February 13, 2016 -- Lights, music and a huge crowd; filling the stands, pressed-in five-deep on the rail. packing the VIP areas: It was a situation made for drama, and we got it last night at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival.
Verdades, who took the 5-star Grand Prix on Thursday, opted out of the freestyle in favor of the Grand Prix Special, so the best guess was that the GP runners-up, Steffen Peters and Legolas, would dance off with the crown yesterday.
It didn't turn out that way. Legolas, who looked confident and composed on Thursday, reverted to his bad boy act last night in the electric atmosphere of the showgrounds. He spooked early on in his performance, had a problem with the one tempis (a bobble at the end of the one-tempis was the only major flaw in Thursday's performance) and spooked out of a piaffe pirouette. His mark was 76.425 percent, not good enough to win.
Steffen called the situation in the arena "tough."
He explained, "I was sitting on not just one stick of dynamite. There was a whole case of dynamite underneath me. He can go absolutely brilliantly when he's relaxed. It's of course disappointing, but we've dug ourselves out of this spot before and we'll try to do that in the future."
It seemed to be the same mode Legolas was in during the Pan American Games last summer in Canada, where he was fine in the Grand Prix, blew up during the Special and then came back in the freestyle to take gold.
Sadly, he will not get another chance here. There were only two competitions for him; now he flies back home to California and doubtless Steffen will resume the sensitivity training that worked so well for him at last year's Reem Acra World Cup Finals in Las Vegas.
The class went to Mikala Gundersen, a Florida-based Dane who is a hometown favorite in Wellington, and the 16-year-old My Lady, dancing to her "stripper music" that includes "Welcome to Burlesque" among the tunes cobbled together for the freestyle.
Mikala was immune to the atmosphere. She just doesn't see the crowd when she's riding, though she admitted when she came in to the showgrounds, she noticed a lot of cars in the parking lot.
It wasn't until after her final salute that the buzz hit her.
"I really felt it on the way out," she commented.
"That was like the biggest applause we ever had. I know the music is really fun and gets people out of their chairs. I think going last with that music was also a little bit, `Let's finish this party'."
There was a small mix-up on the start of her music, so she tried to circle before entering the arena, but My Lady knows the routine and headed in.
"I hit the centerline and she went into passage," laughed Mikala, who nearly made the vaunted 80 percent, being marked at 79.075 percent.
Her countryman, Lars Petersen, was second on the 18-year-old Marriett (76.600), a frequent freestyle winner at AGDF. This time, though, I thought the mare became tired near the end of her performance.
When I asked Lars about it, he conceded, "That could be," then added, "I felt she had plenty of energy. Maybe it's me; getting too old," he chuckled. He had noted he felt a bit rusty, having done few freestyles with her since last April's Reem Acra Dressage World Cup finals.
Both Mikala and Lars are trying to make the Danish squad for the Olympics, though that nation has yet to qualify a team. If it does, it will be a long road, because team members won't be chosen until after the Danish championships in June, and the Olympics are in August. I thought they were cutting it close, but as Mikala pointed out, as least they'll know which horses are fit and ready.
Steffen, of course, is a pillar of the U.S. team. He also has Rosamunde, winner of the 3-star Grand Prix and today’s Grand Prix Special, available for the Games if necessary.
I wondered why Steffen had brought both horses here from the West Coast. After all, I thought, it's a long trip. But apparently, it's not so long, as Steffen told me. Click on this video and hear what he has to say.
With Legolas, maybe Steffen should try the techniques of Australian Tristan Tucker, who showed off his brand of horse training during the freestyle's intermission. You may have seen something similar to what he does before, but have you ever seen it utilizing a winning Grand Prix horse?
For the demo, Eliane Cordia-Van Reesema was aboard Jewel's Adelante (you may remember that horse from the period when Ashley Holzer was the rider). Tristan had the horse blithely crossing over plastic and past umbrellas. In addition, a climbing wall of wooden blocks was at the end of the ring, where Tristan convinced Jewel's Adelante to put a leg up for a good stretch. It was all quite fascinating.
The afternoon's 3-star freestyle offered a special moment for Beatrice Marienau, better known as Trixie, and her 17-year-old equine soulmate, Stefano B. Trixie was wiping tears from her eyes after her first victory at AGDF, scoring 74.300 percent.
