been Dover’s trademark. The performance seemed somewhat understated, less flamboyant than other Dover performances, a test to which it seemed he could add more demanding movements in the next two months. But the judges liked it, giving Kennedy two 9s and three 8s on his one-tempi changes and scores of 8.5 to 9 on his music and on the difficulty, as well as 8 to 8.5 on the choreography.
Dover hadn’t ridden the test before. In fact, the carefully selected music was only recorded, with a full orchestra, two weeks before the trials. Dover calls it “Kennedy’s Melody,” consisting of six or seven pieces of music from the ’30s to the ’60s, the names of which he couldn’t recall.
But he can recall the years of going to international shows, let alone the Olympics, where he hoped that he and his teammates would be competitive. So he just smiles at the thought”a thought that 20 years ago would have been inconceivable-hat this team will go to Athens with a chance to beat Germany for the Olympic gold medal.
Here’s how close they are: The Germans held their national championships and Olympic trials on June 11-13 (see following story). Their top three horses”Rusty (Ulla Salzgeber), Bonaparte (Heike Kemmer) and Renoir UNICEF (Ann Kathrin Linsenhoff)”scored a total of 225.13 percent. On that same weekend, Kennedy, Aragon and Floriano scored 219.99 percent.
But on the second weekend, Kennedy, Aragon and Floriano scored 224.94 percent”and it should be higher with Brentina and Relevant.
“If all our guns are firing”meaning that everyone does the best they can”yes, we can beat them. I’m certain of it,” predicted Dover.
Klaus Balkenhol wasn’t willing to speculate whether the team he coaches would beat the team for which he used to ride, but he did say that Brentina was “working excellently” and that he hoped “the whole world is going to be talking about the American dressage riders” after the Olympics.
But Chef d’ Equipe Jessica Ransehousen had a warning for Germany: “We’re going in there kicking and screaming and yelling. We’re going in there fighting.”
Relaxing In California
These selection trials lacked much of the high anxiety that usually characterizes them. One reason was certainly that Dover, Seidel and Peters had set themselves above the rest before the first weekend was even over.
Another may have been that, unlike 2000 and 2002, these trials weren’t a stage for the raw and engaging emotions of McDonald, Sue Blinks and Christine Traurig. Seidel and Peters are the epitome of the adjectives cool and focused, and Dover could even stay cool after taking an almost unbeatable early lead.
But the biggest reason may have been the environment-he Oaks/Blenheim, half a dozen miles from the Pacific Ocean and in the foothills of the San Ana Mountains, site also of the Olympic Show Jumping Selection Trials in May.
The sun shined brightly on all but the second Saturday, when a cool breeze from the overcast skies made the horses feel fresh. Otherwise, the temperatures were in the high 70s, the humidity unnoticeable, and hardly any flies. In other words, this competition, still nominally called the USET Festival of Champions, lacked the environmental conditions (boiling sun or driving rain, 90 degrees, 85% humidity) of Hamilton Farm, the U.S. Equestrian Team headquarters in Gladstone, N.J., where selection trials have been held since about the time Dover was born. (The exception was in 2000, when they were held in a similarly hot Loxahatchee, Fla., in May.)
“There are no minuses here, only plusses,” said Peters, one of four Californians in the line-up.
It was Seidel who proposed moving the trials to Oaks/Blenheim to the USEF High-Performance Committee, and he looked perfectly at home under the California sun of which he’s so fond.
“Obviously, there is a tradition at Gladstone-hat ring, and the stables and the indoor arena”which I always liked, but this is more horse-friendly,” he said, referring to the soft, dry footing and the climate.
As an incentive, these trials, which were also the USEF Grand Prix and Intermediaire I Championships, offered the most prize money ever”$50,000 for the Grand Prix and $10,000 for the Intermediaire I.
Dover, who lives in New Jersey and practically grew up at the USET headquarters, didn’t gush as much. “Here’s the thing: The only difficult part was, why go west before we have to head to Europe [for the Olympics]? I thought that didn’t make a lot of sense, but I have to admit, this [site] cannot be surpassed for the welfare of the horses,” he said.
To decide the four who’ll ride in Athens, McDonald, Wilcox, Dover, Seidel and Peters will all compete at Aachen, Germany, on July 14-18 to determine the Olympic team. Then, as a final tune-up, the four Olympians, at least, will also go to Lingen, Germany, two weeks later. Dover will show both Kennedy and Rainier, who finished sixth overall, and Seidel will show Aragon and Nikolaus.
