California equestrians contributed mightily to the Olympic medal count for America. When the equestrian Games concluded in Hong Kong, America had three of the 15 medals available in our sport, second to perennial powerhouse, Germany, which had five. Canada, the Netherlands and Great Britain each scored two.
California’s Will Simpson played a key role in the show jumping team’s gold medal, and Gina Miles scored an equally impressive silver in individual eventing. East Coast-based superstar Beezie Madden earned America’s third medal with her bronze in individual show jumping.
Despite a typhoon-delivered deluge that swept through the venue right before dressage competition began, and years’ worth of worry about weather and other circumstances surrounding the equestrian venues, the Olympic events in Hong Kong were considered a great success. The all-important footing was roundly praised, as were the many measures taken to ensure horses’ health and comfort in heat and humidity that were not nearly as bad as they could have been.
The ugly specter of “doping” was the only black mark on the equine aspect of the Games. Six horses failed the FEI drug tests, including Harmony’s Mythilus, the dressage mount of up and coming American Courtney King-Dye. The rest were all show jumpers ridden by Norway’s Tony Andre Hansen, Ireland’s Denis Lynch, Brazil’s Rodrigo Pessoa and Bernardo Alves and Germany’s Christian Ahlmann.
All the jumpers tested positive for capsaicin. A derivative of chili powder, it works as both a super-sensitizing agent and a pain reducer, and thus is prohibited in the FEI’s rules as both a doping agent and a Class A medication. The Olympics marked capsaicin’s first appearance in drug testing results, although it has been considered illegal by the FEI for a long time. The results for Hansen, Lynch, Alves and Ahlmann’s horses were determined before the individual show jumping competition and thus these riders were suspended from that event. The results for Pessoa and King-Dye’s horses came after their competitions were finished.
Per FEI protocol, B samples were tested and in each case confirmed the results of the A sample. The next step was an FEI tribunal in which the riders could present their case. These hearings took place in early September, and decisions regarding sanctions were expected by the end of September: by Sept. 19 in King-Dye’s case. Norway’s bronze team show jumping medal hangs in the balance, as did Germany’s in 2004, when positive drug tests stripped the equestrian powerhouse of its gold, belatedly elevating America’s silver to gold.
King-Dye’s horse tested positive for a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory called Felbinac. “Neither I nor my vets had ever heard of the drug Felbinac until we got the call about Myth’s positive test,” said the devastated rider who finished 13th individually. “Anyone who knows me knows wholeheartedly that I would never dope my horse intentionally. It is cheating.” The rider and USET veterinarian Rick Mitchell concluded that Mythilus came into contact with Felbinac while being treated for atrial fibrillation after the travel stress of getting to Hong Kong.
Despite realistic hopes for at least team bronze in dressage, it was not to be. Our team finished fourth, but San Diego’s Steffen Peters and Ravel were just a breath away from bronze: Their combined Grand Prix Special and Freestyle score fell just .305 percentage points below third place finisher, Heike Kemmer of Germany. Not surprisingly, Germany won team gold in dressage, with the Netherlands, led by Anky van Grunsven, earning silver and Denmark, bronze. Van Grunsven earned her third consecutive individual Olympic gold, followed by her longtime friendly rival Isabell Werth of Germany and Werth’s teammate Kemmer.
We were short on results in dressage, but not drama. First, after the typhoon, that is, there were cries of disbelief as team anchors Debbie McDonald and Brentina logged their lowest Grand Prix score ever during the team event. The 17-year old mare’s extended trot, two-tempis and pirouette were just plain off. Debbie, the most medal decorated member of our USET team, was crushed, despite her teammates’ efforts to support her. That was after King-Dye and Mythilus earned a great 70.45 percent score. As anchormen, Steffen and Ravel couldn’t quite pull off the 73.60 score needed to nail bronze for the U.S. But Peters was not at all disappointed with Ravel’s performance, which earned a 70 percent and represented only the 12th Grand Prix test of the horse’s career.
The Dutch, led by van Grunsven, had hopes of unseating the German team this year, but had to settle for silver. Denmark was thrilled to earn their spot on the podium with bronze.
The familiar fight for individual gold, between van Grunsven and Germany’s Isabell Werth, was made all the more dramatic by major mistakes from both many-time champions in the first round, the Grand Prix Special. The Dutch star and Salerno had goofs in the half-passes and two-tempis, but it was Werth and Satchmo’s rearing and reversing out of piaffe that rocked the chat rooms of savvy spectators on site and those watching Internet coverage. Despite these errors, van Grunsven scored a 75.20 and Werth, a 74.96. Werth’s score, in particular, inspired many to call for a hard look at dressage judging, especially when the world is watching, as in the Games.
Satchmo acted up again in the Individual’s competition’s second phase, the Freestyle, which made it easier for van Grunsven to lay down a characteristically brilliant ride on Salerno. That locked up her third consecutive individual Olympic gold. Germany’s Kemmer wound up bronze, with Peters and Ravel just a beat behind in fourth place.
Chinese dragons and bright red were the dominant décor on dazzling courses in Hong Kong, but it was North America that dominated the arena action. The U.S. and Canada won team gold and silver, with Canadian Eric Lamaze winning individual gold and America’s Beezie Madden individual bronze. Norway took team bronze and Sweden’s Rolf-Goran Bengtsson earned
Germany’s absence from the podium was the biggest shock. Predicted to win it all handily, their squad finished day-one tied for eighth and settled for a three-way tie for fifth as a team. Germany’s superstar, California native Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, was just out of the individual medals with her fourth placed finish on Shutterfly.
