Devon, Pa., Oct. 3, 2005 -- Taking the Dressage at Devon crowd with her on a exhilarating joy ride, Rocher made history over the weekend as she and trainer George Williams became the first pairing ever to win the show's musical freestyle three times. While that's quite an achievement, it was even more impressive because the lop-eared black mare did it after skipping a year, and there were serious concerns she might not return after suffering a bout of tendinitis.
But she has come back better than ever, earning an impressive score of 77.85 percent on October 1 under the lights in an atmosphere so electric that it crackled with excitement and tension for every step of the freestyle.
Although she floats at the extended trot and her piaffe/passage performance is impressive, what really is special about Rocher's freestyle to Madonna tunes is that she's so into it, shaking her booty and feeling the rhythm. She "gets" what she's supposed to do and then some; Rocher has music in her head.
The black personality-plus mare, all 17 Westphalian hands of her, is dependable as well. She got 8s for rhythm, harmony, choreography and difficulty of her program, and 8.5 for her music.
It's been quite a season for Rocher, who took George to the national championship in June at the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation's Gladstone, N.J., headquarters, and to Aachen in August, where they were part of the American team.
But George, the D at D freestyle winner in 2002 and 2003 noted, "In some ways, to bring her back here is more emotional for me than even going to Aachen or Gladstone."
After being mobbed by a post-competition crowd of autograph seekers, he seemed almost stunned, happily overwhelmed and most of all, grateful.
"How fortunate we are that she's back, she's such wonderful horse to ride. She's stronger than ever. Her carriage is much better, her elevation is much better."
George also noted that his last few months of work with Rocher have enabled him to finesse his riding strategy in order to get the most out of her. He even joked that by the time he finished Aachen, he felt as if he finally were ready for Aachen.
Everyone else must have realized they were riding for second even before the class began. Runner-up Cindy Ishoy of Canada certainly did, but gave it quite a go on Proton, who was third last year. This time, her ride was marked at 74.925 percent.
"George's extended trot was amazing," said judge Jennie Loriston-Clarke of Great Britain. She observed that while Cindy's mount is "not quite as powerful a horse," the black gelding's turn to music that included a bit from rapper 50 Cent certainly impressed.
"He was very consistent all the way through with a very good carriage," said the no-nonsense judge about Proton, who is being aimed toward next year's World Equestrian Games, just like Rocher and third-place Galant du Serein (72.75), ridden by U.S.-based Cesar Parra of Colombia. By the way, Cesar's former mount, Pik-L, carried George's daughter, Nicole, to victory in the junior individual test with an impressive 73.128 percent. It's a small world, dressage, but you knew that, didn't you?
The judges seemed to have as good a time as the riders and the fans at the USA's liveliest dressage show.
"The atmosphere is something special," observed German judge Uwe Mechlem, who was making his last appearance abroad as an international official, having hit the mandatory retirement age of 70. "You don't find that in Europe; it's much more serious there."
The freestyle was the highlight of a Saturday night in which the area around the Dixon Oval was so packed with spectators that not a seat was to be had. (A word of advice: Reserve early for next year.) But D at D's magic extends beyond the competition to the fun of being with like-minded people and the opportunity to shop, shop, shop.
Dressage queens don't like the cheap stuff, and though there were possibilities to snag $10 sweatshirts and $10 reversible dog scarves, the high-end items were really a draw, if only for window shopping. I liked the $1,000 shadbelly with cameo buttons, and the $1,000 custom made top hats. But what caught my eye (because you couldn't miss the sparkle) was a gold chain set with diamonds ($3,500), from which to hang a diamond horse shoe ($2,700). It may sound like overkill to you, but trust me, it would be just the thing to match the $85 browband set with crystals that also caught my eye (and was actually within my pitiful price range). I had to settle for making the sweatshirt my big purchase, unfortunately.
The D at D folks know how to run a show, with the only glitch being the scoreboard that malfunctioned during the freestyle, frustratingly giving up in the middle of presenting Rocher's marks. Exhibitions offer a counterpoint to competition, from polocrosse (I liked the team named "Chick with Sticks") to a quadrille featuring four black Friesians and four gray Andalusians, all performing precision choreography.
Even raking the arena is an event at D at D. The audience was howling with laughter as the all-male ring crew appeared in a front end loader wearing sports bras, wild wigs and stuffed horse toys strapped to their middles. As they did their jobs, they pranced around, making the horses' little legs swing. There's no dead time at this show.
There was so much going on at this six-day show that I can't offer every detail, but I should mention that there were two grands prix, one on the track for the freestyle (which George won with a 71.417 percent to Cindy's 68.333) and the other on the track for the Special. Former Danish team rider Lars Petersen won the latter on the appealing gray Success. Katherine Bateson and Kennedy, Robert Dover's Olympic ride, finished second in the Special with 71.040 percent, just behind Lars' 71.840 percent, moving way up from their 65.583 percent score for fourth place in the Grand Prix. This new combination is being watched with lots of interest.
Meanwhile, Robert is not standing idle. He is involved with producing a reality TV show to find the next dressage star, a combination of "American Idol" and "The Apprentice." Six riders were chosen from well over 400 applicants. This group will be tested and tested with the camera's eye on them. The winner will get lots of publicity and the opportunity to work as Robert's assistant for a year.
One of those selected, 28-year-old J.J. Tate of Wisconsin, actually rode in the freestyle, finishing sixth on Cambay and drawing lots of admiring comments from Judge Jennie.
In the Intermediare I, Julia Vysniauskas did the honors with Papillion, earning 70 percent to take the title, with Chris Hickey and Werbellin (69.75) settling for second. Papillion, despite his groom's attempt to restrain him, was very lively during the award ceremonies, keeping photographers hopping to stay out of the way of his heels.
You may know Julia as a Canadian rider, but she has a new nationality, Lithuanian, with a green, yellow and red flag stuck in her boot during the award ceremonies to show her colors. She is able to ride for that country because it was her grandparents' native land, and she was touted as the first person to represent Lithuania in international equestrian competition. But it made me think of another famous Lithuanian in the sport, Ulla Salzgeber's ride, Rusty. Remember him?
The only thing missing from D at D is a west coast contingent. It's a shame that Guenter Seidel, Debbie McDonald and Steffen Peters didn't come east for this show. I'm sure they'd get the same kick out of it that we all do, and it's the only thing that could make Dressage at Devon even more exciting than it already is.