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Sports, politics collide as Romney's horse, Rafalca, takes to grounds


GREENWICH, England -- Cracking jokes -- FYI, Stephen Colbert -- is not allowed at dressage.

In fact, mere speaking is frowned upon while the temperamental, expensive horses perform their intricate dance steps to muted classical music. The 23,000 fans in attendance at Greenwich Park on Thursday watched the spectacle in the kind of hushed awe usually reserved for the ballet, match point at Wimbledon and Tiger's backswing. Even the Brits were shushed by the announcer when they gave their horse Uthopia too rousing of a welcome.

Crying, however, is apparently allowed. American dressage rider Jan Ebeling said that he was quite sure that Ann Romney, and the other two owners of the horse Rafalca, were weeping tears of joy from where they were sitting in the stands.

"I never meant to have this effect on women," Ebeling joked after his competition.

The American presidential race came to the London Olympics on Thursday. Mitt Romney was campaigning in Colorado and Barack Obama was splitting time between Florida and Virginia. But what happened in the pristine, packed stadium in the birthplace of Queen Elizabeth I could affect what happens in November.

Because the Romneys, as most people with access to any snarky media outlet know, are part owners of an animal that does "horse ballet."

A horse would seem like a perfect athlete for a presidential candidate to adopt. Horses don't put their hooves in their mouths, Mr. Ed excepted. If they test positive for a banned substance, they can blame someone else and we actually believe them. And they don't tweet.

Actually, Rafalca does have a Twitter handle, apparently created by a liberal-leaning imposter who has opposable thumbs. @RafalcaRomney's tweets include speculation that she could be Romney's vice presidential nominee and gems like "I'm getting nervous about my dance on Thursday. What if I accidentally lose control of my bowels with millions of people watching?"

It's been known to happen. Just ask Dablino, one of the German horses.

Fake tweets aside, Rafalca has become troublesome for the Romney campaign. That might not be a complete surprise because animals in general seem to be a problem for the presumptive Republican nominee. Just ask Seamus the Irish Setter who was famously tied to the roof of the Romney car on a family trip and who has been mentioned, at last count, 61 times by New York Times columnist Gail Collins.

Rafalca arrived in England by air, fed -- according to reports -- watermelon throughout the flight. While inside the plane, not tied to the roof.

But Rafalca's mere existence has created an awkward topic for a very wealthy candidate who is trying hard not to be portrayed as elitist. There's the whole top hat and white gloves outfit worn by the rider. There is the oddity of the "horse ballet": The animals trot in place -- a cool kind of moonwalk thing -- and perform pirouettes. The sport is beautiful but light years removed from America's favorite sports like baseball, football and cage fighting.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was in town Thursday to watch his favorite sport -- judo (of course). First lady Michelle Obama hung out with the U.S. basketball players when she was here. French President Francois Hollande is greeting his country's studly swimmers. British Prime Minister David Cameron made a show of taking the tube -- like an everyman -- to the aquatics venue.

But equestrian is different: it's where the royals hang out. The granddaughter of the Queen (Elizabeth II, not Henry VIII's daughter who was born here in town) won a silver medal this week. Princess Nathalie Zu Sayn-Wittgenstein of Denmark is riding in the dressage competition. Even the pretty little venue seems like something out of Downton Abbey, without all the sexual tension.

The Romneys and those close to them are a bit defensive about the elitist tag. Romney -- who infuriated the British last week when he cast doubt on their ability to hold a successful Games -- isn't having a gold-medal Olympics. Lately, he's taken to distancing himself from any talk of Rafalca, claiming he wasn't even sure what day she competed. And Ebeling insisted that the sport isn't for the rich, saying that it is open to anyone on a "normal budget."

But "normal" is a relative concept. The horses cost upwards of half a million dollars and can hit the seven-figure mark. And, according to their tax returns, the Romneys wrote off $77,000 in horse expenses in 2010. Which is a bit more than it takes to feed the family Labrador.

The merging of politics and sports sent several American reporters scrambling into a media center usually populated by outlets such as Horse and Hound (no, Hugh Grant was not there reporting). There we learned issues that could be fodder in a down-and-dirty campaign. Rafalca has seen a horse psychologist because she gets nervous. And there's a birth certificate issue: she was born in Germany but is competing as an American horse.

The story may not last long. At the end of the first of two days of competition, Rafalca and Ebeling were in 13th place. Even Dablino was ahead of them.

But Ann Romney -- who rides the horse as therapy for her multiple sclerosis -- gave her horse a standing ovation.

"She was consistent and elegant," she told the Associated Press. "She thrilled me to death."

Despite their work with a horse psychologist, Ebeling said he could tell Rafalca was nervous on Thursday.

"She was definitely amped up," he said. "The trick is to manage that. We're not really allowed to, but I talk to her the whole time, try to calm her down a little bit. Scratch her neck with my finger."

Ebeling may not win a medal. But even if he doesn't, his soothing tactics might still come in handy for the Romneys during the long campaign stretch.