February 7, 2010 -- They were selling Super Bowl souvenirs in the West Palm Beach airport when I got off the plane, but I didn't buy any.
You see, I was more excited about the horse world's version of the Super Bowl, the $140,000 Exquis World Dressage Masters, here at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center. Although there were 16 competitors, I knew the top honors would go to one of only three combinations: The USA's Steffen Peters with Ravel; Anky van Grunsven of the Netherlands on Salinero or Isabell Werth, the German who rides Satchmo. And I also knew that for dressage enthusiasts, it was going to be as exciting a face-off as it was for the fans who packed the stadium down in Miami to watch the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts battle it out on Super Sunday.
At last year's Rolex FEI World Cup finals, Steffen defeated both Anky (though she was aboard IPS Painted Black then) and Isabell. That started him on a spectacular string of triumphs; a historic sweep of the Grand Prix, the Special and the freestyle at Aachen; his second straight U.S. Equestrian Federation Equestrian of the Year title and Ravel being voted Farnam Platform USEF Horse of the Year.
And when you consider that between them, someone said, Anky and Isabell had earned 30 Olympic, World Equestrian Games and European Championships medals (though I must confess I didn't do the math myself) you can see why this had all the indicators of a high- voltage match to remember.
The Masters, which made its U.S. debut here last year, is the world's richest dressage competition. On top of that, the Europeans and Californians had their way paid, which was quite an incentive.
I guess the appeal of the 5-star-rated Masters is obvious, but since it's a new event, I wondered about its place in the scheme of things, so I discussed that with Steffen.
The pressure was really on Steffen, but he and Ravel looked both cool and fantastic in Thursday's Grand Prix, easily beating Anky and a tense Salinero with a score of 76.851 percent to her mark of 74.638. Isabell, who had several mistakes (she is just getting back to showing after giving birth to a son in November) was scored at 72.553 percent with some mistakes. Canada's Ashley Holzer, consistent as always with Pop Art, was fourth on 72.468 percent, the only other rider to break 70 percent.
The freestyle, for the top eight, was held on a cold and windy night (yes, they have them even in Florida) and people bundled up with blankets and parkas to watch. The excitement was heightened by the presence of 4,300 dressage devotees and those who would become devotees after seeing three of the world's best.
The first of the big stars to go, Steffen turned in a performance that wasn't quite as silken as his Grand Prix (the atmosphere was, of course, quite different) but good enough for a score of 81.700.
A highlight of Steffen's ride was doing the two-tempis one-handed (he said he didn't think it was wise to try that with the one-tempis) but he and his horse were completely in sync.
Isabell had a mistake when she wasn't able to complete her canter half-pass after she got too sideways and Satchmo kicked himself. I will say that her transition from the two-tempis straight into the one-tempis took my breath away--it was exciting and so well executed. Her mistake was expensive, however, and she was marked at 78.950, far ahead of Ashley, who got 76.300 to wind up fourth.
Last to go, Anky went for it with the energetic Salinero. Her "Dance of Devotion" music, composed for her horse, suits him well, but I was surprised that she was marked first by four of the five judges and scored so far ahead of Steffen's mark, at 84.450. A number of the people I chatted with afterward also were surprised; several of them (who did not have their judges' cards) thought Steffen should have won.
I tracked down U.S. judge Axel Steiner, the only official who had placed Steffen first, to ask for his analysis.
"Anky did a lot of things with a high degree of difficulty, and she did them very easily at times. But for me, there was still a fair amount of tension in the horse, compared to Steffen," he said.
"I really appreciate how solid and loose through the back the horse moved, more the way we would really like to see a well-trained dressage horse move. That's not taking anything away from Salinero," Axel added, but noted that horse "sometimes gets ahead of himself."
Another U.S. judge, Gary Rockwell, who put Salinero first, said that "when Anky is 'on,' the freestyle seems to happen by itself. It's really hard to beat if she's having a good test. The horse was much better than in the Grand Prix." Gary mentioned he gave Steffen a mark of 10 for one trot half-pass, but overall, he felt Ravel wasn't quite up to the standard he had set in the Grand Prix.
