When most people think of Rio, sunshine comes quickly to mind. However, that was not the case today at Deodoro Stadium and the National Equestrian Center outside of the city. Clouds, the threat of rain showers and cooler temperatures loomed, but it was a rather bright day for the hopes of the American dressage riders as all three of them competed in the first of two rounds that will determine the Individual medals for the discipline.
But, the Americans would have to wait until late in the day to take to the arena. In fact, the three Americans were of the last six riders to go. That made for a long day for those who were waving their red, white and blue flags that have been seen dotting the stand’s landscape. It was all well worth the wait.
Scores from the dressage team final were wiped clean and riders started anew. The Monday competition determined the top 15 riders that would move forward to Wednesday’s Individual final, and all three Americans made the grade.
Leading the Yankee pack was Maryland’s Christopher Hickey and Regent, a nine-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding owned by Brenna Kucinski. The pair scored a 69.350%, which was enough to land them in first place overall going into the final phase of Individual competition – the Intermediaire freestyle. Hickey and Regent were only one of two pairings (the other being Dominican rider Yvonne Losos de Muniz aboard Bernstein las Marismas) to crack the 70% mark today among any of the judges’ scores.
“Today, I felt a little bit more secure in the collection and, therefore, he [Regent] was a little bit more balanced, and had better self-carriage,” he said. “I was able to ride boldly, but also keep him a bit more underneath himself. It allowed me to be more expressive in the extensions, and I was very pleased overall.”
The only small problems came in the form of a change in the first three-tempi in the line of three where there was a mistake, plus a bobble in the first extended trot which cost a few points. Those things withstanding, Hickey said he was happy with the day’s effort.
“I felt like we came in the ring today, and we felt like we were ready to do a good job,” he said.
Second in line for the Americans was New Jersey’s Lauren Sammis on a score of 68.550% aboard Sagacious HF, an eight-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding owned by Al and Judy Guden of Hyperion Farm. It was a very nice test, but one flaw surfaced in some botched tempis to possibly cost her the lead going into the final day. However, she is in striking distance to come back on Wednesday to make things right. She finished the day in third place overall going in to the final phase of competition.
“Sagacious was pretty fresh today…and he is getting fresher as the time goes on instead of being tired,” she said. “He’s like a little Energizer Bunny, and I’m very pleased about that because when it does come time for us to do the grand prix in the future, we are going to need a horse that’s got that extra push to carry me through.”
After the qualifier in Gladstone, NJ, earlier this year, Sammis said to expect some changes in her freestyle, ones that would enhance its level of difficulty and raise the stakes in Rio. Today, she was coy about specifics, but said there were some “surprises” in store for Wednesday.
“With the suggestion of quite a few professionals that I respect, I did change some things a bit,” she said. “Obviously, you don’t change the entire thing coming into something like this, but it’s a little bit harder. For me, the freestyle is a blast and just a lot of fun. I have a great time in the freestyle – win or lose or whatever the scores are. I just have a great time, and I’m excited about it. Let the chips lay where they will.”
Last for Team USA, but certainly not least, was Ohio’s Katherine Poulin-Neff with a score of 66.350%, enough to seat her at sixth place (her same overall seating after the team final) going into Wednesday’s wrap-up of dressage competition.
Aboard Brilliant Too, owned by her mother, Sharon Poulin, Katherine put in a conservative performance that seemed to be holding something back. An unrealized rein back at C and a flawed right pirouette were among some technical flubs.
“My horse was really nervous in there today. When I tracked to the left when you do the extended trot across the diagonal, and also in my extended trot in that direction, there was just something in the stands that he [Brilliant Too] saw. He just didn’t want to go in that direction,” she said. “There were no major mistakes, just some tension issues...it’s just been a real learning experience for the both of us. My horse has never been in a stadium before, and I’m really happy with how it went taking into consideration what happened.”
For her first international competition, and the youngest member of the entire U.S. equestrian contingent, she showed incredible poise and promise.
Dominican rider Losos de Muniz is nestled in second place overall between the Americans, and also performed a strong test. She is accompanied in the top five finishers by Canadian Tom Dvorak and Beaumarchais (fourth place – 67.900%) and Argentinean Vera Protzen and Kadirmo (fifth place – 66.900%).
There was also a real sense of gratitude from the three riders for the work that has been done for them to make it to the Pan American Games. All three riders agreed in saying they were thankful for the team behind Team USA.
“From quarantine to the Deodoro venue…there have been so many comforts for the riders,” said Hickey. “We are very, very lucky to have a team behind us that thought ahead of any problems.”
With all three riders in the top 15, chances are enhanced for an American (or two, or three) to be standing atop the medals podium. An American has not won an Individual dressage medal at the Pan American Games since Debbie McDonald’s Gold medal at the 1999 Winnipeg Games.
Text by Brian Sosby
All photos copyrighted: Cealy Tetley