She has an incredible story. A native of Germany, she came to this country in 1998 to work on a cattle ranch in Wyoming. So how exactly did she wind up marrying a cowboy?
Click on the right-pointing arrow to hear what she told me.
She and Michael Marienau own a spread in Steamboat Springs, Colo., that was going to be a guest ranch/training facility for Pony Clubbers and eventers. But things change. She convinced him to go to school to be a farrier, and she discovered dressage on a quarter horse in the town dressage club in 2005.
"I wasn't really up to ride dressage competition at all--but here I am," said Trixie, beautifully coordinated in a cream and amber outfit.
Maybe someday you'll see this delightful lady on a U.S. team (she became a citizen in 2010). Trixie has trained since 2009 with judge Lilo Fore, who is like a mother to her, and she hopes to do her own European competition tour around the time when the U.S. Olympic shortlisted riders head abroad this spring.
One of them undoubtedly will be Laura Graves with her Verdades. Things did not start so well this season for the national Grand Prix champion. But Verdades finished a good week here with victory in the 5-star Grand Prix Special, earning 74.667 percent.
There was a break in the first trot and a sticky bit in the first piaffe, but Verdades' quality came through, with four of the five judges placing him first and all of the horse’s supporters breathing a sight of relief.
"I know this will happen again," Laura said, referring to her roller-coaster experience with Verdades' performance this year.
"It's not the first time, and it's not the last. This is life and this is the chance you take when you go into the arena with another living being. That's the sport."
Book signings were the big thing at this show, where there is a lot of activity beyond the showing. Brilliant rider/trainer Carl Hester of Great Britain had a line of people waiting for him at the Show Chic trailer for autographed copies of his book, "Valegro: Champion Horse."
I asked the witty and charming Carl, one of my favorite people in horse sports, how this nifty little volume (with loads of great pictures, of course) came about.
Ann Romney, best known to the world at large as the wife of 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, is now a star in her own right with the publication of "In This Together," the saga of her multiple sclerosis and how riding detoured her from a path toward a wheelchair and transformed her into the athlete she is today at age 67.
I watched Ann perform the Intermediaire II test on Donatello and was impressed with her ability. So were the judges. She won the class, which included Olympic medalist Christine Traurig.
Ann made the trip from California with her longtime coach, Jan Ebeling (you'll remember that Ann; Jan's wife, Amy, and Beth Meyer owned Jan's mount Rafalca in the 2012 Olympics, and all the publicity that ensued.)
Ann was quite enthusiastic about what she found at the AGDF. Click on the right-pointing arrow to hear what she had to say.
After the show on Wednesday, I went to a reception given by the Dressage Owners Task Force on "Defining the High Performance Owner." Attendance was good. People are curious about what is required to share in the excitement as part of a syndicate that has a horse with team potential. These top mounts are so expensive now that the best way to own them is through shares. When someone asked what that might cost, the reply was that the minimum investment likely would be $25,000, with $5,000-$10,000 a year for expenses. For info, you can go to ExperienceDressage.com.
But you can get started by hearing my conversation with task force member Betsy Juliano. Click on this video to listen.
This has been an incredibly busy week, though not as busy as the previous week, when we had eventing in addition to everything else. Sadly, the dynamic Boyd Martin, who memorably won the eventing here, broke his collarbone last week in a fall. I was devastated, but he told me, "I am a machine, Nancy. I'll be back in no time."
He's getting to Margie Goldstein Engle status in terms of his injury record. I once was assigned to do a magazine story on Margie's broken bones. She and I sat and talked for nearly two hours, and we didn't even finish the list! Riders such as Margie and Boyd are indomitable and always find a way to rebound and move on to their next goal.
I'll be updating this postcard tomorrow, and tomorrow evening, I'll have another postcard, this one from the show jumping facility a half-mile away. The feature tonight is the $380,000 Fidelity Investments 5-star Grand Prix, while tomorrow it's the 1.50 meter Suncast Jumper Classic. Be sure to come back to read all about it. In the meantime, check out the photos at facebook.com/dressagetoday and facebook.com/practicalhorseman.