Devon, Pa., Oct. 3, 2004 -- How often do you hear the words "sold-out house" and "dressage" in the same sentence? The answer is "rarely," of course.
But by the time announcer Brian O'Connor broadcast the news that there were no more tickets available for Dressage at Devon on Oct. 2, it was obvious the enthusiastic spectators who were really into the Grand Prix freestyle had completely packed the place. The electricity was equal to the current that charges the Dixon Oval when the Grand Prix is staged on Thursday night during the Devon Horse Show.
I loved the energy of this experience. Fresh from the Olympics, where "shhhh" became the operative and frankly, dispiriting, word, it was exciting to hear the audience actually clap in rhythm during a test--as everyone did for Canadian Leslie Reid, who won the competition with 77.5 percent on Mark.
Leslie, unfazed, had suffered through bigger problems. There were two false starts before she entered the ring because of technical problems with her CD. But she handled the mishap with the type of aplomb I remember being exhibited by Germany's Ulla Salzgeber at the 2000 Olympics, when her music went south in the middle of her test.
Mark came through in a style equal to his rider's. As judge Andrew Gardner from Wales put it, "Leslie's horse, for me, had tremendous expression."
For me, too. This fluid bay exhibits great elevation that makes him stand out. It's as if he disdains the ground beneath his hooves, because he's so far above it.
Leslie, who won the individual gold medal at the Pan American Games last year, confessed that at the Olympics she was "too nervous and too careful." She didn't even make the cut to get into the Grand Prix Special there, and admits going to the Games probably "was not the smartest thing for the horse."
But after her experience in Greece everything looks easy now, even when the members of the audience put their hands together in the middle of her test.
"This is less pressure for me," she explained. "I rode with more conviction."
Her effort was another in a series of polished performances from the Canadians who dominated Dressage at Devon this year. Watch them--they're on the rise in the sport.
Tom Dvorak, a German-born rider who is the north country's version of Guenter Seidel, was a star equal to Leslie, who also won the Grand Prix for the freestyle with Mark.
Tom took the Intermediaire I on Beaumarchais with 70.083 percent, just ahead of the Prix St. Georges winner, Cesar Parra and Pik-L, who had 70 percent in the I-1. Cesar's student, Michael Shondel, was third. He appeared for the victory gallop without his mount, Wallaby, who likes to throw his 18.2-hand self around during awards ceremonies. But Michael got into the spirit of things and ran around himself in step with the horses, as his medal swung around his neck.
Tom was thrilled with his horse, who originally was purchased at the Verden, Germany, auction.
"He was just on today. It was one of those days when everything fell into place. The challenge with him is to keep him focused," said Tom, noting this is his last year in St. Georges. His long-term goal over the next two years is to get to the World Championships.
And Canada could be a big contender there, certainly judging from what I saw at Dressage at Devon.
"We're now starting to come on with some good young horses, and we've got some promising horses in the small tour. I think it's looking good. Give us another couple of years. It just takes time," said Tom.
He also was a star with Fortissimo at Fourth Level, and second in the Prix St. Georges with West Side Lady.
The big non-Canadian winner was Lars Petersen, once a stalwart of the Danish team, who is now based in Florida. He won both the Grand Prix for the Special and the GP Special with his gray, Dansko's Success.
The 17-hand, 9-year-old was bought at the age of 18 months by Lars. He is by Silver Moon, a Trakehner stallion and "the best horse I'd ridden," said Lars, who took him up to Prix St. Georges/Intermediaire I level. But the stallion had leg problems, which short-circuited his show career. Lars has such faith in Silver Moon that he purchased four of his offspring.
While there's plenty of action throughout Dressage at Devon, the Saturday night freestyle is definitely the highlight. Not every entry is flawless (as we pointed out, this isn't the Olympics) and an all-too-common fault was that some riders finished before their music stopped.
But everyone participating had something to offer. It was fun to hear what music they came up with. I was startled by the medley of Christmas tunes (ending with Auld Lang Syne) in October, but I loved the Scottish and Irish melodies that highlighted several rides.
The most fun, however, was "Bohemian Rhapsody," which accompanied Michael Barisone's ride on Neruda. Michael is a showman. I still remember his "Saturday Night Fever" routine with the diminutive Safir. The hefty Dutchbred Neruda suits his he-man size frame much better, so this was an even more effective freestyle.
While others entered the arena to impress with pirouettes or canter half-passes, Michael came in and left at the walk, though Neruda nearly foiled the former with a big spook.
The liver chestnut with white socks impressed the most with his lively passage and piaffe, for which he got a fair share of 8s. His 72.625 percent score was good enough for second place and to set Michael dreaming.
"This horse is my shot at the title--whatever the title might be," said Michael. World Cup? Olympics? We'll see.
Michael put him in the 6-year-old championship in 2001. He didn't show him again until he brought the horse out at Grand Prix, figuring he should capitalize on the strength of his piaffe and passage and not bother with all the other tests that don't include those movements.
Dressage at Devon is nearly as well-known for its exhibitions as it is for its competitions.
Dancing was the highlight of freestyle night, starting with a "Spanische Impressionen" pas de deux between Sabine Schut-Kerry on the black Andalusian stallion Capprichio and flamenco specialist Ana Ayromlou. Ana tapped her heels on a platform; Capprichio tapped his on a bridge. The two swooped around each other as if they were from the same species, so in sync were they.
Then Brian O'Connor, in a long black wig that resembled Ana's hairstyle, did a take-off on the performance with Sabine on a Friesian. What a hoot! At the end of the show, Brian invited everyone into the arena to dance--it was quite a scene.
And did I mention the shopping? From the jewelry (what else would you give a Dressage Queen?) to the $7,500 Hermes suede saddle and the embossed and bejeweled spurs and stirrups, Dressage at Devon offers plenty of places to spend your money.
It's a great time. Even if you're not into dressage, mark it on your calendar for next year. You'll have a ball.
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