March 12, 2011 -- Seeing Steffen Peters and Ravel win the World Dressage Masters freestyle reminded me of watching a favorite movie again: You know how it's going to end, but you enjoy it anyway.
After Steffen's dominating performance in the Grand Prix with his Dutchbred "best friend" on Thursday, last night's outcome basically was a foregone conclusion. His score of 84.55 percent was simply awesome, the reward for a ride that riveted the sold-out crowd of 1,200 at Palm Beach County's Jim Brandon Equestrian Center. As the last notes of his rock soundtrack melted away, the fans gave him a well-deserved standing ovation.
Steffen had tried three times to earn this trophy, a globe enameled in gold and white. Though he won the Grand Prix segment the first two times the Masters was held in Florida, the freestyle crown had eluded him as it went to Dutch dressage queen Anky van Grunsven instead, frustrating Steffen and Ravel's owner, Akiko Yamizaki. Their persistence finally paid off in an intimate and electric setting, a stage suitable for a coronation.
Ravel was nearly flawless, though as Steffen put it, "he over-reacted" going into the canter from the passage (you might say he was very prompt in the transition) and got a little "croup-high" in the one-tempis, but why quibble? Compelling moments included passage half-passes (hard enough to do passage going straight ahead, right?), a piaffe pirouette, and lots of canter pirouettes, as well as textbook examples of piaffe very neatly in place. This is the last time he is using the music that served him well at the World Equestrian Games, Olympics and elsewhere, so it will be interesting to see what he comes up with for a new presentation that will premiere at Aachen, his next major stop.
I wondered if, having conquered the Masters, whether Steffen would return to this fixture in 2012. This is what he told me.
Here's another question I had: How did Tinne Vilhelmson-Silfven of Sweden, who finished second with Favourit on an excellent but far-back score of 77.975 percent, feel about chasing Steffen when it was so obvious that he would win, barring some weird calamity?
"Of course I want to beat him; but I do ride for the best ride and the best feeling I can get," said Tinne.
"You have to be concentrating on doing the top job of that horse." These world class competitors have a different mindset from ordinary people. As Tinne explained, she didn't focus on the inevitability of Steffen collecting that trophy.
"I don't think you can think like that, then you would be scared to go out and ride," she offered.
Tinne switched places from the Grand Prix with Steffen's WEG teammate, Tina Konyot and the imposing Calecto V. This black Danishbred stallion radiates power. Not having seen him compete for five months, I was impressed at the increase in his confidence that garnered him a total of 76.775, well ahead of fourth-place finisher Ashley Holzer of Canada and the popular Pop Art (74.550).
"I believe that's my highest freestyle score so far, and we're gradually trying to creep up the ladder," said Tina. "I've got to catch my friend here," she continued, looking meaningfully at Steffen, "and I've got a long way to go, but I had a good try."
She was critical of a turn in Calecto's initial piaffe/passage effort and thinks it doesn't suit him, so she plans to eliminate it for the future. Tina will be sidelined for a short while as she undergoes knee surgery, but knowing her determination and fitness level, I'm sure she'll be riding again with very little downtime.
The word "miracle" was used over and over to describe the presence of the Masters in Florida after the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center cancelled it, citing a lack of big-name European riders at the top of the computer list committing to a trip here and claiming that would cause problems with its financial viability.
In a short time, the WDM contingent and new sponsors, including the International Polo Club; Ravel's owner, Akiko Yamizaki and the Axel Johnson Group of Sweden managed to pull it together and pull it off, awarding a total of 100,000 Euros in prize money ($147,000), the largest purse in dressage.
When the work was finished, no one would have thought Jim Brandon was a public facility. The covered arena (it doesn't have sides) was transformed along the French Provence theme with artful landscaping and scrims of sunflowers and French vineyards. They looked beautiful with the evening lighting, making the perfect setting for a five-course French meal that included pate, filet mignon with foie gras and gold-dusted Belgian chocolates. Tables, set with blue and yellow cloths and decorated with pails of sunflowers and other bright blooms, were priced at $4,000 for front-row seating for eight.
A few bleacher seats were available at the end of the arena for $85. I was talking to one woman, asking if her vantagepoint was blocked by the judges' booths. She didn't care.
"It's better than nothing," she said, so eager was she to see what the Masters had to offer.