NBC devoted a prime-time interview on Tuesday to U.S. Olympic dressage rider Jan Ebeling, with the host breathlessly describing his Oldenberg mare Rafalca as "the most talked about horse" at the Games. NBC failed to clarify that the buzz was not about the mare's chances to medal in dressage, it was about her connection to U.S. Presidential campaign politics, through being co-owned by Ann Romney.
All of us at Outsports have been breathlessly waiting to see the two openly gay dressage riders at the Games -- Edward Gal of the Netherlands and Carl Hester of Great Britain -- go up against Ebeling and Rafalca. We find the competition situation deliciously ironic, since the Romney campaign puts a political spin on this horse, with the two gay riders' romantic relationships being something that Mitt Romney's policies don't approve of.
Today is Day 1 of a two-day go-around for all 48 horses entered in the Olympic grand prix. When this go-round is over, the top 25 horses will go on to a second round of individual competition, the Special. From the second go-around, the top 15 horses go on to the final, which is the Freestyle with music -- always a show-stopper. The winner gets the individual gold medal. Meanwhile, the cumulative scores will also determine which team gets the team medal.
So today, despite rain clouds looming over London's magnificent Greenwich Park, good-looking blond Carl Hester of Britain and his horse Uthopia had it together. They hoofed it to the top of the leader board with an excellent score of 77.720. They even outpaced veteran medalists Anky van Grunsven and her Salinero, who had to settle for a 73.480.
The best that Rafalca could do, under Ebeling, was a so-so 70.243. By the time half the entries made their runs today, Rafalca wound up in 13th place. With 24 more horses to go tomorrow, the Romney horse can only slide further down in the rankings if other horses score higher than she.
Edward Gal and his horse Undercover are slated to go tomorrow. So is Great Britain's Charlotte Dujardin and her outstanding, high-scoring horse Valegro. These are only two of the possible threats that Rafalca faces on Friday.
Tomorrow, we wait breathlessly to see what Edward Gal will do. His horse is young, experiencing his first Olympics, so it's hard to predict what could happen. Gal and Undercover will be seventh in the lineup.
The U.S. team has three more horses to go tomorrow, including the redoubtable Steffen Peters and his Ravel. Right now, the U.S. is No. 7 in the team rankings. High scores by these three entries might push the U.S. up into the team medals. But it will take some doing.
As the grand prix rounds progress, judges score the horses and riders on how well they execute the required movements around the arena - walk, trot, canter, halt, back up, extended trot and canter, trot in place (piaffe), turns in place at the canter (pirouette), changing leads at the canter, etc.
It's all basic, classical horsemanship, with the rider delivering a stream of subtle cues to the horse, who responds with what is hopefully the utmost perfection. This art is ancient, created by the Greeks and refined through centuries of European history to achieve maximum development of horse and rider.
The absence from the Games of Gal's celebrated mount Totilas is felt by the horse enthusiasts there. Everybody wanted to see the electrifying black stallion at this Olympics. Totilas was a once-in-a-lifetime ride for Gal, and he loved that horse -- the pair had turned the dressage world upside down with record-breaking scores at the World Equestrian Games in 2010. When Gal learned that Totilas had been sold out from under him, he reportedly broke down and cried. Now living in Germany, with an injured knee and his new rider laid up with illness, this great horse faces an uncertain future.
As for Rafalca... despite her so-so showing, NBC is still tooting the political horn for her. Photos and links all over the NBC Olympics website show that "Rafalca made her run" and "Rafalca takes Olympic stage." At the end of the day tomorrow, she and Ebeling still have a shot at being among the top 25 pairs that move on to the "special." Will she be among them? Or will the dreaded gays be among the forces that keep her in the barn? Stay tuned.