June 19, 2009 -- Things didn't get off to a very promising start at the Collecting Gaits Farm/U.S. Equestrian Federation's Dressage Festival of Champions. It rained--hard--on Thursday, the opening day of the national championship, leading to cancellation of most of the program after the first leg of the Brentina Cup was run in a downpour.
A meeting of the Grand Prix riders, who were slated as next to go, was called in the stable while the bad weather continued. What to do, what to do? Judge Janet Foy teasingly suggested a draw for placement. "I have a bunch of scores we could put in a hat; the lowest is 68 percent," she said, eliciting chuckles.
Rider Michael Barisone, who has competed many times here at the historic U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation headquarters, said the footing likely would be okay if the rain ceased for an hour, because the arena drains fast. But the skies didn't oblige, and it was decided the best course was to put off until today the Grand Prix and the Prix St. Georges that were to follow the Brentina Cup. That turned out to be the right move, as the sun (rarely seen in these parts this spring) finally decided to make an appearance this morning.
"It was a really good call," said Tuny Page, who noted the main consideration had to be "to take the best care of the horses." The schedule juggling put the Grand Prix Special, which was supposed to be held today, off until Sunday, following the Saturday afternoon/evening featured Grand Prix freestyle. A little unorthodox, perhaps, but it works. Riders said it didn't make any difference to them.
Even before the rain, there was a small cloud over the championships. World Cup winner Steffen Peters went off to Aachen with Ravel and didn't even make a stop to coach his wife, Shannon, who is competing in the Intermediare I Championship on Flor de Selva. Understandably, he wanted to focus on getting ready at Jo Hinneman's barn for the big German show, and felt any distraction wouldn't be wise. Meanwhile, Michael Barisone's mount, Neruda, was a scratch due to a staph infection. Luckily, he had another horse, Olympus. Tuny scratched Wild One after hauling him up from Florida and finding that on arrival, he didn't feel quite right. She certainly didn't want to push him, but it's a disappointment to his fans not to see him in action. Her competition is confined to the I-1 championships with Alina, a promising new face, who was fourth in the Prix St. Georges. And this morning, Catherine Morelli withdrew BeSe from the Grand Prix ranks; he wasn't comfortable after stepping on something earlier in the week, the USEF director of national dressage programs, Jennifer Keeler, explained. It's a shame, since Cathy lives right down the road from the USET.
But there was still plenty of good talent in the Grand Prix ranks, though today Leslie Morse became a runaway winner with Tip Top. He was by far the most experienced horse in the bunch, and that helped him earn his score of 72 percent.
Leslie, who came all the way from California, had the advantage of going last on her 15-year-old Swedish warmblood stallion, but she wasn't chasing the other riders.
Pierre St. Jacques was second with Lucky Tiger, his 2003 Pan American Games gold medal mount. They were marked at 68.596 percent, despite a mistake in his last piaffe.
"He was trying really hard and I sort of maybe let him creep a little bit more forward...but there's more in that horse and he keeps getting better and better," said Pierre.
Lucky Tiger was highly touted in the past, but he's been slow reaching his potential. Pierre said he's been taking his time with the 14-year-old Danish-bred gelding and he had some personal issues to deal with at the same time.
Last year, he went to three-day events with his girlfriend, Samantha Taylor, as she was trying to make the Canadian Olympic team. Tiger came along for the ride.
"He just chilled out," said Pierre. "It was just mileage...that and staying home and doing my training made him what he is today."
Pierre said the eventers were scared when they saw him practicing dressage before the first leg of the events, but he reported they were relieved when he told them he wasn't competing because he couldn't make the time cross-country.
Olympus earned 67.532 percent to put Michael third on a horse he doesn't know very well. I saw him compete in Florida for the first time on the 13-year-old Dutch warmblood, and this guy has really come along.
Michael felt he didn't have quite enough horse today, but he plans to "warm up a little less tomorrow and see what the day brings."
Unfortunately, that would be thunderstorms, if the weather reports can be believed.
"He's inexperienced," explained his rider, Lauren Sammis.
