The World Cup finals for the elite sport of dancing horses, known as dressage, opened today in the Netherlands without the presence of two of its most prominent wealthy devotees, Mitt and Ann Romney. The Romneys' horse, Rafalca, will compete, however, performing to music personally selected by the Republican presidential candidate.
In the midst of her husband's race for president, Ann Romney has quietly climbed to the upper ranks of the equestrian sport of dressage -- not as a rider but as an owner and financial sponsor of a horse-and-rider team from California.
As Mrs. Romney has assumed a higher profile on the campaign trail in recent weeks, her devotion to dressage has garnered little attention, and that appears to be by design. Romney campaign officials told ABC News that Mrs. Romney will not fly to the Dutch town of 's-Hertogenbosch this week to watch Rafalca and the rider she sponsors, Jan Ebeling, represent the United States in the freestyle dressage World Cup Finals. Until recently, her presence at such an elite event would have been automatic -- followers of the sport describe her as a fixture in the stands on the global dressage circuit, and in past years she brought her husband Mitt Romney along with her.
While the rigors of the campaign trail are likely a major impediment this year, political analysts told ABC News another, more important factor may be behind the decision to downplay discussion of her pricey hobby: How it looks.
The rarefied sport of dressage is a sort of classical equestrian dance competition that comes with enormous expenses and rarely involves prize money. It is a sport of the rich and famous, populated with relatives of Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, Bruce Springsteen, and Yahoo co-founder Jerry Wang. Sponsors of world class teams shoulder an array of burdens that go well beyond buying the horses (The Romneys have owned, by some estimates, eight dressage horses, which can carry a six-figure price tag). The sponsors typically pay vet bills, insurance, help support the staffs that care for the animals, and help pay enormous transportation costs that come when horses and riders are shuttled to major competitions in Europe and around the U.S.
"It runs thousands of dollars a month to maintain," said Kenneth J. Braddick, a dressage enthusiast who publishes a website with news about the sport. "They have pretty much everything -- a farrier, a chiropractor, a vet, a masseuse for the horses. Just like any professional athlete at that level. That kind of infrastructure is massively expensive."
Romney: Horses Are 'Magic'
Ann Romney first took an interest in the sport of dressage in the late 1990s when she began struggling with the symptoms of multiple sclerosis and found that riding horses helped her combat their effects. Within a few years, she began taking instruction in dressage from Ebeling, who operates a ranch called The Acres in Moorpark, a rural community set among orange groves about an hour north of Los Angeles. She became such a regular visitor at The Acres that she has leased a guest house on the property.
She told "Nightline"'s Cynthia McFadden in an interview that, in helping her combat her illness, the horses were "magic."
"The biggest magic of all," she said. "I love horses."
In the ensuing years, her involvement in the sport moved well beyond her own riding. Mrs. Romney and three partners (including Ebeling's wife Amy) formed a corporation, Rob Rom Enterprises, Inc., that owns horses in various stages of competition. The Romneys' share of the financial burden is unclear, though there are hints in Mitt Romney's tax and disclosure documents that suggest it is significant. Romney's 2010 tax return indicates that Rob Rom Enterprises incurred more than $77,000 in losses that year. Gov. Romney's 2010 financial disclosure form lists the Romney stake in Rob Rom at between $250,000 and $500,000. The Romneys also reported loaning between $250,000 and $500,000 to The Acres, through The Acres' ownership group, ACR Enterprises.
ACR Enterprises also has served as a broker for the purchase and sale of Mrs. Romney's horses. In one instance, she was named in a lawsuit by an unsatisfied buyer -- a woman who paid ACR Enterprises $125,000 for one of Romney's dressage horses that allegedly turned up lame. (Campaign officials said Romney disputed that claim, arguing the horse in question was "not worthless or lame -- the horse is and was a beautiful, top-notch horse.") Romney was eventually dropped from the suit, which was settled out of court. During a deposition, Mrs. Romney described her ambitions for Ebeling, with whom she has a signed sponsorship agreement.
