Postcard From the Festival

Gladstone, NJ. June 17, 2001 -- Equisearch correspondent Nancy Jaffer reports on the first weekend of competition at the Bayer/USET Festival of Champions. Debbie McDonald and her super-mare Brentina dazzled in dressage, while Larry Poulin triumphed in the pairs driving competition.
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Gladstone, NJ. June 17, 2001 -- Equisearch correspondent Nancy Jaffer reports on the first weekend of competition at the Bayer/USET Festival of Champions. Debbie McDonald and her super-mare Brentina dazzled in dressage, while Larry Poulin triumphed in the pairs driving competition.

Postcard From the Festival

By Nancy Jaffer, Photo by Charles Mann

After hours of rain today, the clouds finally broke for the dressage Grand Prix Freestyle at the Bayer/U.S. Equestrian Team Festival of Champions. By the time the winners did their victory passage (more elegant than a victory gallop) around the arena, the sky was bright.

No, this isn't a postcard about the weather. I'm just pointing out the perfect metaphor, because anyone lucky enough to have seen the Grand Prix competition this weekend will realize that the sun is now shining on American dressage.

The horses in the division included three most impressive specimens. First and foremost, of course, is Brentina, who won the USET's Intermediaire Championship two years ago, before going on to earn double gold medals at the Pan American Games. Her consistency and reliability were awe-inspiring as she took the Grand Prix, Grand Prix Special, freestyle and Grand Prix Championship in her elegant stride, winning each and every one with Debbie McDonald in the saddle.

Debbie is pretty awe-inspiring herself. She's the epitome of cool, calm and collected as she guides her super-mare. You could really see how the two of them click in their freestyle, done to Broadway show tunes and geared to showing off Brentina's impressive piaffe and passage. It certainly did the trick with the judges, who gave her a 75.35 percent score. Wow!

Nickolaus, the former German Olympic reserve horse, is a new partner for Guenter Seidel. He was very steady as the reserve champion, but you can see there is the potential for far more from this light-stepping bay. And Grandeur, Steffan Peters' mount, appears to be coming back to form after a long layoff following last year's colic operation that caused him to miss the Olympic trials.

But here's the really good part. Though Brentina, Nickolaus and Grandeur are wonderful, they're not the only weapons in the U.S. arsenal as we look toward next year's World Equestrian Games. America also has Flim Flam, our top placer at the 2000 Olympics. His rider, Sue Blinks, didn't even try to qualify him for the Festival because she gave him time off last winter. Then you have to mention Lisa Wilcox, based in Germany with Rohdiamant, and a new combination, Betsy Steiner on Robert Dover's Olympic ride, Ranier.

Another exciting prospect is Kingston, the mahogany Dutchbred stallion ridden by Leslie Morse to the USET Intermediaire Championship. Leslie decided this weekend to turn down a seven-figure offer for the horse because she wants to take him to the top, and he's now ready to start showing Grand Prix, as his piaffe and passage demonstration during the victory lap proved.

Anyway, with all this talent, Guenter believes the U.S. might be ready to move up to the silver in dressage at the World Equestrian Games, displacing the Dutch.

"They have to think about us," he said, and advised that we shouldn't miss next year's Festival. "There will be a very big field fighting for spots on the team," he predicted.

There was a good number of fans for dressage, held in the sand ring behind the landmark red-roofed stables, but spectators were sparse for driving in the Pine Meadows section of the property. Crowds should be better there next weekend as the Festival continues with reining, show jumping and endurance, but it's too bad more people didn't see the marathon.

Larry Poulin, who won it (and the whole pairs division) called the hazards "beautiful, better than the World Championships, more technical." But then, he admitted, "Gladstone's always been my lucky spot." In the cones, he turned in a double clear to beat Lisa Singer, the only woman to ever be USET Pairs Champion. She also had a double-clear in cones, but was unable to overcome a deficit of more than 3 penalties accumulated over the previous two days.

The pairs division was the final selection trial for the World Pairs Championship this summer in Germany. The team of three won't be announced until Thursday, but I'm betting it's Larry and Lisa (duh!) and probably David Saunders, who was competing at Aachen and didn't come to the Festival.