February 11, 2017—It just keeps getting better all the time for Laura Graves and Verdades, as well as for the fans who cheer them on.
Last night, Laura soared with Diddy before a capacity crowd of more than 2,000 that filled every corner around the arena at the AGDF showgrounds. Fans watched her flying through the freestyle with an electric high-stepping passage that showed off her gelding’s power and rhythm under the lights. The polished pair completely dominated the competition for their first 5-star freestyle victory, earning 82 percent to outpace their highly regarded rivals, and leading to speculation about what the score might have been if not for a bobble in the two-tempi lead changes.
It was an electric evening that celebrated the sport and those who pursue it. For the winner, it came on the heels of Thursday’s landmark accomplishment, when she joined the ranks of 14 other superstars worldwide in getting 80 percent (80.080 to be exact) in the Grand Prix.
The key to Diddy, Laura said, is “not so much a difference in him as me learning to cope with those differences and learning every time he’s a little different that I’ve got another tool in my bag to handle it and to ride better.” She cited the efforts of her trainer, Debbie McDonald, who would tell her when things didn’t go as planned, “You know what? That’s what you’ve got; you’ve got to learn to ride it.”
Laura is trying to qualify for next month’s FEI World Cup finals in Omaha, where she would be one of the favorites and could be the third American to take the title, after Debbie and Steffen Peters, also a member of the 2016 Olympic team. Although the Florida competition is outdoors, and the World Cup is indoors, Laura sees AGDF as great preparation for the championship because “We can still get huge atmosphere for our horses to practice in, and that’s a very lucky thing.”
Click on the right-pointing arrow to watch this video and hear what else Laura had to say.
Before Diddy went back in the ring for the awards ceremony at the Diamante Farms-sponsored fixture, I chatted briefly with Laura’s partner and right-hand man, Curt Maes, about how far horse and rider had come. As he pointed out to me, their success shows the value of hard work. That has been the central theme of their story, since Laura’s mother bought Diddy as a weanling from the Netherlands, seen only via videotape. He turned out to be difficult as well as talented, testing the limits of Laura’s ability and persistence, but she never gave up—an encouraging model for those who can’t afford to pay seven figures for a horse but still dare to dream.
As with the Grand Prix, Laura and Diddy enjoyed a huge margin over their rivals in the freestyle.
Last to go was accomplished Swedish veteran Tinne Vilhelmson-Silfven and the elegant Paridon Magi, marked at 77.450 percent for an eye-catching professional performance, with the only mistakes coming in the one-tempis and a lead swap in the extended canter.
“When you get into this arena with this atmosphere it’s just fun to ride. It brings everybody up. He was super in the feeling” said Tinne, who is not trying to qualify for the World Cup.
Tinne was just a touch ahead of the USA’s Steffen Peters and the still-developing Rosamunde (77.325), promoted to top horse status for the rider after his Olympic mount, Legolas, was turned over to his assistant, Dawn White-O’Connor.
As is his way, Steffen was leaving no stone unturned in trying to make the most of his equine partner. After working her for 45 minutes yesterday, he brought her back by the arena any time there was an honor round for the other classes to get her accustomed to the ensuing ambience.
“It worked out great. I had my doubts after the Grand Prix if she could handle an atmosphere like she would have to at the World Cup, and tonight she really proved that she might be ready to qualify. I’m super happy,” he said.
“She did a clean test, much more relaxed than the Grand Prix…so I’m stoked.”
When I asked Steffen (the only other U.S. rider to ride an 80 percent Grand Prix) about the powerful music to which he rode, he had another tale to tell.
After listening to the walk, piaffe and passage music last month, he mused, “it’s good, but not good enough.”
So he and a friend spent two evenings in the studio last week (actually, on one night, until 3:30 a.m.!) to fix it. “We used Ravel’s old music for the 2009 World Cup (where he won) and the 2010 FEI World Equestrian Games (where he won two medals) and adjusted it to Rosie’s tempo. It paid off,” Steffen reported. Ravel, his former star, now retired, like Rosie is owned by Akiko Yamizaki. When Steffen sent her the music, she sent him back a photo of Ravel, saying he approved.
While the consensus is that Laura and Steffen will be the two riders representing the U.S. in Omaha, both still have to qualify, and nothing is certain.
A third Rio teammate, Kasey Perry-Glass, had a lovely test during the afternoon to win the 5-star Grand Prix Special with Goerklintgaard’s Dublet (73.569). Kasey, who will be riding in the World Cup qualifying classes offered in Wellington during the next few weeks, was just ahead of Olympic alternate Shelly Francis on Doktor (73.255)
The only person who had a better few days than Laura was Debbie McDonald, who not only coached Laura and Kasey, but also her longtime protégé Adrienne Lyle, winner of the 3-star Intermediaire I with Betsy Juliano’s Horizon, marked at 73.553 percent. Adrienne, who called Horizon a “worker bee” is developing depth in her string following the 2015 retirement of her Olympic and WEG mount, Wizard. Salvino, the Grand Prix horse with whom she has been taking her time, will be showing at Global in the coming weeks.
Debbie, who recently resumed her role as development coach for U.S. dressage, is quite enthusiastic about Horizon. Click on the right pointing arrow to hear what she had to say about this prospect.
Dawn made quite a splash last month when she appeared on Legolas at the new Las Vegas show. Her performance even had some people discussing whether she might be a contender for the World Cup finals. She competed in the 3-star freestyle here, coming in third with 72.850 percent behind Charlotte Jorst (Kastel’s Nintendo/73.075, a veteran of last year’s World Cup), and Olivia Lagoy-Weltz on Lonoir (72.950). I caught up with Dawn a few days ago to discuss her new role as Legolas’ rider. Click on the right-pointing arrow to see the video of our conversation.
There was more than competition last night to keep people from leaving their viewing posts during the break. Canadian husband and wife Grand Prix riders Jaimey and Tina Irwin performed a pas de deux that I saw last year at Toronto’s Royal Winter Fair. I loved it and enjoyed speaking with them there.
To hear what they had to say about the pas de deux’s evolution and see photos from the Royal, click on the right-pointing arrow.
The crowd also paid tribute to Marriett, the mare whose career was seemingly ended when she tore off a hoof several years ago, but miraculously recovered and went on to win with rider/trainer Lars Petersen at Global and then make it to the World Equestrian Games and the World Cup Finals in Las Vegas. She has been bred to Everdale, prized for producing offspring with an “uphill canter,” according to Lars. He said they will know this week if 19-year-old Marriett is pregnant.
It’s time for me to switch gears once again. This evening we have a $380,000 show jumping grand prix down the road at the Winter Equestrian Festival. Check back tomorrow night for my postcard on that and other action at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Festival.