Her sponsorship, she said, "gives Jan an opportunity to present my horses at upper level dressage." Asked if she hoped for his success in international competition, she replied, "It's always the hope."
Outsiders from both parties believe her involvement in the sport has created a challenge for Romney's campaign staff, which already spent a long Republican primary season grappling with questions about whether the former Massachusetts governor can, despite his immense personal fortune, understand the struggles that face most Americans.
"Dressage sounds like a very upper class activity, and I think the campaign doesn't want to do anything to remind people that he lives a life very different than most in this country," said Tad Devine, a Democratic campaign consultant who at times faced a similar challenge when helping advise Sen. John F. Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee for president. The image of Kerry windsurfing became an enduring problem for Kerry during that contest.
The lifestyle and "relatibility" issue has surfaced repeatedly during this campaign cycle. There was Romney's infamous "$10,000 bet," offered to Texas Gov. Rick Perry during a debate, his off-the-cuff remark about being friends with NASCAR team owners; and, as ABC World News anchor Diane Sawyer asked the couple about earlier this week, his plans to include a mechanical lift in the garage of his new La Jolla home, to fit more cars inside.
"We asked for questions online at Yahoo and … a number of them came in basically asking are you too rich to relate?" Sawyer asked the Romneys.
"You know, we don't divide America based upon success and wealth and other dimensions of that nature," Gov. Romney responded. "This is a campaign about getting a president that can get America on track again, make sure our kids have a bright future and we stop spending money we don't have. But I know that there will be some who try to make about -- make it about anything else but that."
'Mitt Picked the Music'
Romney's friends have explained that, despite a thrifty streak that has run through much of his life, the Republican presidential hopeful has a soft spot when it comes to spending money on his wife. Close friend Tom Stemberg, the Staples founder, explained it that way to the New York Times in December. "Mitt is the cheapest guy in the world, except when it comes to Ann," he said, "because he loves his wife more than anything."
Over the years, Ann Romney has owned herself, or with partners, at least eight horses for dressage competitions. Among them are Waterford, Mai Schone Maestro, and Happy Day, Rafalca, Sandrina, and Breitan, according to official dressage competition records.
The Romneys investment in dressage is as much emotional as it is financial. The Romneys have long shared a fondness of horses -- the news website Gawker obtained tape of Romney speaking lovingly about the animals with Sean Hannity in an off-air exchange, praising the bloodlines of his wife's Austrian Warmbloods, but also noting his preference for the "smoother gait" of his own Missouri foxtrotter.
Braddick said the Romneys were regulars at dressage events and traveled to Europe together to purchase horses for their California stables. When Ebeling was preparing a dressage routine to try and qualify for this year's World Cup, one of the sport's major annual events, Braddick said it was Mitt Romney who selected the music that would accompany the horse and rider's performance -- selections from the soundtracks to "Rainman" and "The Mission."
"Jan told me, 'Mitt picked the music … that was his contribution, and we love it,' " Braddick said. He added that this was not an insubstantial contribution -- many riders have music specially composed for competition, and some even hire an orchestra to play a version that will precisely fit the footfalls of the horse in question.
Ilyse Hogue, a Democratic political consultant, said she fully expects Obama allies to draw attention to such details as a means of provoking questions about Romney's "relatability." And they will do so, she said, not simply because the candidate is so wealthy.
"Americans don't hate rich people," Hogue said. "Some of our most popular presidents came from personal wealth. [But] his series of missteps … reinforce a common feeling that Romney is so far removed from most people's daily reality that he couldn't address their concerns even if he cared to."
Braddick said he is certain Ann Romney, and probably her husband, too, will be heartbroken to miss the competition, which gets underway today in the picturesque village an hour north of Amsterdam. But he's sure her decision is intended to spare the 6,000 or so spectators the hassles of security, including campaign staff and Secret Service protection, that would likely be required if she were to attend.
"There are a lot of people who are very, very wealthy who do travel with entourages, but not like that," he said. "Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Wang own [the competitive horse named] Ravel. They're very wealthy. Akiko is very active. I could not imagine Akiko ever not being at a show when Ravel is competing. I'm sure Ann feels the same exact way."