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."