By NICOLE WINFIELD, Associated Press
LONDON (AP) — The horse with the weight of a U.S. presidential campaign riding on her back didn't disappoint.
Ann Romney said Thursday that Rafalca "thrilled me to death" with a solid performance at her Olympic debut in dressage — an ancient equestrian sport now seen as the province of the wealthy 1 percent that has been thrust into the political spotlight thanks to Romney's partial ownership in the horse.
The 15-year-old, German-bred mare has been the source of political jokes and Democratic ads questioning how U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney can presume to know the problems of ordinary Americans when he inhabits the rarefied world of dressage.
Romney's wife Ann was in the VIP section of the equestrian stadium at Greenwich Park for Rafalca's competition, watching literally from the edge of her seat as the mare completed the 7-minute Grand Prix test.
She and Rafalca's other two owners gave horse and rider Jan Ebeling a rousing standing ovation and a wave as they left the arena. Their score of 70.243 percent put them in 13th place with half the 50 competitors still to go. "She was consistent and elegant," Romney told The Associated Press. "She did not disappoint. She thrilled me to death."
Ebeling, too, was pleased with the performance.
"She felt really strong and is peaking at the right time," he said. "She was amped up, a little stronger than usual. She had more oomph. The trick is to manage that."
He said he hadn't spoken to Romney before the competition — he never does — but said her final words of advice to him were to "Do what you know (how) to do, and do what you do best."
"It was a good score. Overall it was great," he said. "Knowing my three ladies, they're probably in tears right now," he said of Romney and co-owners Beth Meyer and Amy Ebeling, his wife.
At the halfway point in the first phase of the team dressage competition, Britain and Germany were vying for gold and the Netherlands and Sweden for bronze. Britain's Carl Hester on Uthopia scored 77.72 percent in the early going, followed by teammate Laura Bechtolsheimer on Mistral Hojris with 76.839 percent and Germany's Dorothee Schneider on Diva Royal with 76.277.
Anky van Grunsven of The Netherlands, who won the individual gold in the past three Olympic games, trailed in fifth with 73.343 on Salinero, her partner in 2004 and 2008 and now considered somewhat past his prime but still a solid team horse.
"The only thing I want now is a good team score," said van Grunsven. "I'm not here for myself but for the team."
All 50 riders perform the Grand Prix dressage test — half each on Thursday and Friday. They return to perform the harder Grand Prix Special test on Aug. 7 to determine team medals. The highest scoring riders will then move forward to the freestyle competition Aug. 9 to decide individual medals.
The sport is the equine equivalent of ballet. A rider, clad in top hat and tails, takes the horse through a series of steps that look like the horse is dancing: twirling pirouettes, prancing trots and the crowd-pleasing "flying change," which looks like the horse is skipping.
In addition to Rafalca, another athlete grabbed attention at Greenwich Park on Thursday: Japan's Hiroshi Hoketsu, who became the oldest competitor at the 2012 London Olympics when he and his horse Whisper cantered into the ring.
The 71-year-old Hoketsu was also the oldest competitor at the 2008 Beijing Games. An even greater feat may be that it's been 48 years since his first Olympic appearance. He competed in equestrian show jumping at the 1964 Tokyo Games.
"The biggest motivation I have to keep competing is that I feel I am improving," Hoketsu said.
Hoketsu is currently the second-oldest Olympian ever. Oscar Swahn won a silver medal in shooting in 1920 at age 72.
Hoketsu could break Swahn's mark at the 2016 Rio Games, but he doesn't plan to do so.
"I want to but I can't," Hoketsu said. "It's difficult to find a horse, and mine is now too old."
Hoketsu's score of 68.72 percent put him out of medal contention.
Rafalca's turn in the equestrian arena put a spotlight on an equestrian sport that is popular in Europe but little known beyond, as well as on Romney's vast personal wealth. The issue has become a campaign sore spot given the tough economic times in the United States. He is worth as much as $250 million.
A topflight dressage horse can cost more than six figures. Upkeep runs a few thousand dollars a month and transport and competition fees cost tens of thousands. The Romneys own several horses; Ann Romney rides as part of her therapy for multiple sclerosis.
Yet while horse owners may need deep pockets to maintain their dancing steeds, the riders very often come from more modest means. U.S. team member Tina Konyot, for example, grew up in a family of circus performers: Her father trained circus horses and her mother was a tightrope walker. Ebeling himself emigrated from Germany in 1984 hoping to find greater financial and professional opportunities in the U.S. than he could at home.
That said, the sport does have an aristocratic background. Dating from ancient Greece, dressage was revived in European royal courts during the Renaissance as an art form. The creation of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna in 1729 eventually brought its renown outside Europe.
The school's famous Lipizzaner stallions are still performing classical dressage in exhibition tours today. In the 19th century, dressage became essential to the training of cavalry officers who then started competing as another part of their training — competition that evolved into an Olympic sport in 1912.
Associated Press writer Margaret Freeman contributed.
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