Every Olympian faces some level of pressure. Returning to the Games after a previous legendary performance only turns the spotlight up brighter, as Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky can probably attest.
Spain’s Severo Jurado, who is in Tokyo to compete in his second Olympics, has spent the last five years facing an unusual type of pressure. You may not recognize his name, but you may very well remember his performance at the Rio Games. One of the viral sensations of the 2016 Olympics, and definitely the most unlikely, came out of the equestrian individual grand prix freestyle dressage event, in which riders guide horses through choreographed dance routines. You knew him at the time as Smooth Horse, the horse that danced his way to a fifth-place finish to a rocking remix of “Smooth” by Carlos Santana featuring Rob Thomas (and, as fewer people seemed to notice at the time, a shorter sampling of Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life”). Lorenzo, the eponymous equine, got most of the attention. But Jurado picked the song.
So how do you top that? Apparently, you can’t. You see, after spending time fretting about what the encore would be, he had a very busy run-up to the Olympics that included his daughter’s birth in Denmark two days before qualifiers in Germany. So Jurado caved. He will compete in the grand prix team event in the first few days of the Games, and if he qualifies for the freestyle individual event on July 28, he’ll break out the same track.
Same songs. Same choreography. That’s right, Smooth Horse is back … sort of. Everything is the same but the horse.
Jurado grew up on a farm with many animals in southern Spain. At 17, he and his whole family could see how much he loved horses, so he entered a private riding school to be educated as a professional.
As an adult, he moved to Denmark and eventually joined Helgstrand Dressage’s stable. He has worked with a lot of horses, enough to know he had something in the charming chestnut gelding Lorenzo.
Lorenzo was initially brought to the stable with the intention of being sold, which Jurado says is a big part of Helgstrand’s business. He advised against it.
“After a couple of months, I felt that he was something different,” Jurado says. “He was a bit special. I tried to let them know that, that he was something else. In the beginning, they did not believe so much in the horse. Because he was not so special-looking. But when you sit on him and you ride, you could feel it.”
He started entering events with Lorenzo, and after about a year and a half, they qualified for Jurado’s first Olympics. And they did it by performing the same routine everyone later saw in Rio.
“The last qualifier in Germany, the people reacted very, very crazy,” Jurado recalled. “In Germany, that level of competition, normally the audience is very well behaved, very quiet, they only applaud when you are done.”
He says his performance prompted jeers. That’s because he had finished in fourth, behind three Germans, and Jurado says the normally partisan crowd thought he should have finished higher than their own compatriots.
“Later, when the judges gave the scores, people were booing a lot,” he says. “It was very intense, actually.”
This all took place an ocean away from the United States, but Jurado’s timing was fortunate for a U.S. audience that was hungry for this particular soundtrack.
This is just about impossible to explain, particularly to those who don’t live in the world of viral tweets and Reddit memes, but “Smooth,” which came out in 1999, was sort of 2016’s Song of the Summer. Yes, the song that was the final Billboard No. 1 hit of ’99 and first of 2000 was making a resurgence, visible in stats at Pandora, according to this article from the Daily Dot dated July 14, 2016—a full three weeks before the opening ceremony.
Two days before Jurado’s performance, a tweet that has since been scrubbed from the internet because of copyright infringement featured the song dubbed over a clip of Katie Ledecky after she’d lapped competitors in the pool. It was inexplicably fun in an innocent 2016 way to see how far into the funky rhythms of the song we could get before another swimmer finally touched the wall in second place. The answer: all the way to, “Man it’s a hot one.” The video survives in a different tweet here, though who knows for how long.
So when Jurado broke out the song, he had some inkling that it would be a hit in Rio, but no way of knowing what kind of popularity was about to befall him online. Smooth Horse was written about everywhere, from sports websites to Billboard and Mashable. James Corden gleefully showed a clip on The Late Late Show and bellowed, “It’s amazing!”
Though “Smooth” got the bulk of the attention, Jurado points to the second song as the more meaningful part of the accompaniment. “For me it was a very special moment,” he says. “That horse, it was my chance, and I could not miss it. So this is why I chose the Bon Jovi with the sentence, ‘It’s now or never.’ Because I think that describes a lot, the situation and the moment that I was living that year.”
But again he finished outside the top three, and again many in the crowd booed, as current Ringer writer Rodger Sherman chronicled from the venue for SB Nation.
There have been some notable sports breakups within the last year or so. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. James Harden and the Houston Rockets. A-Rod and J.Lo. So you can be forgiven if this split flew a little under the radar.
