January 27, 2013 -- Steffen Peters gave it a great shot, as he always does, but his effort to defend his 2011 and 2012 World Dressage Masters titles on his new star, Legolas, fell short last night against two veterans from Sweden.
Legolas simply lacks the mileage of his retired predecessor, Ravel, but he is getting it. The beautifully decorated Jim Brandon Equestrian Center is always electric for the 5-star competition, which offers $135,000 in prize money. Steffen could have been walking into a lion's den, but Legolas, an 11-year-old Westphalian by Laomedon, handled it. True, there was a fumble in the beginning of the one-tempis (there's always "one thing you pray about in every test," said Steffen, and that's Legolas' weak point) but he made a comeback and scored a highly respectable 80.175 percent for his efforts to music that included bits from Cold Play, U2, David Bowie and Queen.
"This was such a huge step for Legolas. This atmosphere was a lot for him," said Steffen, who felt it was "awesome" that the horse finished above 80 percent.
Judge Stephen Clarke of Great Britain, the FEI's dressage judge general, is impressed by Legolas.
"Steffen's horse obviously is not so experienced yet, but there were true moments of brilliance. It was so exciting to judge, because you can just picture how it can be, will be, and not before very long, I would think," he said.
After he claimed his third-place ribbon, Steffen and I talked.
Tinne Vilhelmson-Silfven, a six-time Olympian for Sweden, has been second and third in the Masters previously, but as you know, the third time's the charm. It was her first outing in the Florida competition with Don Auriello, an 11-year-old Hanoverian by Don Davidoff, but she was spot on, clicking to her Pinball Wizard music from The Who. Her one-tempis were particularly impressive, marking perfectly with the beat.
"He was enjoying himself," said Tinne, and that was obvious to the audience, most of whom were dining at tables decorated with sunflowers in keeping with the event's low-key Provence theme. "He was with me enjoying the time, just feeling everyone was looking at him and he liked it. I think for me, everything just fell in the right place."
She was second to her Olympic teammate Patrik Kittel in Friday's Grand Prix (where Steffen was third) that determined the groupings for the freestyle's order of go, but cranked it up a notch for the freestyle to take the title and the globe trophy with 84.075 percent, close to her personal best. I thought perhaps she was under extra pressure because Don Auriello's owner, Antonia Johnson, heads the Axel Johnson Group that is a Masters' sponsor.
But when I asked Tinne about that, she promptly responded, "I only have support."
I've interviewed Antonia in the past and can see that's true; she's a lovely lady.
What strikes her most about the Masters here, she said, is that "it's so special. We don't know of any show in the world where, when you ride in, the rider coming out says, 'Have a good ride.' That is really unique thing for the WDM show here."
Patrik Kittel won the Grand Prix with Watermill Scandic, but perhaps the victory pass from that class unsettled the 14-year-old Dutchbred stallion by Solos Carex enough so that he fell behind Don Auriello in the freestyle. Patrik noted he usually never takes the fiery chestnut in prize-giving ceremonies, and the horse did run away with him in the victory lap for the freestyle. His canter was rather downhill in the freestyle to Billy Idol music, as compared to his Grand Prix performance, and he was marked at 82.525 percent.
"Maybe my horse was a little bit hot," said Patrik, who had a good time nonetheless on his first trip to the Masters in Florida.
"It's been a fantastic event here. Look at the crowd, look at the riding."
Judge Clarke agreed
"What we saw tonight was so special, and the public, you could feel it, even from the judges' box, how they appreciated such a very high level. This is what we need for our sport and what is being achieved here. It was the best evening for the sport I can imagine."
Critiquing Patrik's mount, he noted, "The power and elasticity this horse can show, you don't need to know very much about the technical side; just to be inspired by his energy and power and elasticity is exciting."
Of the winner, he commented, "Tinne's horse, for me, is absolutely what dressage should be about. We always talk about horses that should be uphill, in balance, in complete harmony with the rider. I think we were very lucky to witness that tonight."
There was some drama at the Masters, both inside and outside the ring.
During her freestyle, Adrienne Lyle's mount, Wizard, decided he'd had enough near the end of the test and bolted toward the judges' boxes. Adrienne circled him, keeping her composure, and settled him down. Although she made her Olympic debut with the 14-year-old Oldenburg last summer, he's still a work in progress.
"We saw tonight what a hell of a rider she is," said Steffen.
"I'm not sure too many people could have handled Wizard there the way she did."
I first saw Wizard when she started riding him, while I was in Idaho working with her trainer, Debbie McDonald, on our book, "Riding Through." He's been a challenge, but she's quick to say, "I love him" when asked about what he's like.
The most unusual freestyle was Lars Petersen's performance aboard Mariett. He always includes a high degree of difficulty, but it was a real eye-opener accompanied by circus-type music with lots of whistling. It reminded me of his old freestyle with Succes to cartoon-style music. Lars finished fifth with 73.295 percent, just behind Heather Blitz and the statuesque Paragon (74.900), who is still developing but has an extended trot that just seems to get more amazing every time I see him go.
Tina Konyot was eliminated in Friday's Grand Prix after leaving the arena when her horse, Calecto V, had a bit of blood on his side. As soon as the horses exit, there is an equipment check, and part of it involves having a worker run a cloth over the area where the rider's spurs would go. When the cloth showed red, it was presented to judge Gary Rockwell, who eliminated Calecto (though we didn't hear about it until several hours later). The theory is that when the horse tripped during his test, Tina's spur might have caught him a little. We're not talking anything major here, but a drop of blood is verboten. There were those who thought this was unfair. Judge Clarke, however, said everything was done according to the rules.
