January 28, 2012 -- The Florida leg of the World Dressage Masters has had some close calls the last few years.
In 2011, the $130,000 event was cancelled by its former host, the Winter Equestrian Festival, only to be revived less than two months later in spectacular style with the sponsorship of the International Polo Club and the Axel Johnson Group at a new location 20 minutes away, the Jim Brandon Equestrian Center in a Palm Beach County park.
Things were all set for this year's show, with some interesting additions to the cast of characters, when it turned out three of the riders entered were not qualified under the rules for a 5-star competition. After a few hours of angst, the event was downgraded to a 4-star, which does not have the 5-star requirements. The only side-effect was the loss of some bonus points for the rankings.
But problems are forgotten when this competition gets under way. The covered arena (like an indoor ring, without the walls) is a dramatic setting for its capacity crowd of 1,700. It's been a sellout, even with tables of eight (complete with meals) going for $7,500 for the run of the show and general admission seating being sold as a package; that means you couldn't just buy tickets for the Grand Prix Freestyle.
Light scrims with scenes of castles and picturesque landscapes substitute for walls, giving the facility an ethereal look. It's an intimate setting, so spectators almost feel like part of the action.
And for those inclined to wander before or after the competition, there is loads of shopping. The goods are the usual suspects; horsey jewelry, all kinds of boots, horse and human; and spectacularly expensive breeches and jackets made of modern stretchy materials. I wonder what Reiner Klimke would think of the coat I saw with rhinestone buttons?
("This is not circus," he sternly told me once when I asked his opinion about jazzing up dressage with a little bling.)
While it was practically a foregone conclusion last year that Steffen Peters would win both the Grand Prix and the Freestyle with Ravel (yes, he did) this time it wasn't such a sure thing.
Although neither Totilas nor Salinero, who were in the original line-up, were able to make the trip from Europe, there was still a worthy challenger on hand.
The formidable pairing of new star Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro presented the possibility of an upset. Charlotte, a member of Great Britain's gold medal European Championships team, was fresh off a December triumph at London's Olympia show, where she won the freestyle with 81.04 percent.
On Thursday, I asked Steffen the Charlotte question, as we chatted about several things outside the chainlink fencing that separates the FEI (international) stabling from the rest of the world.
Charlotte did indeed throw down the gauntlet in the Grand Prix yesterday afternoon, but several mistakes, including problems in the initial halt, gave her a score of 78.468.
Steffen had his opening and he didn't set a foot wrong, scoring a personal best of 81.383 in the Grand Prix, beating not only Charlotte, but also the personal best of 80.872 percent that he scored here last year. It was his fourth WDM Grand Prix victory in Florida.
But last year was the first time he won the WDM freestyle, and once again he'll have to be sharp to edge Charlotte tonight. While Valegro lacks Ravel's mileage, he is an impressive presence (especially when he reared in the awards ceremony). His power and pizzazz are special, and if there are less glitches in his freestyle, he could make up a lot of ground.
Ravel, who has no rough edges, looks more self-confident every time I see him. He and Steffen are not just a partnership; they are a unit, moving as one, doing what they have to do to win.
"Tonight, we had to risk it a bit more. He feels even stronger than last year, a bit more supple. It was a blast to ride him," said Steffen.
"It would be really silly for me to push for more. Our job now is now to maintain exactly what we have."
While he may, or may not, go to the World Cup finals, the goal this year is the Olympics, as it is for Charlotte and a good number of the riders in the Grand Prix.
One of them is Adrienne Lyle, the protege of much-admired rider and trainer Debbie McDonald. Adrienne started with Debbie as a working student, and I was immediately impressed with her talent and drive. When she was just beginning in Debbie's program in Idaho, I wrote a story about her for Practical Horseman, because I believed she would be a special talent. And she is, absolutely.
Her ride, Wizard, is owned by Peggy and Parry Thomas, who also have Debbie's famous mount, Brentina. "Eddie" is not an easy horse, but Adrienne and Debbie have brought him along slowly and with care, taking years to make him. It's paid off--she finished fourth with 72.149 percent, behind veteran Tinne Vilhelmson-Silfve of Sweden on Favourit (73.255).
The ride brought tears to Debbie's eyes; it offered the assurance that a mutual dream is on track.
Debbie usually spends the winters in California (the snow gets deep in an Idaho winter) but she changed gears this year and came here. We talked about why she switched coasts.
Also impressive was Heather Blitz's long-legged mount, Paragon, who qualified for the Masters by finishing second in Thursday's Grand Prix 3-star. That was his first international Grand Prix, so he's a bit green; that's likely why he had trouble getting into the second piaffe. But give him a break; he just graduated from Intermediare I, having been on the U.S. Pan American Games gold medal team and winning individual silver. His score was a very respectable 71 percent.
In view of his inexperience, Heather, who finished seventh, decided to opt out of the Freestyle (it's open to the top eight) and go in this afternoon's Grand Prix Special, which could be viewed as a kind of consolation class for those who didn't make the Freestyle cut.
One of the most talked-about U.S. riders isn't here, because he just got a Grand Prix horse, Marie Meyers' Fandango. Guenter Seidel, often a pillar of the American team, was left horseless in 2011 when his 22-year-relationship with sponsors Jane and Dick Brown ended.
After much searching, the match was made, and U.S. technical advisor Anne Gribbons is over the moon about it.
Anne is incredibly energetic, helping all the riders and watching the tests with great concentration. She's also a judge and when I stood next to her, she was spot on figuring what a certain movement would be worth. When the score went up on the board, she was proven right. That kind of insight is invaluable, especially in the run-up to the Olympics.
Those of you from Canada would have been proud of Ashley Holzer. She won the 3-star Grand Prix with her old friend Pop Art, but decided to take her new luminary, Breaking Dawn, in the Masters. She finished with 71.404 percent to tie for fifth with Germany's Anja Plonzke and Le Mont D'or.
I asked Ashley whether she would take Poppy or Breaking Dawn to the Olympics and she replied that she would let the judges decide. My money's on Breaking Dawn.
As Debbie pointed out, this area is amazing in terms of the quality and quantity of its equestrian activity (Wellington bills itself as the "Winter Equestrian Capital of the World) and the social activity is humming as well.
Last night, I rushed over to the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation's big English Country Evening designed to raise funds for everything that is necessary to get our riders to the London Olympics. Matt Lauer, host of the NBC Today show, was the honorary co-chairman with his wife, Annette. He was quite funny, recounting tongue-in-cheek how his wife got involved with horses and told him they cost very little to maintain. That got a good laugh.
Others you'd recognize who were on hand included Bruce Springsteen and his wife, Patti Scialfa (they were on the benefit committee), and Michael and DD Matz. Michael is gearing up for a return to the Kentucky Derby this spring. Who could ever forget his big win there with Barbaro.
This party was so popular it had a waiting list. It was held in a pavilion at the WEF showgrounds, and in keeping with the garden theme, there were trees and colorful flowers everywhere. Even the chandeliers had plants entwined through them.
But the room really rocked when Bruce got up and offered a package of 10 tickets to any of his concerts in the U.S. It went for $275,000 to National Horse Show Chairman Hunter Harrison. Then he did it again, and this time Wellington Equestrian Partners' Tom Tisbo topped the bidding. All told, the party raised more than $1 million. That's some bash.
Come back tomorrow morning for my postcard on the finale of the Masters, and in the evening, I'll have something on the WEF show jumping.