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Originally published Saturday, July 28, 2012 at 10:05 PM

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Romneys take ribbing over prancing Olympic horse

Rafalca, an Oldenburg mare owned partly by the Republican presidential candidate, has become four-legged fodder for political jousting, primarily because of Romney's rich-guy image and refusal to release his tax returns.

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I know a lot of people could never afford to own a horse - and certainly not a horse... MORE
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A horse is a horse, of course, of course — unless, of course, it's a fancy dancing horse.

And if that horse is owned partly by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who has struggled with his rich-guy image and refusal to release his tax returns, it turns into four-legged fodder for political jousting.

The former Massachusetts governor was in London on Friday for the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics, where he and his wife, Ann, have a personal stake.

Rafalca, a 15-year-old Oldenburg mare valued at as much as $500,000, will compete for the U.S. dressage team, perhaps adding to both the nation's medal count and the Romneys' bottom line. She will be ridden by Ann Romney's riding teacher, German immigrant Jan Ebeling, who co-owns the horse with the couple.

The Romneys' 2010 tax return — the only one released by the candidate — classifies Rafalca as a business that lost $77,731, rather than a hobby, and as a passive investment instead of one the Romneys actively manage. Each of those decisions has tax consequences.

The couple was able to deduct only $50 of those losses, but could take future deductions if the horse business becomes profitable.

The horse is boarded at a 10-acre farm in Southern California, where Ann Romney, 63, rides her regularly and says horseback riding has helped alleviate her symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

"You know the horses have been my therapy," she said on ABC's "Good Morning America" on July 19. "They've been my joy. They're my passion in life. I wish everyone had a passion like I have this passion."

In a Wednesday interview with NBC's Brian Williams, Mitt Romney described dressage as "Ann's sport" and said he wouldn't watch the competition and wasn't sure when it would occur. (For the record, Rafalca is set to compete starting Thursday.)

Nevertheless, he has been both ribbed and criticized for his family's decision to plunge into a blue-blood sport during an election year.

Comedian Stephen Colbert joked that "the image of Romney as a privileged princeling ends today — because now Romney is just your average blue-collar fan of dressage."

Democrats have made hay of the high-class horse, saying it, along with Romney's friendships with NASCAR owners, is more evidence the GOP candidate is worlds away from the lives of average Americans.

Even some Republicans have raised questions about him and the Olympics going back a decade, when he took over as chief of the organizing committee for the trouble-plagued 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Romney often has referred to that role as the "turnaround" of his public-service career, but Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called the $1.3 billion federal bailout of the event "a national disgrace."

As millions of Americans watch the Olympics, the Romneys' direct association with the Games may take center ring.

The problem, political foes say, is that the Romneys' sport of choice — in which prancing horses with elaborately braided manes are guided in delicate ballets by riders in top hat and tails — is associated more with kings than the "King of Beers" crowd.

Rich Walcoff, a longtime sportscaster for San Francisco's KGO radio, said dressage is not the pastime of the "hoi polloi," the great unwashed, because it's "fancy horse riding, when you have the horse maneuver at your slightest flick of the wrist. It's very sophisticated."

Labor groups and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) last week put up an ad starring the dancing horse and jabbed Romney as "dancing around" on his tax returns.

ABC later reported that the DNC warned party insiders to stay away from the subject, out of sensitivity to Ann Romney.

But others aren't backing off.

"The Romneys' dancing Olympic horse gets better health care than many Americans, and Mitt Romney is campaigning to take away people's health care," MoveOn.org spokesman Nick Berning said. "If he wants wealthy horse owners like himself to get more tax privileges and for teachers and firefighters to be laid off to pay for it, we're going to point that out."

Democratic strategist Garry South said the timing for the Romneys' entry into Olympic dressage couldn't be worse.

"If windsurfing was an effete and elite sport when (2004 Democratic presidential candidate) John Kerry did it — then what's a prissy horse prancing sideways with a rider in top hat and tails?" South said.

Bill Whalen, a Hoover Institution fellow and a Republican strategist, said Democrats are "going to great lengths to portray Romney as Thurston Howell III," the stuffy, rich character on the 1960s TV series "Gilligan's Island."

But history shows voters rarely buy such stereotypes, Whalen said, and such efforts come with a risk.

Democrats "tried to portray Reagan in 1980 as a madman and George Bush in 2000 as a dry drunk," Whalen said. "It didn't work."

Jen Psaki, spokeswoman for President Obama's re-election campaign, declined to get into the riding ring with Republicans over the horse, opting for the carrot rather than the stick.

"We are rooting for the Romney horse in London," she said.

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