Wellington, Fla., February 1, 2009 -- You know those annoying people who say that watching dressage is like watching paint dry?
They should have attended this weekend's Exquis World Dressage Masters competition at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center.
It was pretty darn lively, starting with three-time Olympic individual gold medalist Anky van Grunsven's brain fade in the Grand Prix.
This woman is a nine-time World Cup champ, but she is apparently human--even though I've always wondered about that, considering her amazing resume and seemingly endless energy.
The GP test is new this year, and you have to figure the old one is ingrained in the mind of someone who has ridden it as often as Anky. Even so, we were a bit surprised when the judges rang the bell--she forgot to do the rein-back. Moments later came another ding-dong, ding-dong, and it wasn't Avon calling. Anky had made a second mistake: one more and she would be eliminated. Luckily, she held it together with her stallion, IPS Painted Black, and got through the test, albeit with a flubbed piaffe.
Painted Black had spooked, and as Anky explained it, "I was focusing on him so much...I completely screwed up myself and made another mistake. It never happened before in my entire life. I'm very embarrassed; it will never happen again."
You just don't expect something like that from the most famous dressage rider in the world at a 5-star show, but it set the stage for a two-day drama that captured spectators' interest.
The Masters debuted last year at Cannes, France, but this is its first full season and Florida is its first stop; the three other competitions this year will be in Europe. By the end of the weekend $130,000 in prize money, more than any other dressage competition--including the World Cup finals--had been awarded.
It's the brainchild of Anthony Kies, a retired Dutch businessman, who thinks putting a lot of money in the pot will heighten interest in the discipline--maybe even from the "watching paint dry" folks. Anthony got interested in dressage through his daughters, Renee and Linda, though his only hands-on equestrian involvement is driving a pair of horses for fun.
He and I talked a lot about the Masters concept, so listen in and let him tell you his thoughts.
Anky is a huge believer in the Masters, as are the riders who took the trouble to come here from Europe and the West Coast.
I was surprised that Steffen Peters made the trip from California in a World Cup year with Ravel, the amazing horse he rode to fourth place in the Olympics.
There were some really big names at the top of the line-up, but the Germans were missing. Anthony said this event just wasn't on their calendar; it was new, and it came the week after Amsterdam, a World Cup qualifier. But others felt the Germans were waiting to see how the first year went before committing. I think they'll be here next year.
Back to the Grand Prix, Anky wasn't the only rider who made a mistake, and Ashley Holzer, who finished second with Pop Art, confessed that she had worried about doing the same thing.
Steffen, however, nailed the victory with a score of 75.574 percent. He said he had gone over the test about 20 times, so his usual concentration prevailed in synchrony with a horse who was on his wavelength. He was more than four points ahead of Ashley's 71.319 percent.
Anky wound up ninth in a field of 20 with a mark of 66.936 percent, which presented a problem. More than 4,000 tickets had been sold for Saturday night's freestyle, and it was a good bet that most of those people were coming to see the queen of dressage. But only the top eight finishers in the Grand Prix were eligible for the ride to music; the rest had to compete in the Grand Prix Special during the afternoon.
It could have been a major faux pas, but Michael Barisone rode to the rescue. The U.S. Olympic reserve rider was fifth in the Grand Prix with Neruda, but bowed out of the freestyle, opting for the Special (the top riders had a choice) so that Anky could have a freestyle slot. It was a win/win/win as it turned out. The crowd got to see Anky, Michael earned points with everyone for his good sportsmanship, and he also earned more than $9,000 when he won the Special. He scored 69.292 percent to edge out Danish Olympic team bronze medalist Anne Van Olst on Exquis Clearwater, who was marked at 69.125 percent.
Michael's ride was impressive on a horse that has had some issues over the years. Michael's bete noir has been the tempi changes, but he felt they were okay this time around, though he worked to keep steady with the one-tempis down the center line.
So everyone got to see Anky at her best that night, and it was worth it. While Painted Black definitely stands in line behind her Olympic star Salinero, he is incredibly impressive with his striking color and demeanor, which had contributed to his big win in the freestyle at Amsterdam the previous weekend. His trot extensions were breathtaking, and he lived up to the demands of the Spanish music that enabled Anky to discreetly push the boundaries of his ability. His score of 79.600 percent was certainly justified.
Asked to assess Painted Black, Anky said, "I really think he has all the qualities in him, but he's a stallion, so it's a bit more difficult. He has the quality to do well, the last two shows in the kur (freestyle) and it worked out. He's a super second horse, definitely."
But he doesn't do award ceremonies. For that, Anky was aboard Black Diamond, a 22-year-old schoolmaster borrowed from Wellington trainer Ilse Schwarz. The stand-in seemed very proud of his ribbon, even if he wasn't sure what he did to deserve it, and gracefully led a restrained victory pass.
