Olympic Dressage gets under way. How did Ann Romney's horse do?

Dressage has been compared to ballet, but from a scoring standpoint, it’s a lot like gymnastics or figure skating: the more difficult the routine, the higher the starting point value.

Markus Schreiber/AP
Jan Ebeling from United States rides Rafalca in the equestrian dressage competition, at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Thursday, Aug. 2, in London. Rafalca is co-owned by Ann Romney, the wife of US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Dressage, which wraps up its first day of Olympic competition today at Greenwich Park in London, may be having its most high-profile season ever, thanks to the Romneys.  Ann Romney’s horse, Rafalca, made her Olympic debut this morning in the first group of riders in the team competition. So, in the wake of becoming a political liability and a favorite punchline for Stephen Colbert, how did the 15-year-old Oldenburg mare do on her first day?

Great, if you ask Ann Romney. “She was consistent and elegant,” Mrs. Romney told the Associated Press following Rafalca’s outing with rider and co-owner Jan Ebeling. “She did not disappoint. She thrilled me to death."

Mr. Ebeling was excited, too, telling the AP that Rafalca was “amped up” and had a little more “oomph” than usual. The pair scored a 70.213 out of 100 on their initial test, a solid score that put them in the middle of the pack fairly early in the day. 

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney reportedly did not watch the event. Mr. Romney told NBC's Brian Williams last week that this was Mrs. Romney's sport, dubbing her "the horse guy."

"I am not even sure what day the sport goes on," Romney said. "I will not be watching the event. I hope her horse does well."

How does it work?

Dressage tests are comprised of a series of movements, with the horse and rider receiving a score out of 10 for each element. The sport has been compared to ballet, but from a scoring standpoint, it’s a lot like gymnastics or figure skating: the more difficult the routine, the higher the possible starting point value.

As in figure skating, competitions are determined by multiple routines, or “tests” (three for dressage). The test with the highest point potential is the freestyle, where competitors choreograph their own routines to music they choose.

Dressage scores in the 70s are respectable enough; crack an 80, though, and you’re in it for a medal. The highest Grand Prix score on record is a 92.30, hit in a freestyle routine back in 2010 by Dutch Olympic team member Edward Gal and his former mount, Tortilas. 

On Thursday, the highest mark came from Great Britain’s Carl Hester, who scored a 77.72 on Utopia.The British team has a good shot at winning either a gold or a silver in the team competition this year, but they’ll have to overcome the United States and the dressage world’s two powerhouse countries, Germany and the Netherlands.

Will Rafalca Medal?

Ebeling and Rafalca’s best chances for a medal are probably in the team competition, where the US is a perennial third-place finisher. The US has won bronze in four of the past five Olympics, and third is their likely landing spot again in London.

The battle for the gold, however, may be more interesting than it’s been in decades. If Michael Phelps’s eight-medal run in Beijing seems impressive, or if US skeet shooter Kimberly Rhode’s five consecutive gold medals looks like the height of dominance, consider this: The German dressage team hasn’t lost a gold medal since 1980, back when it was still West Germany. The last country that beat them was the Soviet Union.

Great Britain, though, sits in first place after Day 1. The Brits are widely considered the only team with a chance to topple Germany, though The Netherlands will have their usual strong shot as well. In addition to record-setter Mr. Gal, the Dutch team includes three time individual Olympic gold medalist Anky Van Grunsven and Adelinde Cornelissen (who has won the last two Dressage World Cup titles).

How will the rest of the competition shake out?

Ms. Van Grunsven isn’t expected to be in contention for another individual medal, and her longtime rival, Isabell Werth of Germany, didn’t even make the Olympic team this year. 

Gal looked like a lock for the gold medal back in 2010, but then Tortilas, his mount for the record-breaking ride and a superstar among dressage horses, was sold out from under him in heartbreaking fashion (the news so rocked the dressage world that it crashed one of the sport’s leading websites).

One rider looking to take advantage of the wide open field is Steffen Peters, the longtime American competitor who has yet to win an individual medal. He came close in Beijing, placing fourth when many thought he was robbed of a medal by a heavy dose of favoritism toward the Germans. He’s since won a Dressage World Cup title and emerged as a gold medal favorite in London.

Rafalca, meanwhile, will ride again, though probably not for an individual medal. She competes on Aug. 7 in the Grand Prix Special, and Aug. 9 in the Freestyle, with music rumored to have been picked by a certain presidential candidate.

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