The dressage freestyle is always the climax of equestrian sport at the Olympics. Thursday morning, for the occasion, London cleared away her rain clouds and put on a sunny blue sky. The stands were packed to see 18 horses and riders duke it out for technical and artistic points from the judges.
Among them were the two openly gay riders, Carl Hester of Great Britain and Edward Gal of the Netherlands. Both had bigger goals than just a win. Gal was riding a talented young horse, Undercover, who needs to be brought along with care.
Hester had an even bigger weight on his shoulders. He was riding his Uthopia, but he also co-owns and trains Valegro, the horse that everybody said was the one to beat Thursday. At other big shows, the bay gelding had already gotten huge scores of over 80. Riding Valegro was his student and protege, 27-year-old Charlotte Dujardin.
Some years ago, Hester had spotted Valegro on a trip to the Netherlands. The young prospect had been bred at a small, but distinguished Dutch family-owned stud. Instead of keeping Valegro for his own career, Hester merely took in a partner on the horse's ownership to lower his costs and turned the green horse over to Dujardin. She had come to work for him as a groom, and he had spotted her riding abilities. It made sense to put the two prospects together.
But Hester now had financial concerns. Dressage News described them: "He's a seriously nice guy, articulate and humorous ... he didn't come from a horse family and definitely not one with money. As so many horse lovers understand, he frets over how to pay his mortgage or whether he can come up with enough cash to keep a horse he's attached to."
Years ago, scores over 80 were unheard of. But in the last few years, some of the hot new horses have delivered such electrifying performances that judges relented a bit. A few rides have broken that 80 barrier, notably a 92.30 by the great showstopper Moorlands Totilas.
Hester was sure that Valegro could do better.
Valegro and Charlotte Dujardin were the last to ride Thursday -- and they were the showstoppers. The big horse is powerful and majestic, yet he moves with a springy and floating ease. His music (custom-written for him) was designed to tweak British pride. The six-minute soundtrack blended patriotic marches with James Bond movie themes and even chimes from Big Ben, all digitized so the beat and tempo matched the horse's strides.
When Valegro finally halted, the hometown element in the stadium went wild. The judges handed up a 90.089 that was worth the gold.
Silver went to Adelinde Cornelissen of the Netherlands on Parzival -- 88.196. The bronze went to Laura Bechtolsheimer, also of Great Britain, riding Mistral Hojris for 84.339.
The two gay guys also got scores that broke the 80 barrier. Yet such was the intense competition that neither finished with a medal. Hester and his Uthopia were fifth with 82.857. As for Gal, he was ninth with an 80.267, and appeared pleased with how his baby had done.
I was hoping that the Unite State's Steffen Peters would make it to the podium, but it was not to be. Just two years ago, his Ravel got a 78.542 at the World Equestrian Games, the highest score of any American horse ever in that event. Thursday, Peters got 77.268, but it just wasn't enough. He wound up 17th.
So it's official -- the United States is going home without a single equestrian medal for the first time since 1952. But they're not the only ones. The German team, long the dominant force in dressage, are going home without an individual medal -- for only the third time in 60 years.
Big changes are hitting dressage. It's a global chessboard where all the pieces are horses, and many nations play as fortunes shift. Great Britain had never won a dressage medal, but is a rising power in the sport after Thursday. The Netherlands, a traditional rival with Germany, still holds their own because of good riders and outstanding horses they're breeding.
In that London chess match, a Dutch-bred horse that wasn't even there cast a long shadow. In 2010, hoping to ensure a gold in London, Germany pried Moorlands Totilas away from the Netherlands by making the horse's Dutch owners an offer they couldn't refuse, rumored to be 15 million euros. But the German maneuver fell through when Totilas' German rider caught mono and couldn't train. Germany had to scratch Totilas from the team for now.
So Totilas' absence in London cleared the way for Valegro to checkmate Germany and other countries. Totilas is widely viewed as the only horse who could have beaten Valegro, and many fans were disappointed that they didn't get to see the showdown.
Spain faces a different problem on the chessboard. Their Andalusians are a heritage breed that reflect the old-time "baroque horse" we see in paintings and statues. They're elegant but compact, with a massive neck and body. For years, Spanish riders have been gallantly taking their old-school horses around the global chessboard, hoping to convince the judges. Now and then, they do. But in London this morning, the Andalusian entry, Fuego, only placed 10th and didn't break 80 on scoring.
The trend to the taller, longer, leggier warmblood horses, with their supermodel look, is becoming unstoppable. Warmbloods are a mix of "hot blood" (for example, Thoroughbreds with their sensitive, nervous temperament) with "cold blood" (mostly the old European light harness breeds, with their calm and steady nature). All the horses that made the podium Thursday are warmbloods.
After Dujardin's run, there was a huge kiss-and-cry as everybody ran to congratulate the rider.
In due course, back at the home stable, Hester will be taking Valegro for a few relaxed jaunts across the green countryside. He loves the horse and enjoys riding him for fun. But financially speaking, with Valegro now worth a fortune, the moment of truth has come. He has told the press that he will likely sell Valegro, but he and Charlotte hope to keep the horse in Britain -- for obvious reasons.