The stage is set for another classic clash of the two super-stars of international Dressage. And a rule-change for the team event guarantees edge-of-the-seat excitement in this discipline from the outset.
A third consecutive individual gold medal seems well within the grasp of The Netherlands' Anky Van Grunsven, but she is unlikely to claim it without a powerful challenge from her great German rival, Isabell Werth.
The quest for team glory looks equally fascinating. The new rule, introduced in the wake of the Athens Olympic Games in 2005, allows for just three competitors from each nation, so the pressure will be intense as there will be no drop score. Every rider will need to present their very best work from the moment they step into the arena because mistakes will prove very costly indeed. For the 2008 team Dressage Olympians there is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
GOING FOR GOLD
Germany's dominance of the historic team medal table is indisputable, but there is a danger that the 11-time champions may be outshone by the Dutch this time around, while there are great expectations for the squad from the USA. The Americans have had to be content with bronze on six occasions, including at the last four Games, but they got a taste of silver way back in 1948 in London - could they be ready to go for gold 60 years later?
The battle lines have been re-drawn and well-cemented between Van Grunsven and Werth in recent weeks, with the former giving a sparkling performance with Salinero on her home turf in Rotterdam and the latter shining with Satchmo before her wildly enthusiastic supporters in Aachen. The Dutch rider will be joined by her 2007 European Championship winning team-mates Hans Peter Minderhoud riding Exquis Nadine and Imke Schellekens-Bartels riding Hunter Douglas Sunrise as the team event begins on 13 August, and few doubt their strength. Minderhoud's mare may be relatively inexperienced at this level but proved herself well up to the task on that Championship debut and has continued to impress ever since, while Sunrise is one of those horses that every dressage rider would like to sit on - there's an eye-catching qualify about her every movement.
However Werth's team-mates are both already Olympic winners - Nadine Capellmann who took team gold in Sydney in 2000 and Heike Kemmer who contributed to victory in Athens four years later. Capellmann this time rides Elvis who she steered to individual fourth and team silver at the 2007 Europeans while Kemmer partners the well-campaigned Bonaparte who took European gold at both Hickstead in 2003 and Hagen two years later. There is solidity about this side.
Of the Americans, Debbie McDonald and Steffen Peters both have Olympic credentials - the former a bronze medallist in Athens and the latter likewise in Atlanta in 1996 - and some of the pundits are forecasting a history-making team result for them. Peters' partnership with the former Edward Gal ride Ravel is much-talked about, and under the four-year stewardship of German trainer Klaus Balkenhol the standard of US performances has improved dramatically. On the Florida circuit over the winter there was a real buzz - a sense that American Dressage fortunes are on a rising tide and that a whole new era has begun. Courtney King-Dye and Mythilus, who trained in Europe last autumn and who were impressive during the American trials in San Juan Capistrano in California, will join Peters with Ravel and McDonald with the much-loved Brentina to show whether this is truth or aspirational fiction....
BLAZING A TRAIL
Denmark's Princess Nathalie Zu Sayn-Wittgenstein and Andreas Helgstrand and Sweden's Jan Brink can be expected to make their presence felt, while Canada's Ashley Holzer has been blazing a trail on her side of the Atlantic this season. Riding Pop Art, Holzer swept all before her at West Palm Beach, Loxachatee and Wellington in Florida in the early part of the year and then they came out to follow through at Blainville in Canada in June. However next to Holland's double-bronze European medal winner Imke Schellekens-Bartels the lady tipped to present the biggest threat to the Van Grunsven/Werth stranglehold on those individual medals is Finnish veteran Kyra Kyrklund. At 57 years of age the British-based trainer and rider has a lifetime of experience behind her and rides a consistent horse called Max who, this year alone, won the Kur at Wiesbaden, placed third at the FEI World Cup TM Dressage Final in s'Hertogenbosch and scooped both the Kur and Grand Prix honours in Amsterdam. She will be ready to pounce should anyone else falter.
The decision to reduce the number of team members was made in an effort to facilitate broader participation at this Olympic Games and a total of 22 nations will be represented including Australia, Austria, Belarus, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, Spain, Finland, France, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, The Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Sweden and the USA.
After Spain took silver in Athens all those horses went into retirement and it was left to Jean Bemelmans to form a whole new team to qualify individually. That they succeeded in doing so is a victory in itself.
This is not the first time that teams of three have taken part. The format was introduced for the Amsterdam Games in 1928, but it was for economic reasons, and the four-strong team formula was only re-introduced during the 1960's.
A FAIRY TALE
China will be taking part for the first time so 29 year old Lina Liu and Piroschka, who competed on the European Sunshine Tour and at Hagen during the earlier part of the year, should attract a lot of attention from the national media. Sadly Hong Kong-born Aram Gregory failed to reach the Olympic qualifying target score but his wife, Jane, will be flying the family flag on the British team. Brazil is also making its Dressage debut with a full side that includes the remarkable 16 year old Luisa Almeida, but possibly the most fascinating participant of all may be another of the Brazilian riders, Rogerio Da Silva Clementino whose story reads a little like a fairy-tale with a happy ending.
Roger, as he is better known, came from humble beginnings and followed in his family's footsteps to work as a farm-labourer in the rural Pantanal region of Brazil. He knew a thing or two about horses however as he competed on the rodeo circuit and when he arrived at the Ilha Verde Stud Farm, one of Brazil's most prominent breeders of pure-bred Lusitano horses, his star began to rise in meteoric fashion. With the support of proprietor Victor Oliva who quickly recognised his talents, and with occasional tuition from visiting trainers Rosangele Riskalia, Infrid Troyko and Eric Lette and more consistent instruction from Belgium's Johan Zagers his skills have been honed to great effect.
Just six years after he turned his attention to Dressage Roger produced a great performance with the Lusitano, Nilo Vo, as part of the Brazilian bronze medal winning team at last year's Pan-American Games. Then at Sao Paolo in March of this year the 27-year old achieved his Olympic qualification score and his progress in Hong Kong will be followed with great interest by more than the South American contingent.
CAT AND MOUSE
The game of cat-and-mouse that Anky and Isabell constantly play at each tournament - as Van Grunsven tends to top the Kur and Werth the Grand Prix Special - will be a fascinating one to watch at these Olympic Games. The Dutch star will be hoping to secure a sensational back-to-back hat-trick of gold, but Werth has worn that medal around her neck once before when winning with Gigolo in Atlanta 12 years ago and she is still hungry to do it again. Firstly however even these two giants of the sport must follow the Olympic formula by finishing in the top 25 at the end of the team competition in order to go through to the Grand Prix Special and then into the top-15 Freestyle which will decide the fate of the 2008 Olympic title. From both a team and individual perspective, Hong Kong promises a Dressage feast.
Horsesdaily "On the Scene" coverage of the 2008 Olympic Games