Ann Romney, Rafalca And U.S. Equestrian Miss In Dressage As Hester And Brits Score Gold

The U.S. equestrian team is having a dismal time in London. They finished out of the medals in eventing and team jumping, two events where they've won gold in the past. Their next shot came Tuesday in dressage, where the U.S. always struggles, with the Grand Prix Special and finals for team medals. Thirty-two of the original 50 horses would go, including Ann Romney's horse Rafalca and the competition's two openly gay riders, Edward Gal of the Netherlands and Carl Hester of Great Britain.

For the U.S., their best chance of a high score was veteran pair Steffen Peters and Ravel, who have medaled in other world competitions but never at the Olympics. And the two did well, with a 76.381 that shot them briefly to the top of the leaderboard. But Rafalca and rider Jan Ebeling logged a 69.302, dragging down the U.S. team's average. So did Tina Konyot and Calecto V, who managed a 70.651.

As a result, the U.S. team got their top hats handed to them, finishing sixth. Bronze has been the U.S.'s sole metal in team dressage, but they haven't won a bronze since the 2004 games in Athens, when openly gay teammates Robert Dover and Guenter Seidel scored high enough to medal. As for the individual competition, which is tougher to win, the U.S. has never won a medal of any kind.

So the Europeans controlled team standings on Tuesday, as they've always done in this event, so drenched in history and tradition. Germany has won team gold since 1976, whereas Great Britain -- unlike the U.S. -- had never won a dressage medal, period. But Britain has been working hard and was eager to debut on the podium.

The British dream came true on Tuesday. Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro scored a whopping 81.905. Hester and Uthopia were close behind with 80.571. The third British entry, Laura Bechtolscheimer and Mistral Hojris, scored 77.794. The total added up to gold, bumping Germany into second place.

The jubilation in the stands, with Union Jacks waving everywhere, was wild.

Meanwhile, Denmark and Netherlands were neck and neck for bronze. Gal and his new young horse, Undercover, turned in another creditable 75.556. Anky van Grunsven and Salinero had another disappointing run, considering their gold-medal past. So it was Adelinde Cornelissen on Parzival, with a big 81.984, who clinched bronze for the Netherlands.

Why does the U.S. struggle with dressage, in spite of our national love of the horse and our past golds in show jumping and eventing? There's no lack of passion on the part of the Americans who do dedicate their lives to this sport. The reasons why are probably complex, and I won't speculate here. But one fact is clear: Americans try to end their dressage drought by purchasing superior European horses.

In recent years, Europe has made big breakthroughs in the breeding of dressage horses. A wave of super-horses like Moorlands Totilas, Valegro and Parzival swept out of breeding programs in Netherlands, Germany and other countries. With good riders on these horses and massive public support, competition is seeing monster scores of 90 or more -- the highest ever in the sport's history. U.S. sport-horse breeders are racing to bring in these winning bloodlines and catch up with Europe.

Meanwhile, some U.S. riders make big efforts to get aboard a top European-bred horse. Example: In 2003, Dover persuaded his patron to purchase FBW Kennedy, a German-bred that was one of the top 10 high-scoring horses at that time. Kennedy didn't win an individual medal in Athens in 2004, but he did carry Dover to a team bronze. Another example: Danish-bred Ravel, who was purchased for Peters by his patron in 2006, with an eye to the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Ravel put Peters on the world map as a rider, but an Olympics win eluded the pair.

With these examples in mind, it's possible to analyze the Romneys' 2006 purchase of Rafalca, a German-bred Oldenburg mare with a distinguished pedigree. If the Romneys aimed for the podium in dressage, why didn't they go for super-horse Totilas when he was available in 2010? The 15 million euros reportedly paid for the black stallion would have been easily manageable. But if the Romneys had plunged on Totilas, they would be facing even ruder questions about their finances than they're facing now due to the lower-profile horse whose part-ownership they evidently decided to stick with. My guess is that Rafalca was the politically smart choice for Ann Romney.

So Rafalca now goes home -- she was not in the top 18, so she didn't qualify for the Freestyle.

Our two European gay guys now pocket their team medals, and go on to the Grand Prix Freestyle. There, riding to music, Gal, Hester and 16 others will ride for the individual gold on Aug. 9.

Peters and Ravel are the only U.S. pair to advance to the Freestyle, where they will compete against horses that have scored 80 or above. Ravel has never scored that high, and he is due to be retired after London. So he and Peters will have to come up with a big, big run.

Meanwhile, the individual show-jumping finals take place Wednesday, which will feature two Americans -- Rich Fellers and McLain Ward. If they and Peters don't do well enough, the U.S. will go home without an equestrian medal for the first time since 1956.

Find more about Patricia on her Web site. Copyright (c) 2012 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved.