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Debbie McDonald and Brentina Lead the U.S. Pack With a Fourth Place Overall Score After the Grand Prix Special

Equestrian Olympics

The Grand Prix Special was ahead for the dressage riders at Markopoulo Equestrian Center today, and an early morning start saw them performing in the Second Qualifier. Twenty-five riders and their mounts posted scores leading into Wednesday’s final day of dressage and the Final Grand Prix Freestyle. And at the end of Wednesday, we will know who will be awarded the 2004 Athens Olympics Individual medals. The U.S. team is coming off their successful bid for a Team medal. They took home the Bronze during this past Saturday’s medal ceremony.

Guenter Seidel from Del Mar, CA, and his Bavarian gelding Aragon were first up for the U.S. team, posting a score of 71.040% today. He went into today’s competition after posting a score of 69.500% in his first round, giving him a Grand Prix and Special combined placing of 70.270% for an overall 14th place, making their way into the Freestyle and last day of competition at Markopoulo. A country can send up to three riders into the Freestyle.

Seidel felt good about his test, especially the beginning. “He halted nice,” he laughed, and added, “I made the first extension a little conservative, but once he was in that he got better and better. The piaffes felt good – very good actually.”

In the canter, Aragon got tighter in the back – perhaps a reaction to the noisy, wind-blow flags atop the stadium seating. The first pirouette after the extension seemed a bit difficult for the pair. “The second pirouette was quite good,” he said. “The transition was a little sticky…overall I thought it was good test.” A bit of a concern over Aragon’s rather swishy tail, which the wind did not help, was also of mention by Seidel. But a more relaxed horse, as opposed to the day of the team competition, was a big benefit this morning – as was evidenced by their score for the Special.

Noticeably absent from Saturday’s Team medal ceremony, Seidel explained that he made the choice not to present the horse because he didn’t want to take the chance of a spirited Aragon “acting up” and making a disturbance.

New Jersey’s Robert Dover and the Baden-Wurttemberg gelding FBW Kennedy were the next to take on the Special, and they put in a very pleasing score of 74.040%. Added to their marks from Saturday’s Grand Prix (71.625%), they now stand on an average of 72.833%. Sixth place going into the Freestyle was their reward for their work.

First out of Dover’s mouth after his ride was a smile and a single comment, “It was fun to ride!” With only about 10 minutes of warm-up work, he couldn’t stress enough the confidence he has found in Kennedy. “He’s that wonderful of an animal. Many of these riders have been partners with these horses for many years,” he said. “[With Kennedy] Every time it has been a little new, but I just loved it.”

Except for a bit of an over-collection on the second pirouette, causing a slight loss of balance, Dover could not have been happier, or more enthused, after the ride. Without the small problem, he felt secure in saying he could have had a mark of 75.000%. But without regret, he said, “I’m very, very happy…. By the time I finished at ‘G,’ I was so happy with my performance. It would not have mattered what they [the judges] did.”

The missing magic from Saturday’s score of 71.625% according to Dover was that today he trusted the horse and rode Kennedy more to the relaxed feeling that he gives when you let him. “The other day [Saturday], I wanted a team score…I wanted to help. I think I over warmed-up for what he needed. I needed to let him come to this arena and pick up. Instead, I was worried he might be too up because he is a ‘hot’ horse, and I rode him just a little too long before the entrance.”

A wide smile on the face of U.S. chef d’equipe Jessica Ransehousen said it all. It was a wonderful ride and an all-around pleasing outing for the pair.

So what is up for Dover after he finishes his sixth Olympic bid? How about a three-day trip to the Greek Isles and then a stop in Paris, France, to catch a much-anticipated concert – Madonna. Then it is home to the States to take advantage of a bit of much deserved down-time before starting work on a benefit party for his Equestrian AIDS Foundation – a program very close to his heart and one he ranks among his most important achievements. This philanthropic effort provides assistance to those in the U.S. equestrian community with HIV and AIDS, and the fundraiser is tentatively scheduled for the Saturday night of the upcoming Hampton Classic. The exact location is yet to be announced.

He is looking forward to the Freestyle and performing with Kennedy to a fun musical compilation of various Big Band and Swing tunes. He has performed it only once before as a completed musical piece.