Behind Anky in the freestyle was Hans-Peter Minderhoud, her Olympic silver medal teammate, on Exquis Escapado. The ride that got 77.750 percent from the judges was done to a group of tunes from the 1970s. It could have been corny, but Hans-Peter's expertise and Escapado's style made it artistic and fun. I particularly liked "For Everything There is a Season (Turn, Turn, Turn)" as the appropriate soundtrack for the pirouette.
I last saw Escapado at the 2004 Olympics where he was ridden by Britain's Carl Hester. He told me that the horse's nickname was "Peanuts," because that's what he paid for him originally. I feel quite sure the price was much higher when the horse went to Hans-Peter.
And what, you are wondering, happened to Steffen? I'm getting to that. He was putting in a lovely performance when Ravel uncharacteristically threw his head up in the air during his first piaffe, ending his shot to beat Anky.
As he began that piaffe, "I went into it a little too passively," Steffen explained. When Ravel took a walk step, "I corrected him, but he said, `That's not a good idea.'"
Added Steffen, "He's been so honest, this took me by surprise."
Steffen ended up third with 76.60, barely ahead of Ashley's 76.35.
I thought Interfloor Next One, fifth with 73.250 percent for Edward Gal, showed great potential. You remember Edward--he was a sensation when he finished second on the electric stallion, Lingh, in the 2005 World Cup.
Lingh was bought by an American, Karin Reid Offield, who learned a lot from him and with him. The horse is now at Flyinge, the Swedish stud farm, and Edward told me he will be riding him again, but just in a stallion show this month. While it may well be the last time they compete together, as Edward pointed out, you never know.
Anky's amazing oomph was evident throughout the Masters; she never said no, even giving a clinic for six horses on the evening of the Grand Prix, borrowing some gloves to ward off the cold but keeping her sunny spirits high.
After the freestyle, she returned to the ring in cowgirl garb on a reining horse, showing off some moves in what some consider the western version of dressage. I jokingly asked if she might consider riding in reining during next year's Alltech/FEI World Equestrian Games, but she said no, "I really do it as a hobby." While she has competed locally at home, she said she didn't even want to know the scores.
"I don't have any pretensions," she laughed.
It was nice to see a great crowd for dressage on a very chilly night (tip: if your mom is moving to Florida, tell her not to give away her mink coat), but the evening didn't go as smoothly for many of those attending as it did for Anky.
There were a variety of complaints, so I asked Mark Bellissimo--the managing partner of the PBIEC operation--about them.
People do forget that this is only the second season for the center, which has undergone $10 million in improvements.
The dressage folks were on their way home today, so it was time for the jumpers to return to the International Arena. We wound up the weekend with the $75,000 Bainbridge Companies Grand Prix. It was a 2-star test, which meant it wasn't the most difficult route, but it yielded an exciting 10-horse jump-off from 45 starters.
My money in the tie-breaker was on Norman Dello Joio with the reliable Malcolm, but he was in the difficult position of going first over Pierre Jolicoeur's twisting tie-breaker course, which had two fences that weren't in the previous round.
Norman, who you'll remember was an individual bronze medalist at the 1992 Olympics and has his sights on the 2012 Games, nailed a clean round in 42.11 seconds. That was a decent time, but I decided someone else probably would catch him. I wouldn't have guessed that it would be Bernardo Naveillan, whom I had never heard of, aboard Aquino (ditto). Bernardo, a Chilean who rides out of Argentina and is his own trainer, bettered Norman's clocking by 2.01 seconds in his arms akimbo style. I thought that was pretty impressive.
I was even more impressed after talking with Bernardo, a very intelligent guy (he has an engineering degree) who explained that he sets goals and then methodically achieves them.
He checked out the Winter Equestrian Festival for several years before coming here to ride this time. His horse is a thoroughbred/Zangersheide cross who clicks with his rider; Bernardo seems to be a natural horseman.
As for Norman, he said, "I thought I was fast enough for being the first horse. I thought somebody would have to take a real risk to beat me."
However, he didn't notice that Pierre had lowered a double of verticals, flanked on one side by red mini CN locomotives.
"That was the one place where I could have taken more of a risk," said Norman, but he was still pleased to be a runner-up in Malcolm's first outing of the year.
I thought Pierre's course was very tactful, considering that most of the horses have only been back in work for a few weeks after a break, so I asked him about it.
Check back this week for my photo gallery from the weekend; it's really fun, and I'm sure you want to see a shot of cowgirl Anky. I'll be writing my next postcard during another trip to the PBIEC for the USA's only show jumping Nations' Cup, the last weekend in February.