Jurado trained for the originally scheduled 2020 Olympics and says he qualified with a new horse, Fiontini. But after the Olympics were postponed in March ’20, forcing riders to requalify, Jurado struck out on his own and started a new stable, Jurado Dressage. The old stable wished the five-time world champion well.
Jurado Dressage has a staff of four, and he says while it’s been a lot of work, the amount hasn’t surprised him. He knew exactly what he was getting into.
Jurado began training with yet another new horse, Fendi. I spoke to him in early May, and he said he was having a hard time qualifying, given that Fendi was quite inexperienced. He sounded skeptical but said, “I need to hurry a little bit and try my best. I will keep working and fighting still to the last second. And hopefully I can catch up the time and be qualified for this year again.”
The music was at the forefront of his mind, too.
“I want to repeat what I did [in Rio], but it’s very difficult. I am working hard on trying to prepare the horse and prepare the music. Of course, I will try to maintain my style. I like this Latino style of music that represents me and my character. And my horse is actually very sweet. So hopefully I can make something nice in time.”
Lorenzo has been on his own journey since 2016. He was sold after the Olympics—like Jurado knew he eventually would be—to American Charlotte Jorst. After the sale, he suffered an injury, and he returned to Helgstrand, who is once again the owner now, according to Jurado. Lorenzo is healthy and competing again with a new rider, Sweden’s Jeanna Högberg.
(I made multiple attempts to speak to Högberg to fill in some of the details about Lorenzo’s whirlwind couple of years. She politely replied to a couple of emails, but we were unable to connect over the phone.)
Their paths converged as the top riders in Europe returned to Germany for another year of Olympic qualifying for the rescheduled Games. Jurado wasn’t sure he’d make it, not because of his horse but because of the impending birth of his first child. His daughter, Paula, was born on July 1, and then he whisked over to the city of Aachen to compete on July 3. “It was a bit stressful, and I didn’t sleep so much,” he says, “but I made it!”
Fendi flew ahead, and Jurado met his horse just in the nick of time to qualify for Spain’s contingent in Tokyo.
And Högberg was there with Lorenzo, now 15 years old. Because she was trying to represent Sweden in the Olympics, they were not actually competing against each other. So Jurado was able to qualify on his new horse and still root for his old one.
Högberg said via email that she finished fourth among the Swedes, falling just short of qualifying but earning a spot as an alternate. She stayed in Aachen with the Olympic riders to quarantine just in case a spot opened up, which meant a very happy Jurado, getting to spend time with both of his horses.
“To me, it was very beautiful to see these two animals together,” Jurado says.
He posted a video on Instagram that showed him feeding his two horses, letting them share a banana.
When we reconnected after the qualifier, I asked whether Lorenzo was excited to see him.
“I hope! I want to think so,” he said. “He was happy, but also I had the banana.”
Högberg and Lorenzo did not fly to the Olympics, but Jurado and Fendi voyaged off to Tokyo, where dressage action starts right away. He will need to finish in the top 15 to qualify for the individual grand prix. If he doesn’t, no one will get to see Fendi’s take on the Santana classic.
In fact, Jurado ended up not needing to run through the routine in Germany, so he said few people even know his plan to run back the same music.
Like any band with an old favorite, sometimes you just have to play the hits. And with a young horse and the stress of the new baby coming, he decided to stick with a song he knows well. And, notably, we still don’t even know whether he’ll make it that far in the competition. Jurado is less confident than he was five years ago.
“[Fendi is] an extremely sweet horse, and he has a big heart, and he always does his best,” he says, but his expectations are measured. “This year is an amazing experience for him to participate in the Olympics, but he’s not strong enough at this level to fight for a medal.”
Which, sadly, means we may not get to hear “Smooth” at these Games. But that doesn’t mean dressage will go right back to the old, staid music of the pre–Smooth Horse era. Given the reaction to Jurado’s routine in Brazil, he says some riders have upped their game.
Sweden’s Patrik Kittel (who had to pull out of the Olympics when his horse was injured in Tokyo) has been rocking out to Guns N’ Roses in competition, like this ride combining “November Rain” and “Welcome to the Jungle.” Denmark’s Cathrine Dufour has taken to using Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” along with some booming drums, atop a horse fittingly named Bohemian.
Depending on the routines used in Tokyo, the success of riders using more popular music and a possible bump in interest, this could have a lasting impact on the sport. And if it ushers in a new era of Olympic dressage, there will be no doubt as to who started the trend.
It was all over the internet.