And finally, Debbie McDonald, from the small town of Hailey, ID, and her beauty Brentina (Hanoverian mare) rounded out the U.S. front. The “First Lady of American dressage” put in a mark of 74.760%. Their combined average for both days (a 73.375% from the weekend) positioned them in a close placed fourth after the Special. McDonald and “Mama,” as Brentina is nicknamed since according to McDonald the mare will one day be one, are sure to be a highlight of the upcoming Freestyle in which they have definitely earned their rightful place.

“I was very excited,” she commented on this morning’s ride. “It’s too bad I had a little bobble in a couple of the transitions. I wanted it to stay cool [referring to cooler temperatures thanks to the high winds], so it was kind of a ‘Catch-22’ with the flags affecting her a little more than I thought they would. But that’s OK.”

Coming into the first piaffe from the walk seemed a challenge to get Brentina to the walk according to McDonald, the 2003 World Cup Champion. “It was nothing I was too upset about,” she said. “She [Brentina] is not one of the big movers like some of the other horses, but we try to sell what we do.” She certainly did that in front of a crowded stadium – one anticipating McDonald’s ride in the final day’s Freestyle. “If I can stay in the hunt, that’s what I care about.” Just over 1.2 points out of the medal standings at this point, McDonald cheerfully said, “It’s not over until it’s over, and I’m not going to go down without a fight.”

Whereas the winds disturbed other horses, McDonald said that they actually fueled Brentina’s fire today, cooling the atmosphere. “I was very excited about it. We’ll have to wait and see what happens as we go very late on Wednesday. We’ll have to see. Definitely the heat takes a little out of both of us, so we’ll just have to grin and bear it and say this is the last one [competition] for a long time. Let’s put it together!”

McDonald’s own philanthropic side shined bright earlier this year. During a fundraiser, she helped raise some $240,000 by auctioning off her coaching skills and time. The rider is to provide three separate one-month training sessions for the three tied high bidders. She was originally going to do only one one-month long training session. But with a bright idea, and her generosity to boot, she is giving three full months of her time to the lucky winners of the auction.

“I know the first one will be there on September 7,” she shared, referring to the start date for the first of the envied winning-bid riders to make the trip to the training facility owned by Peggy and Parry Thomas in Idaho.

The Day’s Top Scorers

While the three U.S. dressage greats put in proud performances today, it was a German, Dutch and Spanish dressage rider to post the highest marks for the Special.

Germany’s Ulla Salzgeber, in first place going into the last day of competition, leads on a combined score of 76.524% - putting in a 74.840% today in the Special and the high score in the Grand Prix of 78.208%. Gusts of wind blew over the letters in the warm-up ring, disturbing her mount Rusty.

“It was a little bit difficult today, and we made too many mistakes,” she said. Not enough to keep her from her first place lead going in to Wednesday.

The Netherlands’ Anky van Grunsven’s horse, Salinero, was afraid in one corner of the Special, causing her to pause. But the pairing pulled out and landed in a comfortable second place on today’s score of 77.800% - an average of 76.004% for a combined two-day mark.

“Salinero was spooky and nervous this morning, so I felt with the wind he would be more difficult,” she said. After a brief morning workout, he turned out fresh and posted the day’s second highest marks.

“I was happy [with today’s marks]. There were some little, little things, but the feeling was very good,” she said during the post-round press conference.

Beatriz Ferrer-Salat of Spain said her horse Beauvalais wasn’t bothered by the morning wind, and it was obvious. Her combined two-day score of 75.213% was good enough to edge out McDonald for a third place spot going into the final day’s Freestyle.

“It was a very clear and clean day – pretty brilliant,” said Ferrer-Salat.

Let The Music Begin…
The final day of dressage competition at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games will begin at Markopoulo Center on Wednesday afternoon beginning at 3:30 p.m. As a chance for the horse and rider to show their artistic and dramatic sides to a soundtrack, the Freestyle is definitely a crowd pleaser. The top 15 riders from today’s Special (as is determined by the two-day Grand Prix and Special scores) will take to the dressage ring to dance and parade and show their talents in unison to music.

The combined Grand Prix, Special and Freestyle scores will determine who will be crowned the next horse and rider combination to be named the Gold, Silver and Bronze medalists. With Team USA, Germany and Spain all bringing three riders into the Freestyle, it will be heavy competition and an exciting and spirited end to what has been a blustery and fierce showdown in the ring.