On the Rail: U.S. Olympics Report Card

What can the U.S. do to get straight A's in that next whopper of a competition, the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Lexington?

Read award-winning journalist Nancy Jaffer’s latest report on the world of equestrian sport. Brought to you by Practical Horseman magazine. Visit Nancy’s archive for past columns.

The gold medal Olympic show jumping team: McLain Ward, Laura Kraut, Beezie Madden, Anne Kursinski (reserve) and Will Simpson | © 2008 by Nancy Jaffer

August 29, 2008 — If you think of the Olympics as a report card for the highest-profile horse sports, the U.S. certainly didn’t get straight As, despite a massive and well-organized effort from the selection trials through the Games.

And the next exam is a big one–the 2010 Alltech/FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Lexington, Ky., our home turf. It is just two years away now, not a very long time to marshal our resources for a good performance.

That’s vitally important because the WEG is going to be the greatest showcase for equestrian sports that ever has been seen in this country. It will be televised for three weekends on NBC and serve as the introduction to what horses are all about for many people across the nation. As an opportunity for horses to show their muscle, the WEG can pay off with an awareness among legislators that there really is an equestrian constituency. Maybe then we’ll get a bill passed to stop transport of horses for slaughter across the borders, and be able to preserve more open land for trail riding. If lawmakers come to understand that there are a lot of horse-loving voters out there, it can be beneficial for everyone who rides, drives, breeds or simply keeps horses, as well as for the racing industry.

Success in competition will have a lot to do with that, because everyone likes a winner and victory against the rest of the world makes for great TV and headlines. Greater visibility means a wider acknowledgment of equestrianism. That applies to more than potential spectators, who bring in sponsors and media attention. It also works toward increasing the base of the sport. Bigger is better in the pecking order of what can be achieved in the interests of the horse.

The Olympics were a good indicator of where we may be standing in 2010, so it’s important that we pay attention to the results and build on them, or correct what went wrong.

On balance, we did okay with three medals in Hong Kong. Athens was a hard act to follow, where each team got a medal, and we had two individual medals as well.

Beezie Madden and Authentic | © 2008 by Nancy Jaffer

The brightest moments in China belonged to show jumping. Things rarely go exactly as planned at the world’s biggest sporting event, but the jumpers’ team gold medal did, and it was an A for the squad defending its 2004 honors. Beezie Madden’s individual bronze on Authentic merits high marks as well for doing so beautifully in such elite company.

Looking ahead to the WEG, though, America will have its work cut out to gain a three-peat in the gold medal ranks. Beezie’s Authentic and McLain Ward’s Sapphire were also on the 2004 gold medal squad. How much longer will they be around, and who is coming up to replace them? Let’s hope Cedric, Laura Kraut’s mount, continues to shine. Ditto Carlsson vom Dach, who showed real class with Will Simpson as he clinched the gold in a jump-off against the Canadians. Anne Kursinski, the reserve rider for Hong Kong, has an up-and-comer in Champ. And Hillary Dobbs, who decided she lacked the experience to try out for the Olympics this time, may be a contender in 2010. With a strong base, as seen at so many grand prix around the country, a few new stars seem sure to emerge over the next 18 months.

Missing a team bronze medal that had come to be counted on over the last four Olympics disappointed dressage fans and the result can really rate nothing more than a C, though here competition luck played into the picture. There simply was no way to predict the previously reliable Brentina’s meltdown after she took offense at something in the arena. The lack of a drop score under the new Olympic format spelled doom for U.S. medal hopes.

Still, Ravel’s third-place finish in the freestyle bodes well. If the Olympics were run under the same format as the WEG, which offers separate medals for the Grand Prix Special and freestyle, Steffen Peters would have come home with a personal bronze. That’s pretty amazing considering he was aboard a 10-year-old horse in his international debut. Give him an A-minus, especially since the last U.S. individual medal in dressage came in 1932.

Ravel and Harmony’s Mythilus, Courtney King-Dye’s mount, who both had showings of over 70 percent in Hong Kong, are only the tip of the American iceberg that may sink the dressage super powers in coming years. Coach Klaus Balkenhol predicts a possibility for gold in the 2012 London Olympics, but America could move up a notch even before then.

Neruda, the horse who was the reserve with Michael Barisone, continues coming into his own, and waiting in the wings are a number of championship possibilities, including Sagacious HF with Lauren Sammis and Brentina Cup winner Wizard, piloted by Adrienne Lyle. There are several other horses at Intermediaire I who could graduate to Grand Prix before 2010, when America will want to be at its best in every discipline on its home turf.

The big problem is eventing. A series of mishaps sank the chances of a team that wasn’t one of our strongest on paper anyway, though it had some stars, including Phillip Dutton with 2008 Rolex Kentucky winner Connaught and Amy Tryon aboard the multi-medal horse, Poggio II. With the squad standing third behind Australia and Germany after dressage, hope flickered for a medal, or at least a top-four finish.

Those dreams were quickly dashed on cross-country. Phillip’s horse had trouble with the footing near the end of the twisting route after it got deep when it started to rain, hampering his chances to shoot at an optimum time that no one made. Show jumping wasn’t his best effort either, with two rails down in the team fray. And Amy was out early when she fell as Poggio had trouble at a jump in the first part of the course. When Rolex runner-up Becky Holder on Courageous Comet crossed her own line after a refusal and was charged with a second disobedience, it was all over for the U.S. Team eventing got a D-minus, but not an F, since at least the contingent finished, albeit seventh of 11 squads.

Gina Miles, of course, gets an A for her individual silver medal with McKinlaigh. Her Olympic debut was a stunner, though it wasn’t enough on its own to raise the team from the depths.

Gina Miles and McKinlaigh, the USA’s highest-placed individual medalist in Hong Kong | © 2008 by Nancy Jaffer

Only one sound horse, aside from Phillip’s reserve mount, remained from the short list by the time the team shipped to China. That’s an indication, according to coach Mark Phillips, of how thin we are at the international level in this sport. Poggio, who has been a team stalwart since he was part of the 2002 world championships gold medal squad, is retiring from championship competition. Phillip has several horses, and perhaps Woodburn, his reserve this time, will be in peak form by 2010. Maybe the same will be true for Karen O’Connor’s mount, Mandiba, who was a little too inexperienced for a bravura effort this time around. But we definitely need more than that.

And the way the sport is going, as indicated by what we saw in China, it likely will have to be a different, more maneuverable type of horse to do the CIC-type courses with lots of jumping efforts over a relatively short distance.

So average the marks together and the U.S. gets a B-minus or C-plus for the Games. Not bad, but not as good as our potential for these disciplines, which perhaps will be realized at the WEG, where we will also have opportunities to shine in driving, reining, vaulting, endurance and para-equestrian. A different format there for dressage, with the ability to have a drop score, certainly should help.

Let’s hope all our disciplines learned some lessons in Hong Kong that will pay off with high marks at the 2010 WEG.

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