September 30th, 2012 -- The musical freestyle under the lights, the highlight of the six-day Dressage at Devon show, can only be described as magical. The famous showgrounds on Philadelphia's Main Line, trimmed in pale "Devon Blue," seem to sparkle as the sun goes down and the crowd streams in and around the Dixon Oval. As usual, all seats were sold out for last night's freestyle, even though many of the big names of the recent past, including previous winners Adrienne Lyle, Tina Konyot and Lars Petersen, weren't participating.
The fans didn't seem to notice. They were so into the rides that they ignored dressage decorum and expressed themselves; clapping in rhythm to the music during the ride of Canada's Jaimey Irwin, fourth on Lindor's Finest; cheering the floating extended trot of Devon L, ridden to fifth place by Canadian Diane Creech. But the most enthusiastic reaction accompanied the winning ride of another Canadian (do you notice a pattern here?), Jacqueline Brooks on the solid citizen Swedish warmblood gelding, D-Niro. The gray son of D-Day went into action immediately following the salute, piaffing his way into victory. He also ended with the piaffe, his strong point, all done to a medley of tunes by Canadians, from Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" to Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi."
"You feel that sort of hum starting," Jacquie said when I asked what it's like to ride in the arena in front of that vibrant crowd, a contrast to the way the competitors spend most of their time.
"We all work so many hours and so hard at this and it's often in your own arena, you're by yourself, hour after hour," she explained.
"You spend a lot of time doing that alone."
It's a different story in the tight confines of Devon, where horses trot out of the dark, warm up and then become part of another vibe as they set hoof into the ring and the crowd reacts.
"When you come out like that and start to feel that they're approving of what you're doing and feel you're supported in your training and you're supported in how you're presenting the horse and they're pleased that the horse looks happy and willing, all of a sudden you relax and you're like, 'Okay, I can just keep riding,' and that's when things go really well," she said.
And go well they did for her, a little more than a month after she rode in the Olympics, as she earned a score of 74.300 percent.
Of D-Niro, she said, "He's not the biggest mover in the world, but he has an internal metronome," something that was obvious in the way he clicked off the piaffe and trotted in time to his music.
It was the first win in the Devon freestyle for Jacquie, who has competed here for years and won many ribbons, including second place.
The only American rider to finish in the top five, Pierre St. Jacques, was second with 73.550 on his longtime partner, the 17-year-old Lucky Tiger, a Danish warmblood by Lucky Light. He showed nice passage and one-tempis, though he lost a bit in the canter pirouette.
Being runner-up in the freestyle here is no small achievement, however. Pierre has a special appreciation of freestyle night during Dressage at Devon.
Barely behind Pierre with a score of 73.500 was David Marcus, a native of Nebraska who became a Canadian citizen. He was riding Chevri's Capital, his Olympic mount, and I was interested in talking with him because of what went down at the Games. The Danish warmblood by Chevri's Lavallo had his mind blown in the arena in London, where it rained, then stopped a little and the noise of umbrellas coming down and people moving around was "the last straw. I can't even tell you how loud it was," said David, who said the horse wants to be good, but just couldn't cope. He's a bit green, since February was his first Grand Prix, and he just didn't have the mileage to handle what became overwhelming circumstances.
David was eliminated because the horse balked, and that meant the elimination of the Canadian team, since there were no drop scores for the dressage. I've been wondering how he coped. Can you imagine dealing with something like that?
Understandably, he was a little conservative yesterday riding to his music from "Clash of the Titans," which incidentally was arranged by Nicholas Fyffe of Australia, who also arranged his own lively music for his ride in the class on the shining silver PRE stallion Sentimiento I. Clash had a good beat that Chevri's Capital matched, and his piaffe improved as he went along, with nice work in the steady passage and pirouettes.
David was the star of the Grand Prix division, winning both the Grand Prix for the Special and the Special on Don Kontes and taking the Braceland Trophy for the highest total in the Grand Prix for the Freestyle and the Freestyle.
There were a number of repeat winners from 2011, including 15-year-old Nicholas Torres of Colombia on Silver Label, taking the Junior Individual Team Test yesterday and the junior freestyle today. His trainer, Cesar Parra, recalled winning the 6-year-old class during D at D with Silver Label, now 15, and the gelding's former rider, Michael Shondel, also was victorious at the show on the gray Swedish bred gelding. Who wouldn't want a horse with his style and steadiness?
Heather Mason, the big winner last year in the Prix St. Georges, Intermediare I section, took the I-1 on Zar, but was bookended in the PSG and freestyle by Chris Hickey on the ever-evolving Witness Hilltop, who won both. Heather was sixth in the PSG and fourth in the freestyle.
Running in the autumn during the year of an Olympics, Dressage at Devon faces a challenge in attracting marquee riders at the top level, so I asked manager Dianne Boyd about that.
Despite its name, Dressage at Devon has so much more to offer than dressage. My favorite exhibition, Australian Guy McLean, really pleased the crowd with his fabulous four-horse act. I love it when the glamorous Pride lies down accommodatingly and Guy sidepasses to stand over her on his mount, along with two other bridle-less horses. Hey, and how did he teach his horse Sequel to canter backwards?
What a trainer. I am in awe, especially because the Australian Bush Poetry champion does it all while keeping up a constant entertaining patter.
I enjoyed the quadrille tribute to beating breast cancer. Riders in pink jackets with sequined collars made a statement to meaningful tunes including, "I Will Survive."
When you've seen enough horses for awhile, there's always the dog-watching. It seems to me there are more dogs at D at D than at any other show.
Then there's the shopping: I stress my credit card with unique items. From sculpture and artwork, jewelry, jewelry, jewelry (a dressage queen can never have too much of that, right?) to tack, riding clothes and lots of matchy-matchy stuff for horse and rider, it's a good place to bust the bank account.
Now it's time for a change of pace. I'm putting on my Wellies and heading to Fair Hill next for eventing. I'll send you a postcard about the fall CCI 3-star (and 2-star) October 21.