I asked him if he thought the blood rule, which was passed by the FEI in November, needed tweaking. (Tina's case was the first elimination since the rule came into effect).
Patrik was the only major star who came over from Europe that actually competed in the freestyle (Tinne is based in Florida for part of the winter).
Edward Gal, the fab guy who made Totilas an international sensation, was supposed to ride Interfloor Next One, but was ill when he arrived and couldn't take part. His partner, Hans Peter Minderhoud, rode in the Grand Prix, where he was eighth on Withney van t Genthof. But the horse had been held in the initial vet check and he was having problems with his right front leg before the freestyle, so he withdrew.
Then someone had a great idea: Why not let Hans Peter ride Edward's horse? And so it was done, with Edward commentating (and coughing) as Hans Peter did a demonstration of the various movements aboard Next One.
I'll tell you what really annoys me; the lack of scores on the scoreboard. I love to see what the judges are thinking, comparing my assessment to theirs. But now no scores are an FEI rule. I asked Janet Foy, a judge who was here promoting her excellent new book, "Dressage for the Not-So-Perfect Horse" about the lack of scoreboard information.
Although there have been questions concerning the future of the Masters in Florida, founder Anthony Kies told me it will be back at Jim Brandon in 2014. At this point, however, it's just a one-year contract. He also is looking for a second place, likely in the Eastern U.S., for a second Masters competition and said he had two bids, though he wouldn't reveal where they are. He wants to hold the second competition between January and May, and it likely will run next year.
It would be great if there could be a circuit in this area between the Global Dressage Festival in Wellington and the Masters, so foreign riders would have a reason to stay for all or part of the season. Relations between the Masters folks and the GDF folks have been strained, but perhaps some fences will be mended and we can see more great European talent here as a result.
There is no doubt about it--the Wellington, Florida, area is the place to be for equestrian happenings in the winter. The FTI Winter Equestrian Festival is going full blast at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center about 20 minutes or so from Jim Brandon in West Palm Beach. The WEF had its FTI Great Charity Challenge Saturday night, unfortunately running against the Masters, but with a crowded calendar there seems no alternative. Sometimes you just have to choose what you're going to attend. Even if you didn't get to see the Challenge, it's nice to know that an
incredible $1.5 million was donated to local charities via that show jumping competition.
Today the show jumping action, a $50,000 grand prix, moved to the derby field a half-mile from PBIEC on the property dominated by the Global Dressage Festival facility. The field is beautiful, with its grass footing and many lovely palms. It's an entirely different experience, both for horses--who are on a natural surface rather than the artificial ground of the international ring--and the riders, who have to push to make the time allowed. Todd Minikus noted that in the era of all-weather footing, grass may seem positively "prehistoric," but it provides a nice change for the horses.
The bogey fence was number 11 of 13, narrow blue planks in a wave pattern. More than half of the 46 starters, 24 to be exact, had it down. Laura Kraut, the first competitor to go clean in the initial round aboard Jubilee D'Ouilly, said the wave demanded accuracy. A little too far to the left or the right and it was destined to fall.
Todd with Macoemba; Brianne Goutal with her old campaigner, Onira, and rising star Luis Larrazabal of Venezuela aboard G&C Sacramento were the only ones besides Laura to qualify for the jump-off; as Brianne mentioned, the route designed by Uliano Vezzani of Italy was harder than it looked.
The top plank on the bogey fence was replaced with a rail, but Laura had it down anyway to finish third, a little faster than Larrazabal, who also had a rail. Brianne went last and that was an advantage, as she smoked the jump-off route in 38.96 seconds, a good bit ahead of Todd who completed his clean round in 40.60.
Brianne broke her leg in 2011, and had a long road back, though Onira always helped her. She's devoted to the 17-year-old Dutchbred. When I asked what she's looking for with him at this point, she said, "I'm planning on having him move into my apartment in the city."
Well, not really. But she explained the two have been through a lot together.
"I had a lot of firsts with him; first junior jumper win, first equitation win,, first Prix des States, first Nations' Cup," she said. And most important, "Onira has always loved the grass."
Not surprisingly, she got the style award for her performance. Brianne won more equitation championships that anyone else in history.
To add to the busyness quotient, U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation trustees were here in full force for their annual meeting, with Tucker Johnson succeeding Jane Clark as president. They also attended a cocktail party where the Lionel Guerrand-Hermes Trophy for an outstanding junior or Young Rider was presented to Reed Kessler, the youngest person ever to ride on a show jumping Olympic team. The Whitney Stone Cup for excellence and sportsmanlike behavior went to Rich Fellers, but as was the case at the U.S. Equestrian Federation meeting last week, where he was Equestrian of the Year, Rich was not present. Last weekend, it was a plane delay that grounded him; this week, he was shipping horses from Oregon to California in more bad weather (come to Florida, the sun is shining). Robert Ridland, the new U.S. show jumping coach, accepted for him.
I'll be back in Wellington at the beginning of March for the Nations' Cup show jumping. This is the only Nations' Cup in the U.S., so it's important. And it has extra emphasis because it's a qualifier for the new Nations' Cup league finals in Europe this September. So check out my Cup postcard March 2.