Aachen, Germany, August 23, 2006 -- The Grand Prix dressage status quo was maintained this afternoon at the World Equestrian Games (WEG) when the usual suspects--Germany, the Netherlands and the U.S.--accounted for the team gold, silver and bronze.
But it was quite a journey for America, which had close competition from Denmark as that nation's Andreas Helgstrand made a surprising and successful bid to finish first in the individual standings on Blue Hors Matine.
Actually, the whole day was full of surprises. But before I go into the details, let me just say one more thing about Matine, an amazing gray mare.
I was standing in the photo corral (yes, they corral photographers so they don't run amuck) and was nearly dozing when Matine (who truthfully, I had never heard of, though I certainly had heard of Andreas) started doing her passage thing like a metronome to an appropriate country beat played on the background music.
Never have I seen a horse with such a sense of rhythm, and the 32,000 spectators picked up on it instantly. They adored her and when Andreas left the arena after scoring 76.333 percent, they clapped in time to her step as she exited with her handsome, smiling rider. The cheers, I must report, were to my mind louder than those for the Germans.
Anyway, back to the team medals: Bravura performances by U.S. riders Steffen Peters (sixth with 72.708 percent) and Debbie McDonald (ninth on Brentina with 71.417 percent) carried the day for America and brought home the bronze with 213.917 percent, ahead of the Danes who had 208.874 percent.
Okay, Andreas was the first surprise, and Steffen was the second. His ride on the 16-year-old Floriano was the high score of the team, rather than Debbie's test on Brentina, the queen of the squad. And you'll remember, of course, that I had a dream about Steffen winning a medal and being the team's high score. But who would have thought it would come true?
Maybe Debbie. She realized her mare, who had only shown twice since finishing an impressive third in the 2005 World Cup finals, was a tad rusty and a teensy bit overwhelmed perhaps by the fantastic atmosphere in the vast jumping field where the dressage arena is located.
Steffen is a native of Germany who is now an American citizen, and his mother, Doris, and sister Anke who still live here were on hand to watch. I asked Doris, who isn't that familiar with English, to sum up her son's performance and she said it perfectly: "Wonderbar."
Floriano built on his winning performance at the U.S. national championships for his test here. The only misstep, and it was small, came when Floriano anticipated the passage out of the piaffe and had a sort of hiccup.
Steffen was wiping tears out of his eyes as he talked about his experience today while hugging his wife, Shannon.
"I'm still beside myself," said Steffen. "It's nice to have one of the rides of your life at the right moment. I felt like the way he was in the Special in Gladstone (at the national championships in June), that's how he was today. It was a little bit of a gamble because we decided not to show him after Gladstone, and the decision paid off. He's 16 years old. There's no need to overdo it, especially with an older gentleman.
"My nerves are usually in a good spot where I can handle that amount of pressure, and everything paid off today. It's always exciting when you can do something like this pretty close to your original home. It feels great. I have the whole family here. I thought about this at the last halt. When I turned around and looked at the scoreboard, I was hoping it was around a 71 at least, and when I saw the 72, I was beside myself."
The other big surprise was the Olympic champion, Anky van Grunsven, with Salinero. He wasn't at his best in the competition, picking up a wrong lead in the canter, fumbling in the two-tempis and acting restive in the final halt.
But Anky graciously blamed herself for those mishaps. She couldn't say that about the worst problem. In the victory gallop of the medalists, he took off with Anky. She flashed by the Germans on the way to the exit. Were it not for a police horse barricade, she'd probably still be going.
She's tied for third on 75 percent with Isabell Werth of Germany on Satchmo, while another German, Tuesday's leader, Heike Kemmer on Bonaparte, is second on 75.792 percent.
I was interested to see that Elvis, who is fifth on 72.833 percent, was distinctly underwhelming. He was quite a contrast to the flashy, white-legged Farbenfroh, on whom his rider, Nadine Capellmann, had won the world championship four years ago in Jerez. The plain chestnut with one white foot cocked his head occasionally and displayed a ragged piaffe, yet was marked well. Go figure.
Stephen Clarke, head of the ground jury, noted that there was a lot of tension displayed among the horses, probably a result of the overwhelming atmosphere (they had, for instance, a brass band with a glockenspiel precede the horses into the arena for the medal ceremonies.)
That was the reason, he believed, that the judges did not give a perfect 10 to any horse competing.
Well, we pulled it off, and now it's on to the Special. Guenter, Debbie and Steffen all qualified for Friday's Grand Prix Special, which is a medal competition for the first time since 1994. Scores don't carry over, so it will be interesting to see how this one plays out after everyone digests today's results.
Tomorrow, we'll start eventing. All the U.S. horses passed the jog, so everything is set for a challenge to the favorites--the Germans, the British and the Australians.
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