Ann Romney Olympic Horse Is Niche Superstar, Political Liability

Before she flew to London in early
July with her Olympic teammates, Rafalca, whose chartered jet
made use of the full length of the runway to ensure a gentle
takeoff, stayed at Hamilton Farm in Gladstone, New Jersey.

Once the 5,000-acre estate of the heir to a turn-of-the-
century utility baron, the farm is now home to a private golf
club and the U.S. Equestrian Team. Here, Rafalca, a 15-year-old
German-born mare, lived under a vaulted, tile ceiling in a
terrazzo-floored stable with brass fittings, Bloomberg
Businessweek reports in its July 16 issue.

She is one of the expertly trained and meticulously cared
for horses representing the U.S. in dressage at the London 2012
Olympic Games. She is also the property of Ann Romney, wife of
Republican presidential candidate Mitt.

As Rafalca pursues Olympic glory, she’s become a political
punch line. Al Gore’s Current TV put together a comparison of
the costs of raising a family and raising a dressage horse.
(Family shelter, $16,352; horse, $28,800.)

A Rafalca Romney Twitter account sprang up under the
slogan, “I dance for Mitt Romney so you don’t have to.”

In June, Stephen Colbert opened his show with a long
Rafalca bit. “The image of Romney as a privileged princeling
ends today,” Colbert said, “because now Mitt is just your
average blue-collar fan of dressage.” Colbert then donned a foam
finger and trucker hat, chugged from a bottle of beer, and
chanted, “Rafalca, No. 1!”

Dressage World

Whatever the election-year implications of Ann Romney’s
high-end hobby, the micro-niche world of dressage couldn’t be
happier for the attention.

“We’re going to have fun with it,” says James Wolf,
executive director of sports programs at the U.S. Equestrian
Federation (USEF). “It’s a great platform for promoting
dressage.” Wolf readily acknowledges the pursuit’s stuffy image.
“We do a sport,” he says, “but we do it in a tailcoat.”

Probably the closest Olympic analog to dressage is figure
skating. Horse and rider enter a 20-by-60-meter ring and perform
a series of prescribed motions, or tests — such as trotting in
place or pirouetting.

At a later stage, there is a six-minute “freestyle” routine
set to music. At one competition, according to Dressage-
News.com, Mitt Romney himself picked songs from the soundtracks
of “Rain Man” and “The Mission.” A panel of judges looking
for rhythm, ease, and precise gait scores the performance.

Trucker Hat

In Gladstone, the week before Rafalca departed for London,
Wolf staged a response to a Colbert gag about dressage horses in
speed-skating uniforms.

Rafalca posed in a form-fitting compression suit made to
aid muscle recovery. Rafalca’s German-born rider, Jan Ebeling —
whose wife, Amy, co-owns the horse along with Romney and another
friend, Beth Meyer — stood beside the mare wearing a trucker
hat and holding a foam finger and a Bud. Wolf held the reins as
the photographer snapped.

“Point up,” he told Ebeling, who apparently didn’t know
what to do with the foam finger.

Ebeling is Ann Romney’s guru in the horse world. The 53-
year-old met the Romneys when Mitt headed the Salt Lake Olympic
Organizing Committee. Ann, who suffers from multiple sclerosis,
came to the barn where Ebeling was working in Heber City, Utah,
for a riding lesson.

‘Huge Progress’

“She was very tired. She couldn’t really do much,” Ebeling
says of those first encounters. “We would talk for several
minutes, and then she would ride, like, two or three minutes.”
Over the next few years, he says, she made “huge progress” even
with the disease. Romney now competes in amateur dressage.

In 2006, Ebeling brokered the purchase of Rafalca. While
neither he nor the Romneys will say what they paid, Larissa
Barilar, who breeds similar horses at High Point Hanoverians in
Chestertown, Maryland, says a mare like Rafalca would have gone
for at least $100,000.

At 15, Rafalca is on the older side for dressage, though
some top horses can be as old as 18. Rafalca is just now
reaching her peak.

“I hate to talk about a horse as a product,” says Ebeling
inside the USEF offices. “But basically, Rafalca is the
product. The plan is to have a horse do well. And then use it
for breeding.”

Tax Loss

In 2010 the Romneys claimed a $77,000 loss on their share
of the partnership that owns Rafalca. An Olympic medal should
help recoup some of that, as buyers would likely be willing to
pay more for her offspring.

Rafalca’s impact has rippled through this arcane segment of
the horse industry. For Theault, a small French company trying
to crack the U.S. market for horse transport with its $149,000
vans, Rafalca’s rise couldn’t have been better timed.

“The level of inquiries have shot up,” says Kevin Blake,
Theault’s head of global export, who just signed a sponsorship
deal with the USEF. The exposure is a big boost for a company
with a tiny marketing budget that makes 300 vans per year. “It’s
a magnet,” he says of the Romney subplot.

George Williams, president of the U.S. Dressage Federation,
wants people to know that the Romneys aren’t typical of the
sport.

“If anybody really looks at the horse industry,” he says,
“there are people from all walks of life involved.”

According to a 2008 survey, only 28 percent of the USDF’s
30,000 members had an annual income of $150,000 or more.

“I have seen very high-end,” says Blake of his 11 years
selling vans for Theault, “all the way down to — how do you
describe it? — typical working-class.”

Elite Pursuit

Olympic dressage, though, is by definition an elite
pursuit.

“We’re talking about the LeBron Jameses and Tom Bradys of
the horse world here,” says James Hickey Jr., president of
industry lobby group American Horse Council. “They are the rich,
but they deserve to be rich,” he says.

Ann Romney will be in London to see Rafalca go for the
gold, as will Wolf, with a load of “Dressage #1” foam fingers to
pass around. Mitt Romney plans to attend the opening ceremonies
and skip the competition.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Ira Boudway in New York at
[email protected]

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Keenan Mayo in New York at
[email protected]

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