The big letdown was the often-fabulous Sagacious HF, who doesn't have a lot of Grand Prix mileage. He showed some unease by breaking into the canter in his first extended trot and had a few other hiccups along the way.
"He showed he has a lot of quality, but he messed up on the little things. He didn't mess up on the big things. Sometimes it happens."
Knowing Lauren, she won't make the same mistake twice and I'd be willing to bet her next score will be far higher than the 63.872 percent that was her mark today.
Lauren felt she made a mistake warming up in the "very scary" indoor ring that is intimidating with two doors on each side, rather than going to the outside ring, which has the same footing as the arena. But she was, understandably, concerned because of the rain about how the ground would be in the outside warm-up.
By the afternoon, the footing was just fine. Katherine Bateson-Chandler was cruising in the Prix St. Georges with both Dea II, who won on 73.105 percent and Rutherford, who finished third with 71 percent.
Sandwiched between her two mounts was her friend Jan Brons with Teutobod (72.211percent).
"You would never know that it rained as much as it did yesterday," he commented, saying he had no footing issues at all, something on which Katherine agreed.
Katherine felt Dea's performance was a milestone for her.
"It was beautiful. She totally deserved to win," said Jan.
Dea is, as Katherine sees it, is "a loosey, goosey chestnut mare" who has some Gumbyesque tendencies.
"She can do half-passes straight sideways with her legs all over the place. She's like a spider. That's great for certain things, but other things, she has to get more tight," Katherine said.
As far as personality goes, Dea is a princess.
"She just thinks she's queen of the world," Katherine chuckled.
"That works for you and against you. That's great as long as she works with you, which she's been doing amazingly."
There are three divisions here for the younger set, with competition in the Brentina Cup for riders 28 and younger, who are making the transition into the open ranks. Then there's Young Riders, of course, for 21 and under, and junior classes as well.
It was an emotional experience for Lauren Knopp to win the Junior Team Test on Rho Dance with a mark of 68.378 percent as she attended her first national championship.
"I was really surprised. I didn't think I did as well and when I saw the score and I burst into tears," said the 18-year-old from Wellington, Fla., who has an academic scholarship to Stetson University and wants to be a professional trainer.
Just the privilege of being at the USET made a big impression on her.
Yesterday's cancellation offered an opportunity to catch up with people, as some stayed around for a relaxed lunch in the VIP tent. I asked Leslie Morse how Kingston was doing. You'll remember this 17-year-old stallion was excused shortly after his entrance during the Grand Prix at the World Cup finals in April, when he suddenly looked lame after having gone perfectly in the warm-up ring. Leslie said Kingston is fine, enjoying trail rides and also doing stud duty. He was bred to Brentina, who retired at the World Cup, and Leslie eagerly is awaiting arrival of their "Wonder Child."
Brentina also was bred to Damsey, a Hanoverian by Dressage Royal whose bloodlines include Donnerhall and Rubenstein. Brentina naturally won't be carrying these babies herself; they'll be mothered by surrogates while she enjoys a life of leisure.
I ran into Jessica Ransehousen, the interim chef d'equipe for U.S. dressage who is serving until the search process for a new coach/chef winds down. We chatted about Critical Decision, her daughter Missy's event horse, who could not be presented at the final vet check during Rolex Kentucky because he had undergone a terrible allergic reaction to something. Turned out it was the essence of orange in the soap used to wash off the grease from his belly after cross-country. Jessica warned that anyone with allergies, human or equine, should never use anything that has essence of orange in it.
Anyway, the horse is fine now and actually has come up here so Missy can work with Robert Dover on getting ready to compete in Prix St. Georges. Jessica assured me that despite Missy's interest in dressage and her horse's talent for it, they will still event.
I'll be back with you Sunday night to wrap up the doings here and tell you who the national champions are. Let's just hope we get some more sunshine. I still remember the rain for the Grand Prix Freestyle two years ago, when snow white Andalusian Rociero wasn't quite as pristine after competing in the mud as the rain came down.