As Axel said, "it was very, very close."
Closer, I think, than the scores seemed to indicate.
What's amazing is that as good as the top three are, three other horse/rider combinations in the world at this time are also contenders for the medals at this fall's Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Kentucky.
There's Laura Bechtolsheimer of Great Britain with Mistral Hojris and two more Dutch representatives (they seem to be a lock for the team gold) Parzival with Adelinde Cornelissen and the record-breaking Moorland's Totillas, ridden by Edward Gal.
Since Anky's husband, Sjef Jansen, is also the Dutch team trainer, it seemed to me that it must have been tough for her to be the pillar of the team for years until Totillas and Parzival came along, so I asked her about it.
By all indications, the Masters will return here next year, and my guess (judging from the Europeans' enthusiasm about the warm weather, Saturday night being an exception) is that it will attract even more stellar performers.
I asked Anthony Kies, the mastermind behind the Masters, his thoughts on how things were going--though a good indicator is the fact that a fifth competition is being considered for Brazil (added to the ones already in place in Munich, Cannes and Hickstead.)
I hadn't been back to the PBIEC in a year, and was immediately impressed at how much more work had been done here. Mark Bellissimo, CEO of Equestrian Sport Productions, which puts on the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival and runs the center, had told me it would be a three-year project, and he was right.
It was interesting to see the reaction of folks who had never been here before. Reiner Pete Kyle, who came for the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation fundraiser (more about that in a minute) expressed his admiration and thought the all-weather footing would work for a reining competition. The possibilities for equestrian sport here are endless.
Problems of the first two years, which included footing in some rings and lack of food vendors, have been addressed. The road system is great and the shopping ramped up with a tent devoted to merchants who have stores on Palm Beach's famed Worth Avenue, about 40 minutes east of here and a million miles out of my price range.
"This facility is ready now," Mark said after giving me a brief tour.
"We want it to be the cathedral of U.S. Equestrian sport."
What else might happen here? How about a covered arena and a permanent building, rather than a tent, for the International Club? We'll know in March, when a new master plan for the facility is revealed.
There were a lot of people like Pete who came to town for the USET's Road to Kentucky gala. Held at the International Polo Club in town, it kicked off with mint juleps and ended with bread pudding, both Kentucky favorites. The idea, of course, was to raise money for U.S. teams going to the WEG and 400 people (including Bruce Springsteen) were on hand to support it. (Bruce's daughter, Jessica, made her Sunday grand prix show jumping debut here today, but she had 12 faults and didn't qualify for the jump-off.)
After the Masters, that class, the $75,000 Adequan Grand Prix seemed almost anti-climactic. I think my emotions were drained by the freestyle. In keeping with the international character of this facility, we had another foreign winner, Nick Skelton of Great Britain, who made it to the winner's circle after three second-place finishes this winter with Carlo, a 9-year-old gray Holsteiner.
Nick bought Carlo when the horse was seven; he'd tried to purchase him as a five-year-old, but the owner wouldn't let him.
"He probably knew he was going to get more money when he was seven," Nick explained, saying he told the owner, "Whatever you do, don't let anyone else have the horse."
Carlo is an intelligent animal who notices everything and "lives on his nerves", but he is "a totally different horse" once he goes through the start markers, according to Nick.
Aiming for the time of 40 seconds set by Venezuela's Pablo Barrios on G&C Quick Star in the five-horse jump-off, Nick asked Carlo to move it up a notch and got the response he needed, finishing in 39.72 seconds.
Nick isn't sure he'll push Carlo to get him ready for the WEG, however.
"They normally tell you when they're ready to go," he said, noting he takes his time while making young horses. So if he's not ready, "I'm not going to worry about it," Nick added.
Quick Star is an interesting story. Pablo, who hopes to ride her in the WEG, saw the mare in Germany at a show where she was being competed by a young rider. She won the class, Pablo hopped on, jumped eight fences, and then made an offer. That's how it happens sometimes with horses, and occasionally it even works out!
See more of my busy weekend in my photo gallery. Then next month, I'll be back here to send you postcards from the USA's only Nations' Cup and the last week of the WEG show jumping team selection trials.