Devon, Pa., September 30, 2007 -- How do you spell success? If you're talking about the horse who took the Dressage at Devon Grand Prix Freestyle with an inspired performance, leave off the last S.
While the gray gelding Succes by the Trakehner stallion Blue Hors Silvermoon has great talent, I thought much of last night's accomplishment rested on the way rider Lars Petersen got the most out the horse as he pirouetted and piaffed his way through a musical melange of whistling, "Tea for Two" and "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf."
The freestyle actually was composed for Lars' most famous ride, Blue Hors Cavan, who went back to his native Denmark a few years ago, but Lars' poise in the saddle made it seem as if the music were custom made for Succes. The judges loved it, scoring it with one 8.5, three 8's and one 7.5
Lars' freestyle was very tricky, garnering an 8.5, two 8's and two 7's when the marks came up on the scoreboard, so I asked him to explain what made it so complicated.
Lars' finesse and subtlety made the freestyle flow, to the delight of a crowd standing eight-deep on the rail at the Dixon Oval. Dressage traditionally is a "Shhhhh" sport, but freestyle night at this very special show encourages enthusiasm. The spectators began clapping rhythmically to the music in the midst of his one-tempis, surprising and also delighting Lars, but he worried that it would upset his horse.
"As they started to clap, I said to myself, 'Oh, now we'll have to be careful,'" Lars revealed. "I think that's how I got a mistake. If I kept riding, I might not have got one." But he didn't mind.
"In many ways, it's actually nice that the people get into it a little bit," he said.
The one-tempis were only good enough for four 6's and a 7 from the judges, but they were the sole flaw in the performance. At another point, I thought he might have a problem in one of his four canter pirouettes on the center line, but an almost imperceptible correction from the rider ensured that the horse was right on target.
Still, the class was close. Courtney King, second last year, found herself in that placing once more with her veteran partner Idocus, just 0.400 percent behind Lars' 73.400 percent. Canada's Ashley Holzer was third with a tired Pop Art on 72.100 percent.
Barnabas Mandi of Hungary, the president of the ground jury, put Lars first and Courtney second, but he had Ashley fifth. His third-place choice was Jacqueline Brooks of Canada, who wound up fourth overall in the tally of the give judges, for her energetic ride on Gran Gesto that was to be commended.
The judge explained why Lars won:
I can't remember the first time I saw Lars ride; perhaps it was at the 1994 World Equestrian Games or the 1996 Olympics, but he always impressed me as a superb horseman as well as a talented rider. A few years ago, I went to his farm in Florida where I was introduced to Succes, who at that time was just starting his career.
Lars, of course, had a feeling from the beginning that he would be a star. As it turned out, though, it wasn't easy, so this victory was particularly sweet.
"I have had that horse since he was a foal, and we have had a little trouble with him with different things; we had a hard time riding him a long time," said Lars, who was thrilled with his triumph. "It's really coming together, everything, so it means a lot."
All three of the top finishers could be candidates for their countries' Olympics teams, but as Barnabas pointed out during the press conference, he was the only person at the table who can be certain about going to the 2008 Games in Hong Kong, because he is on the ground jury there.
The lights, the music and the excitement make freestyle night the highlight of Dressage at Devon, but there is so much more to the show than that one class.
There are plenty of chances for others to shine, and Courtney got hers with Rendezvous, an interesting combination of Arabian, thoroughbred and Austrian warmblood. She took both the Intermediare I and the I-1 freestyle, riding to tunes from "My Fair Lady," but she's leaving the small tour behind and pointing Rendezvous toward the Grand Prix in Europe later this year.
The Prix St. Georges went to Lars' partner, Melissa Taylor, with another difficult gray, Dacardo. He showed his thorny side in the I-1, when he decided to balk big time before the zig-zags. To her credit, Melissa kept her cool and kept him going.
"He's so hot, I can't get angry with him because he doesn't mean it," said Melissa, who was sorry she couldn't follow through on her Prix St. Georges success. "I never ever think about more than getting on him and trying my best with him, he's so sensitive a horse. I'm just glad I get to ride him."
Courtney also won the Grand Prix Special with Mythilus, who earned 71 percent, far ahead of Elisabeth Austin and Olivier on 63.680 percent. Mythilus, who did his first grand prix as an exhibition in June at the Festival of Champions, is looking more like an Olympic candidate every day.
The recently married Courtney, perhaps the busiest rider around, also had several other successes. But generous and sweet soul that she is, she made a point of publicly thanking the owners of her horses, and all the other owners who make dressage sport possible, noting they are a group too often overlooked.
The younger set was in evidence, too. I was impressed by Jade Deter of Canada and her stylish chestnut, Mastermind. Jade, 16, who dominated the FEI Junior division, wants to be the youngest equestrian ever to compete in the Olympics. We weren't sure what the record is, but she's determined to break it.
Her confidence gets a boost from her horse. I asked her to tell me about him, and here is what she said:
In the Young Rider ranks, a standout was Micaela Mabragana, 21, of Argentina. Having winners from a variety of countries really added to the atmosphere and played to the national flags hanging in a colorful row from the grandstand.
"I help her out some times," said Courtney. "She's doing a great job. She has tons of focus and a great work ethic."
Like Courtney, Micaela--who was striking in combination with her mount, Granada--is based with the legendary Lendon Gray. She met Lendon when she was 13 as a member of an Argentine team who came to one of the master teacher's shows. Argentina is not exactly a hotbed of dressage, prompting Micaela to return to Lendon as a working student.
Robert Dover was on the premises, promoting his new TV show, which he hopes will be airing this fall. I asked him to tell me about it, and here is what he said:
Dressage at Devon benefits Thorncroft Therapeutic Riding. Sponsor WTDirect, which is involved with online banking, will donate $50 to Dressage at Devon for Thorncroft to anyone who opens an account before Oct. 31 using the link www.wtdirect.com/dressage. So maybe that will be your good deed for the day.
Next year, plan to come to Dressage at Devon yourself. It's an unforgettable and exciting experience. But I'm getting ahead of myself. I'll be back next Sunday night with an EquiSearch.com postcard from the Platinum Performance/U.S. Equestrian Federation Show Jumping Talent Search Finals East, so be sure to look for it.