Spectators brave the rain to watch the dressage event during the Bramham… (Anna Gowthrope / AP Photo )
A decade after Mitt Romney ran the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, it looks like another Romney may have a go at the Games.
Last week in Gladstone, N.J., Ann Romney’s mare, Rafalca, and Jan Ebeling, the Moorpark, Calif.-based rider she sponsors, did well enough at the first of two Olympic trials, spread over two weekends, that they almost certainly will be headed to the Summer Olympics in London as part of the U.S. equestrian team.
Their success would mark the culmination of a decade of effort by Ann Romney, who immersed herself in dressage after discovering it provided therapeutic benefits for her multiple sclerosis, first diagnosed in 1998. She quickly transcended the role of mere rider, becoming a sponsor of Ebeling, a world-class competitor, and business partners with his wife, Amy Roberts Ebeling, in a venture that buys and sells dressage horses.
At the top level of competition, horses can cost well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the annual tab for boarding, training, transportation and veterinary care can run into the millions, equestrian experts say. Generally, there are no purses in the sport. Winners earn medals and adulation, not money.
Dressage is a very precise and somewhat esoteric sport, in which formally clad riders seem to effortlessly guide their horses through a series of dance-like movements. Riders can lose points for speaking to their animals.
Unschooled observers can find the sport tedious, but those who appreciate the extraordinary effort and skill required find it exhilarating. A video of Danish rider Andreas Helgstrand, an Olympic bronze medalist, competing on Blue Hors Matine in freestyle dressage at the 2006 World Equestrian Games, has had more than 11 million views.
When Ebeling, 53, rode Rafalca last weekend in Gladstone, the announcer could be heard criticizing his salute at the start of his performance. (“Very strange salute there,” says the unseen announcer. “I would have much rather seen him just take his hand to the side. Maybe it’s not the manly thing to do, to do a lady’s salute, but it really is the easiest and least disturbing visually and to the horse. O.K., enough of that. Has nothing to do with the score whatsoever, as you can see the scores are quite high.”)
Romney met Jan Ebeling when she lived in Utah, where her husband had been recruited to run the troubled 2002 Winter Olympics. Since 2003, Ebeling has served as Ann Romney’s West Coast dressage trainer. Ebeling and his wife, Amy Roberts Ebeling, own a Moorpark ranch called The Acres, where Romney keeps some of her horses and trains in the rigorous sport, which she often says has helped her keep symptoms of degenerative illness in check.
Rafalca, a 15-year-old Oldenburg “warmblood” (as horses bred for dressage are called), was purchased in 2006 by Romney, Amy Ebeling and a third woman, Beth Meyers. The hope was always that Rafalca would become an Olympic competitor, Ann Romney testified in a 2010 deposition for a lawsuit involving a different dressage horse she sold that later went lame.
In the first two of four trials, Ebeling and Rafalca placed fourth in competition, said Kenneth J. Braddick, a former UPI war correspondent who covers the sport for the website Dressage News. Next weekend, the final two trials will take place. Four pairs of riders and horses will be selected for Olympic dressage competition as part of the U.S. equestrian team. Two pairs will be selected as alternates.
“It’s definitely looking good for Jan,” Braddick said. “Jan is very, very consistent. That’s one of his real strengths. He doesn’t have big ups and downs. So far it’s paying off.”
Ann Romney was in the stands last weekend, said Braddick, who spoke with her. “She was very excited,” he said.
The trials take place at the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation headquarters at stables once owned by James “Diamond Jim” Brady, the legendary financier of New York’s Gilded Age. (Brady, according to some biographical accounts, was also the first New Yorker to own an automobile.)
Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has fared well in Olympic dressage, though never well enough to bring home a gold medal, Braddick said. “Germany has totally dominated Olympic competition,” he said, followed by the Netherlands. The U.S. is third, with four bronze medals.
Braddick said he expects Ann Romney to attend the conclusion of the trials next weekend. She missed the April World Cup in the Netherlands, he said, because the event took place indoors and security precautions could have been disruptive. “I think she is very conscious of the fact that, ‘Gee, if I go to the competition in Holland, in an indoor much more limited space, that would mean security and that would disrupt other people from enjoying the performance and I don’t want to ruin it for someone else.’