Devon, Pa., October 2, 2006 -- For the spectators who happily jam in around the Dixon Oval and fill the grandstands, Dressage at Devon's Grand Prix freestyle night is all about having fun.
So it didn't matter to them that this was a rather lean year for the 3-star rated show in terms of the top-level horse and rider combinations who came to its enclave on Philadelphia's Main Line.
The crowd thoroughly enjoyed each of the 13 rides to music that they saw Saturday evening. Even if the USA's entire World Equestrian Games team had been among the competitors, it's hard to imagine how the fans could have been any more enthusiastic than they were.
That party mood, the horses' coats gleaming under the lights and the excitement of the unexpected all contribute to the show's special aura.
"Every WEG year or Olympic year, the entries are down. The major players aren't there because they've either done the selection trial or gone to the competition," said announcer/master of ceremonies Brian O'Connor. "Usually, during the pre-Olympic or pre-WEG year, the entries are pretty strong, because they're using this as one of the selections for the next year."
Even without the stars, though, Dressage at Devon is special.
"To me, this is one of the most prestigious competitions outside of Europe," said Brian, despite, as he noted, the small size of the showgrounds and the uneven footing in the warm-up area.
"I've talked to judges in the past here who say, 'You guys put on a show!' Everybody is charged up and they appreciate and have fun even with the lower-quality rides. Even the people who didn't have good rides got big cheers. Especially in years when there isn't the quality, the entertainment part of the evening is what people are coming to watch," Brian observed.
This time, that included incredible exhibitions from Medieval Times, the hysterical antics of the ring crew and a surprise from Brian himself. But more about that later, because I have to fill you in on the dressage part of Dressage at Devon.
Cesar Parra, the only rider in the freestyle who had competed in the World Equestrian Games, put on a special performance aboard Galant du Serein to a medley of Shakira tunes from his native Colombia to win the class. His glossy bay stallion, who earned 71.1 percent, was more in-step to the music than many of the other horses.
An equipment malfunction played the riders' CDs faster than it was supposed to. It seemed to me that it was most noticeable at the beginning of the competition. I couldn't imagine why Sandy Osborn on Milestone and Cheryl Meisner Linssen on Pagannini had picked their music, it was so obviously out of sync with their horses.
Friday's Grand Prix winner, Courtney King, who rode Idocus to second place in the freestyle with a score of 70.1, noted that she couldn't catch up with her "stripper" music that was an old freestyle of her retired mentor, Lendon Gray.
It wasn't until Brian played tunes with which he was familiar for the post-competition ceremonies that he recognized there had been an equipment malfunction.
"We had a technical problem with the machine, and we didn't realize it until the end of the night. Sometimes, you don't know the riders' music so you don't know whether it's good or bad," he commented, though he did think at some point, "this doesn't seem right, that thing's funky" but wasn't sure, because he had never heard most of the music previously.
"As far as 'things happen,' it was the same for everybody," he contended, noting in the future, that riders should mention the difficulty so it can be addressed.
It seemed to me, however, that some CDs fared better than others. Tom Dvorak's accompaniment from West Side Story for his ride on West Side Lady, for instance, sounded normal--I'm very familiar with that score. And Cesar's flowed well.
Roberta Williams, George Williams' wife, told Brian the music didn't seem quite right for his ride on Marnix, which earned 66.75 percent for third place. Even so, it was one of his best performances with that horse. Of course it couldn't compare with his three Dressage at Devon freestyle victories on Rocher, who is sidelined with a suspensory problem but may be back at the show next year, he said.
Cesar's showmanship added flair to his performance, which benefited from overall style highlighted by a rhythmic passage that offset labored pirouettes. I wish I had a dollar for every time Cesar tipped his hat and waved during his exit from the ring and the award ceremonies. This guy knows how to work a crowd.
While Galant was antsy when he came back into the ring for the presentation, I was surprised when Cesar declined his opportunity to ride a victory lap and tip his hat some more. He explained he was thinking about what happened to WEG freestyle champ Anky van Grunsven in the victory lap for the team competition, when Salinero took off with her and had to be stopped by police horses at the out-gate.
Discretion being the better part of valor in this instance, Cesar ran alongside Idocus in the round of honor, holding up his silver trophy and kissing it periodically.
"Finally, huh? I love the Devon show," said the ebullient Cesar, who has ridden here five times in the seven years he has been in this country, and made winning the Devon freestyle a special goal.
Cesar, who has applied for American citizenship, had help from noted German judge Volker Moritz at the show. No, of course Volker wasn't judging, but he will be eyes on the ground for Cesar when his regular trainer, Hubertus Schmidt of Germany, is unavailable.
On the small tour, the star was Danish Olympic veteran Lars Petersen with the gray Swedish-bred Dacardo, winner of both the Prix St. Georges, with an impressive score of 74.25 percent, and the Intermediare I, with 71.58 percent. The 8-year-old is owned by Lars' partner, Melissa Taylor, who is based with him in Florida during the winter and Pennsylvania in the summer.
"Our plan is that I keep showing him for the next six months and then we may see if Melissa can qualify him for the Pan American Games. After that, we're trying to make him ready for Grand Prix. He already can do most of it. He's not just mentally ready for it," said Lars, who notes that experience is smoothing out his temperament, though Dacardo was more tense in the I-1 than the Prix St. Georges.
Melissa rode Lars' horse, Success, in the Grand Prix Special, winning it with a total of 61.32 percent.
So now, about the entertainment...
It was very cool to see Cheri Reiber, who has represented the U.S. in the World Cup finals, decked out in glittery trappings riding one gray Andalusian and driving another in front of her as part of a show from Medieval Times on Saturday night.
Cheri has long worked at the equestrian dinner theater, moving recently from Toronto to the Myrtle Beach location. But that wasn't the half of it. Other horses from Medieval Times in Florida performed the capriole, leaping in the air and kicking out to the delight of the crowd, walked on their hind legs and bowed low to salute spectators.
One of the Medieval Times riders, mounted on a black horse, galloped into the ring and threw down the gauntlet for a challenge. It was met by Brian (in knights' garb and with his faithful Sydney mini-horse doll strapped to his waist) who entered the ring on the business end of a front-end loader to a roar of laughter. The knight and Brian clashed, with the announcer coming out the winner and sparing the knight's life.
Comic relief also was provided by the ring crew, with two of the men "driving" a pair of bare-chested comrades, a la Cheri and her horses. It was hysterical, believe me, especially when one of the "horses" leaped in the air in his own version of airs above the ground.
Where else would you see something like that? Only at Dressage at Devon!