April 19, 2009 -- Winning the FEI Rolex Dressage World Cup Finals last night was not only a victory for Steffen Peters, it also was a triumph for the U.S.
As he gloried in a standing ovation after defeating Germany's Isabell Werth by the narrowest of margins, Steffen in a sense was taking a bow for the entire sport in this country. Dressage riders and fans had waited a long time to see one of their own capture the coveted prize that has been dominated by Europeans since its inception in 1986, and countless hours of efforts were spent developing the discipline toward this moment.
The only other American to capture the title was Debbie McDonald in 2003, and she did it after the fact, when the original winner was disqualified because her horse tested positive for a prohibited medication.
The fact that this landmark occasion took place on American soil was also special, and the crowd of more than 7,600 reflected that. They could not control their enthusiasm during Steffen's performance that showed both harmony and strength (luckily, Ravel took the noise in stride) and Steffen got a thunderous standing ovation during the awards ceremony.
While he was gratified and emotional, Steffen, as always, kept his cool, and was not overwhelmed as he talked about his achievement.
Steffen's victory in Friday's Grand Prix portion of the competition (which did not count toward the final result) presaged what happened in the freestyle. He built on his momentum with a horse who was perfectly in time with the music and "has an amazing mind" that could handle the atmosphere. As the vocal on his soundtrack appropriately repeated, "We can dance!"
Steffen's mark of 84.950 involved the kind of numbers once obtained only by the Europeans. Isabell did nearly as well, with 84.500 percent to her credit after a mistake in the two-tempis to swelling music that would be appropriate for carrying souls to heaven. The Netherlands' nine-time Cup titleist Anky van Grunsven was further behind on the still-developing IPS Painted Black, who also had the same two-tempi mistake as part of an easier freestyle. Anky was marked at 82.150 percent, just ahead of her countryman Hans Peter Minderhoud (81.050) on Exquis Nadine, a light-footed mare who is one to watch. Canadian Ashley Holzer was fifth in the field of 11 on Pop Art (79.200), whose exciting piaffe-passage tours came early and often.
When I looked at the photos I took of the awards, I noticed that Isabell and defending champ Anky could barely be seen in the background of the pictures. That was symbolic; between them, these two talented women have dominated dressage for years, switching the major titles back and forth between them.
Anky--who had to leave her Olympic gold medal horse, Salinero, at home because he didn't qualify for the finals-- said she was "very, very pleased" with the result on her number two horse, saying she would begin working on ramping up her freestyle's level of difficulty. She noted that a victory by someone different "is great for the sport." The reigning Olympic gold medalist added, "that's how competition should be...it should be between all of us" rather than being so predictable, as it has been in the past. Anky's not only a great horsewoman, she's a great sport.
Isabell, however, was a little rankled. She actually had been marked first by three of the five judges; Maribel Alonso de Quinanos of Mexico, Katrina Wuest of Germany and Gustaf Svalling of Sweden. While Steffen was first in the rankings only of the USA's Linda Zang and the Netherlands' Wim Ernes (both of whom gave him 93 percent for the artistic portion) their numbers were high enough to carry him through.
"Next time, I try to make it a bit harder for him," said Isabell, referring to Steffen "and maybe then I'll have one more judge, not only three, but maybe the fourth judge for number one, and that helps."
I sought out judge Linda for her opinion, and she explained her feelings about Steffen's victory to me.
"I gave him 9's on his extensions and 8's on his half-passes," Linda noted, adding that he was really going for it, a motive that was palpable throughout the Thomas & Mack Center.
"The audience was just so happy to see someone from America be in the running. When I sat the first day in the Grand Prix...you could hear the emotion. No one was speaking, but you could feel the emotion coming out from the crowd to see someone from America be so successful. When you can feel the crowd and the emotion, you know that it is good for our sport. We have to encourage people to be involved and have enthusiasm and feel, because when they feel, they will come out for more feel, I think."
As soon as I spotted TV commentator Robert Dover after the class, I knew he would want to offer his thoughts about a symbolic victory that he had seen on the horizon during his many years as a pillar of the U.S. dressage program.
Steffen, smiling all the while after his win, mentioned that he was wearing the lucky tailcoat that he got when he was 18. Although he was offered a new, custom-made coat in Hong Kong, he turned it down. His lucky coat has been patched many times (after all, he's now 44 and it's gotten a lot of use) but he plans to ride in it until the end of his career.
As I write this, I wonder if he could sleep in his excitement, and whether it has sunk in yet that he won. Steffen mentioned that after the Grand Prix, he was having a dream about winning and when he woke, he wasn't sure it had happened until he looked at the time and saw a brand new Rolex, his prize, on his wrist.
The evening was orchestrated perfectly. At intermission, Guenter Seidel and Elizabeth Ball reprised their "Phantom of the Opera" routine that won them Friday's pas de deux. This is one of the most inspiring dressage performances I have ever seen. I'd give it artistic marks of 100 percent; I'm no judge, but I know what I like, and so did the audience. All in all, it was a great night for dressage.
The afternoon was devoted to reining and the $75,000 Las Vegas Grand Prix, a mish-mash of non-World Cup horses, as well as the second mounts of those who brought two for the Cup and those who didn't qualify for the Cup finale today.
America's Rich Fellers, who was standing fourth in the Cup rankings with Flexible, won on his other mount, Kilkenny Rindo, topping a five-horse jump-off in 36.83 seconds to beat Prince Abdullah Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia on Mobily Ashkur Allah Obelix, clocked in 38.61 seconds.
The Oregonian clearly felt the momentum was on his side, and he hoped to carry it into this afternoon's two-round jumping finale.
"Confidence plays a big part with any athlete, and it builds my confidence to win," he said.
The reining was a celebrity challenge, along the lines of the barrel racing and hunter vs. jumper hunter derbies of past Cup shows. This was for fun, nothing else, and it worked. We saw Anky van Grunsven doing her reining thing at the Exquis Dressage Masters in Florida earlier this year, but she has improved and looked the part in a spiffy, sparkly cowgirl shirt. The group was divided into teams, U.S. and international, with a dressage rider and show jumper teaming with a pro reiner . Anky was paired with three-time Cup show jumping champ Rodrigo Pessoa and National Reining Horse Association Open World Champion Ann Fonck.
Olympic show jumping gold medalist Will Simpson teamed on the American squad with dressage Olympic bronze medalist Charlotte Bredahl-Baker and Rick Weaver, National Reining Horse Association president. The American squad, with the non-pro's demonstrating ease with their new challenge, beat the Internationals, 413.5 to 407, but that wasn't the point. The match-up worked perfectly as entertainment and to educate the crowd on the nuances of reining.
Will Simpson really looked the part in his black cowboy hat, jeans and checked shirt. I walked outside with him and announcer Peter Doubleday didn't say hello to Will and looked right past him -- he didn't recognize him in western garb!
Will was very into the reining, noting he was extremely comfy, both in the saddle and out of it.
``I've spent most of my life in tights and a velvet hat with a bow in the back,'' he pointed out. Well, let him tell you more about it.
I'll wrap up our coverage from here later today, so be sure to check back to Equisearch.com this evening for the final jumping results. And don't forget our gallery, which will be up next week.