While the lion’s share of the 2008 Olympics took place in Beijing, China, the equestrian events were held 1,200 miles to the south in Hong Kong, whose well-established protocols allowed incoming horses to skip a lengthy quarantine upon return to their home countries. The venerable Hong Kong Jockey Club provided new state-of-the-art stabling facilities at the Sha Tin Racecourse, which also featured a veterinary clinic. The dressage competition was ridden in an outdoor ring surrounded by seating to accommodate some 18,000 spectators.
It was a difficult Games for the U.S. dressage team of Steffen Peters on Ravel, Debbie McDonald on Brentina and Courtney King-Dye on Harmony’s Mythilus. Michael Barisone on Neruda were the alternate pair. After placing fourth in the Special and third in the Freestyle, Peters and Ravel narrowly missed winning an individual bronze medal when they were edged out by Germany’s Heike Kemmer on Bonaparte. Looking back, Peters remains upbeat about his experience with Akiko Yamazaki’s then-10-year-old gelding. “Ravel was the new kid on the block,” he says, “so to be third in the Freestyle was very exciting.”
In the team competition, McDonald and Brentina performed a Grand Prix that was utterly out of character for the legendary Hanoverian mare. The result was an unthinkable 63-percent score and 33rd place. This was McDonald’s second and final Olympics with Brentina. “Obviously, I didn’t plan on going in there and having that happen,” she says. “You learn to deal with it and move on, but it was pretty devastating.”
Then the young King-Dye, in her first Olympic appearance, finished in an excellent seventh place in the Grand Prix and 13th individually. But Mythilus tested positive for the little-known topical anti-inflammatory felbinac, and the U.S. team was disqualified from its fourth-place finish. Though the FEI issued a statement that neither King-Dye “nor anyone on her behalf or related to the U.S. Equestrian Federation had knowingly administered the medication to the horse,” the disqualification was automatic.
Despite what she describes as “Debbie’s heartbreak and my own devastation,” King-Dye says she was captivated by her surroundings in Hong Kong. “From the Jockey Club, we could stand by a dressage ring and see skyscrapers in the distance silhouetted against mountains. It was breathtaking.” There were other great moments, too, such as “just being on a team with my own two personal heroes.” She lists other favorite memories: “Breakfast every morning with the team, walking over squishy sanitizing rugs to get to the barns, hand-walking on paths of perfect footing through the cross-country course and Mythy’s incredibly huge, giving heart.”
Peters agrees about Hong Kong. “I still remember the setting of the stadium right in the middle of the city. At night, it had a little extra sparkle.”
For her part, McDonald says, “Everything except the competition was amazing. Hong Kong was fascinating, and we had a lot of fun. I’ll never forget the time that Steffen came in and said, ?I found these great watches. You guys want them?’ Of course, they weren’t?the real deal, but you couldn’t tell.
So all of a sudden, we’re led down this alley. Then we went up a staircase?I swear there was blood on the stairs?and someone had to knock at a door. Steffen kept saying, ?Oh, it’s fine, it’s fine.’ But I was thinking, the U.S. team will never be heard from again!”
Hong Kong’s intense heat and humidity meant that most of the competition happened late at night. But the barns were air-conditioned, and misting areas were set up so that the horses could remain cool. “The stabling was beautiful,” McDonald recalls. “They even had an area that was sandy so you could put your horses in just to roll, and Brentina loved that. Poor Ruben [Brentina’s longtime groom Ruben Palomera] had to get all the sand off of her, but to watch her go in there and roll was just worth every moment of it.”
Although she’d passed the jog without incident and had been fit in the warm-up, some later questioned Brentina’s soundness. But McDonald is convinced that the Grand Prix was simply a bad moment for the mare?one time in the life of a consistently good performer. “I knew in my heart that the atmosphere that night was just more than she could handle. People in the crowd had these little fans?there were all these little white things waving around.” Then there was the Olympic torch, which was set at one end of the arena. “There was a roar to it, and Brentina is terrified of jet engines and big trucks. To her, the torch was right on her, and she wanted to get the heck out of there.”
It certainly didn’t help that an enormous video monitor, which had been a concern among all the competitors from the beginning, meant that the horses saw themselves at several times their actual size as they came across the diagonal away from the torch. Isabell Werth’s equine partner, Satchmo, nearly flipped onto his back when he spooked at the JumboTron during a training session.
The Dutch team, led by Anky van Grunsven and Salinero, was expected to win team gold, but Germany prevailed to earn its seventh consecutive Olympic team gold medal. The Netherlands took silver and Denmark won team bronze. In the individual competition, van Grunsven won her third consecutive gold medal. Werth won the silver.