The Americans, McLain Ward, Madden, Simpson and Laura Kraut, were tied at the top with Switzerland after that round. American designer Steve Stephens and Leopaldo Palacios set a big and technically tricky track for round two. The line including the water jump was especially hard, as evidenced by refusals from two of the German squad’s horses. Ward and Sapphire and Simpson and Carlsson vom Dach incurred faults at the water, but Kraut and Cedric cleared it for an influential clean go. The course took the Swiss team out of contention, but Canada gained ground, even after losing its expected star Mac Cone, whose horse trotted sore after round one. Canada’s Jill Henselwood and Special Ed had a clear effort here, and Eric Lamaze and Hickstead had their only fault of the entire Olympics with the back rail of an oxer. Maple Leaf mainstay Ian Millar and In Style logged the clean go that put them in a potential tie with their neighbors.
Riding last in round two, Madden entered the arena knowing that a clear would earn team gold, and four faults a tie with Canada. Her Olympic veteran Authentic had a weird bout of head shaking in round one, (Beezie later guessed it was caused by trickling sweat) which led to his 11-faults that wound up the team’s drop score. This time, he only had a toe on the tape at the water, necessitating a jump-off with Canada for gold. Perfect rounds from Kraut, Ward and Simpson scored U.S. gold.
Ward described the accomplishment as an “exclamation point” for the USET. He and 2004 teammate Madden enjoyed getting the gold medals at the Games, rather than in much simpler ceremonies at home, as they had after the Germans were stripped of their Athens honor.
The top 35 riders from team competition returned two nights later for a go at the Individual hardware. Madden was the only American to go clear for the jump-off: Ward and Kraut’s eight faults put them below the cut-off.
Team gold was icing on the cake for the long-held Olympic dreams of Californian Will Simpson, now 49. His celebrations continued long past Hong Kong, as he returned to a beautiful party at his home base, El Campeon Farms, in Hidden Valley, and a publicity road show that included a visit to “Oprah’s Olympic Village” in Chicago. There, Simpson reveled in the chance to meet fellow medalists Michael Phelps and Kobe Bryant, but he was especially excited to meet 41-year-old mom and silver medalist swimmer Dara Torres. “I really wanted to meet her,” Simpson says. “I told her, ‘Hey, you’ve got nothing on me. I’m 49 and I have two kids!”
Sadly for Simpson and the West Coast scene, Will’s remarkable horse Carlsson vom Dach was sold to big time sport sponsor E. Hunter Harrison shortly after the Games. Simpson will be taking on rides for outside owners, still based at El Campeon, and his longtime role with the Gonda family’s farm was in transition at presstime. Simpson received a standing ovation at a riders’ meeting at Showpark in late August. He thanked everybody for their support. “I was very proud to represent the United States at the Olympics,” he said. “And I was especially proud to represent the West Coast.”
The Germans had their turn to get back a gold in eventing. In 2004, they lost theirs to the French after a dispute over Bettina Hoy’s inadvertent crossing of the start line. The Australia team finished second and Great Britain, third.
The Americans’ high hopes for Hong Kong were not realized, even with an experienced squad of Karen O’Connor (granted, on a less experienced horse, Mandiba), Amy Tryon, Phillip Dutton, Gina Miles and Becky Holder. 2004 Olympic veterans Tryon and Poggio stumbled twice at the Birdcages obstacle that was 10th on the track. New FEI rules designed to reduce injuries on cross-country prevented the pair from continuing, even though both seemed fine. Although the Games marked the end of Tryon and Poggio’s 10-year competitive partnership, the veteran rider was a good sport about the bad luck. Poggio was her partner at the 1999 Pan Am Games, the 2002 and 2006 WEGs, and the 2004 Olympics before Hong Kong and Tryon says he’ll next enjoy the well-deserved life of a healthy retiree at her home farm in Washington.
The second bit of bad news for the American eventers was Phillip Dutton’s disqualification for using shin boots that were 200 grams heavier than new FEI rules allow. It was actually a change to show jumping rules that applied also to eventing’s stadium jumping phase. USEF’s Jim Wolf was quick to say the Federation should have made sure all riders were aware of the new rule.
O’Connor’s 9-year-old Mandiba, a late call-up from the team’s reserve list and a stand-in for the late and beloved Theodore O’Connor, had two run-outs on cross-country, but redeemed himself in show jumping with just one rail. The Irish Sporthorse was identified as a horse for the future, as was Becky Holder’s Courageous Comet. He had a great dressage test, then a run-out on cross-country and an accidental path crossing that was penalized as a second refusal.
The team’s seventh place finish was not what anybody had hoped for, but certainly nothing to be ashamed of against riders from 24 nations.
There was the happy news that, of 68 horses who started, only one suffered a serious injury: The Swedish team’s Keymaster sustained a hairline fracture of his pastern bone and was recovering well from surgery before the competition was even finished. U.S. chef d’equipe Capt. Mark Phillips and others were upset that the cross-country course was a shortened eight-minute CIC track, instead of the CIC format they’d expected and prepared for, and with a time limit that no competitor was expected to make.
Gina Miles and McKinlaigh were the bright spots on the team, their two fault-free show jumping rounds locking up silver in the individual standings. Based in the Paso Robles area’s Creston, Miles and McKinlaigh have been contenders on the international scene since the 2002 WEG in Spain. German team leader Hinrich Romeike took gold here and Britain’s Tina Cook went home with Olympic bronze.