Devon, Pa., September 28, 2008 -- For pure excitement, there's nothing like a tight finish, and we had two of them yesterday during Dressage at Devon.
The real nail biter was the musical freestyle, the show's highlight, with Canadian Olympian Ashley Holzer putting in a performance that seemed impossible to beat on the peppy Pop Art, who won the Grand Prix on Friday night. The heat in Hong Kong last month didn't really agree with this graceful chestnut, who worked to better advantage in the cooler climes of suburban Philadelphia--despite rain that left the footing a gloppy cross between oatmeal and soup. Judge Gary Rockwell noted that the better-balanced horses (not surprisingly) handled that difficult surface the best.
Although the weather generally put a dent in spectator attendance over the weekend, the place was as packed as it usually is for the Saturday night freestyle. Despite intermittent rain, the fans stood their ground with umbrellas overhead (making sure not to move them so they wouldn't startle the horses.) They couldn't help applauding and cheering during some of the more impressive movements, however, but the horses seemed to translate their energy into an incentive for powerful performances.
Pop Art's strong piaffe was displayed early and often to the majestic sounds of the fireworks theme from Disney's Epcot. Never breaking his rhythm, Poppy also flaunted his other dramatic strong points in passage and pirouette. It was an impressive performance for sure, and the mark of 75.1 percent reflected that.
Ashley was third last year, and she had no intention of doing anything but winning the 2008 title. One obstacle stood in her way; the 2007 victor, Lars Petersen, who went later in the program on the formidable Succes (yes, it's spelled with one S at the end, the Danish way). All Ashley could do was watch as he put in a strong test to end up with 75.25 percent, just enough to make her the runner-up.
As Lars enjoyed his second victory in a row and a celebratory glass of red wine, I asked how he felt (though his big smile said it all.)
Succes, a volatile 13-year-old son of the Trakehner stallion Blue Hors Silvermoon, was scored higher than his mark of 73.4 percent from last year, when he had some tempi troubles. This time the flow of the two-tempi's to the one-tempi's was not only smooth, it was impressive. While Lars had to chase his music as he did his series of four canter pirouettes down the center line, the rest of the test really pleased the judges, who gave him 8.5 percent marks for the degree of difficulty.
"That's the most difficult I can make it with him," said Lars.
Gary noted the condition of "the footing changes the timing in the freestyle"; hence the problem staying with the music. But Lars and Succes certainly have their own synchrony.
"It's a very pleasing freestyle to watch. It gets the audience all excited and it's fun for the judges to watch it too," said Gary. "He is so in sync with this horse it's a very harmonious thing to watch, and that's what the freestyle is about."
He felt Ashley's horse might have "reacted a little bit to the crowd in a negative way...a couple of times. Succes built on the excitement; Ashley's horse got a little distracted."
I honestly didn't see that but then, I'm not sitting where the judges are. And looking through a camera, you often don't get the whole picture (so to speak.)
There was, of course, a big difference in the music between the two top freestyles.
Lars' is light-hearted, rather than regal. There's lots of whistling and jaunty tunes: "Tea for Two," "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf" and the theme from the TV show "Mr. Ed."
While the crowd might have its favorite melodies in this event, Gary said the officials can't be influenced by the choice of music. So that's interesting to know.
The third-place finisher was another Canadian (you notice the Americans were shut out here), Jackie Brooks on Gran Gesto. Her horse got better as the ride progressed, with lots of jump in his pirouette. He earned 71.05, tying him with Jane Hannigan's Maksymillian, who has one heck of an extended trot. Jane wound up fourth when the judges went to the collective marks to break the tie.
Jackie was concerned about the footing, and she hoped her horse could handle it.
"I just kept asking him, 'Are you okay?'" said Jackie, "and he was every time saying 'Yes.'"
The order of finish was similar to 2007, when Jackie was fourth. The exception was the absence of Idocus, the runner-up last year. Courtney King decided not to bring him here and probably will not compete the 18-year-old stallion again, though she plans to ride him in exhibitions. Meanwhile, the horse's owner is mulling plans for a formal retirement.
Courtney made several appearances at the show, however. One was on Jubilant, who won the FEI Prix St. Georges Open, but did not go in the division's other classes. The other was on a 13.2-hand Welsh pony she rode in a dressage pony demo run by her mentor, Lendon Gray, who is encouraging the use of ponies in the discipline. It was fun to see the long-legged Olympian on a subcompact instead of her usual full-size mounts.
And now back to the other tight finish. Endel Ots on Bentley got the nod over Amanda Johnson (Pip) and Suzanne Markham (Donarlicht.) Can you believe that all three of them finished on 66.917 percent in the Intermediaire I? That tie, too, was broken on the basis of the entries' collective marks.
Endel rides in Illinois with Kim and Yvonne Barteau, whose 20-year-old daughter, Kassie, was dominant in the Young Rider division with her two mounts, the veteran Gabriella, a two-time national champion, and the up-and-coming GP Raymeister.
Endel was simply dazzled at getting the blue ribbon at Devon. It also went to Bentley's head. He reared repeatedly during the awards ceremony and made a hasty exit after rearing farewell during the victory round.
But Endel took it in stride as he simply glowed with joy.
To top it off, he won the I-1 freestyle in the pouring rain today, so now he can be considered a veteran of this show. (Who was it who said, "No one comes here for the weather"?)
Kassie did herself proud, too. She was 1-2 with Gabby and Raymeister in the Young Rider Team Test on Friday. When I asked her about it, she enjoyed reliving that class.
And then she had the same double in the Young Rider Prix St. Georges. To wrap it all up, she and Gabby took the Young Rider freestyle. Keep your eye on this gal.
Another multiple winner was Pan American Games double-gold medalist Chris Hickey of Hilltop Farm. He and the farm's horses claimed title after title at Devon. If I listed them, I wouldn't have space for anything else!
One of my favorites is Cabana Boy, the recent winner of the Markel/USEF National Championship. Sired by Hilltop stallion Contucci, Cabana Boy topped the 6-year-old tests at Devon. How about a score of 84 percent? But this horse is not all talent. He's also got personality.
Here's what Chris said when I asked about this young superstar.
Dressage at Devon has as many great moments as it does great horses and riders. For another look at this fun show, be sure to go through our photo gallery.
I'll have another postcard next weekend from the Platinum Performance/U.S. Equestrian Federation Talent Search Finals East. It should be a great competition.