And Seidel, Balkenhol and the Selection Committee will have a decision to make: Should they go with the brilliant but still green Aragon or the more seasoned but less expressive Nikolaus?
Aragon took second and beat third-placed Nikolaus by just under a point in the first Grand Prix, but Nikolaus turned in a consummate example of communication and elasticity to take second in the Special (75.32%).
Aragon then topped Nikolaus by 3 percentage points with a steadier and even more brilliant second Grand Prix (in which his first piaffe got a 10 from judge Uwe Mechlem), and he finished with a second in the freestyle, 1.25 percent ahead of Nikolaus.
Seidel said firmly after the first Grand Prix that he’d prefer to take Nikolaus because he thought the bay gelding was “a better team horse.” But a week later he was singing a less certain tune, saying they’d wait and see what happens in Aachen.
Balkenhol recommended that owners Dick and Jane Brown buy Aragon, a Belgian-bred bundle of elasticity and excitement, for Seidel to ride three years ago. “He was kind of a rank horse,” said Seidel, whose quiet confidence is bringing the 13-year-old gelding under steadier control.
Knipp described Nikolaus as “consistently on the bit, really safe in the exercises.” But he considered Aragon to be “like a young boy who wants to do too much. He’s not yet ready [for the Olympics]. He needs perhaps one or two more years.”
Said judge Janet Brown, “He’s unbelievable and probably a star for the future.” But she wondered if the future isn’t now? “We aren’t going to win the gold medal without taking some risks,” she added.
Peters thought he’d have a decision to make too, between the veteran Grandeur and the brand-new Floriano. But the horses made a clear decision for him: Floriano improved in each test and far surpassed Grandeur, who, in giving all he had and finishing eighth overall, confirmed for Peters that it was time for him to retire at age 16.
The story was different with Floriano, though. Peters only began riding the 14-year-old Westphalian in October. That’s when owner Melanie Pai of Canaan Ranch in Fulshear, Texas, asked him to give the chestnut gelding a try while Peters was giving a clinic there.
Peters knows nothing about Floriano’s past. He had clearly been taught the tricks, but he also clearly had very little show experience. So Peters has concentrated on developing Floriano’s confidence in himself, especially in the piaffe. He achieved scores of more than 70 percent in all four tests and was one of only four horses to score higher in the second Grand Prix than in the first. A highlight in each test was his supple, easy lateral work.
“It’s pretty amazing,” said Peters, who pumped his fist in the air after each test’s final salute. “Six months ago, I was trying to make a Grand Prix horse out of him, and now I have to make him into an Olympic horse.”
Even though Floriano can be hot, he’s very willing and rideable. An example of that eager generosity came in the second Grand Prix, when Peters said Floriano did the piaffe, passage and canter pirouettes “all on the pure aids. I never used my spur, just my calf. It was an incredible feeling.”
And he added, “I’ve ridden a lot of Grand Prix tests, but not too many when I felt choked up.”
Leslie Morse’s goal was to avoid getting choked up in the Grand Prix, the test where lately she and Kingston have been coming to grief. Her goal was to ride clean, steady tests, especially in the first GrandbPrix, and she did, scoring 70.33 percent and 71.58 percent for two tests free of major errors.
“I did what I set out to do, which was to show consistency. I wanted to show that, no matter what the day is, I could do the job,” said Morse, 42, at the midway point.
But, considering the quality of her competition, the scores weren’t good enough. She admitted that she was disappointed, but, “I learned so much in two weekends, and it’s still early for this horse. It’s not done yet.”
It was done for Tina Konyot and her powerful mare Anna Karenina after the second Grand Prix, though. Their scores of 69.66 percent and 71.80 percent on the first weekend had kept them in precarious touch with the leaders, but the pair didn’t look sharp in the second Grand Prix. And the marked unevenness they’d shown at piaffe in the first Grand Prix”Konyot said she’d used too much spur”returned in the second, leaving a score of 68.08 percent and seventh place.
Rainier was also close early, finishing fifth in the first Grand Prix (71.04%) for a joyful test highlighted by his spectacular piaffe and passage. But things fell apart in the Special (eighth place/68.32%) as Dover pressed him for even more and Rainier declined Dover’s insistent invitation.
“He’s a very sensitive horse, with a huge amount of personality, and I think that will probably always be a part of his nature,” said Dover.
None of the other seven horses could score within 5 percentage points of the leaders. Arlene Page withdrew Claire after the first weekend, and Jan Brons withdrew Fernando just before the second Grand Prix. Each had an unspecified minor unsoundness, according to veterinarian Mike Tomlinson.