June 15, 2014 -- It's quite a story. A week ago, if I told you that Laura Graves would ride Verdades to second place behind Steffen Peters and Legolas at the national dressage championships, your only comment likely would have been, "Who?"
Yet today, those two riders--with their horses decked out in ribbons and fancy coolers--took a victory pass side-by-side at the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation headquarters as the biggest crowd I've ever seen there stood and applauded.
Laura was definitely a dark horse, or as one top dressage rider said to me privately, "a green bean." Meaning she's a relatively inexperienced unknown who was simply hoping to make it to Gladstone, N.J. for the U.S. Equestrian Federation's Dressage Festival of Champions this weekend.
Her profile was non-existent until recently.
"We're just folks," her mother, Freddie, told me. She recalled how the family once traded their washer/dryer for some ponies.
"We didn't have a saddle or anything," she added.
Freddie picked Verdades off a video when he was a weanling in Holland. He's the son of Florett and a carriage horse.
Laura, who went to cosmetology school, used to make up her freestyles from 99-cent downloads, and got her current one from dressage trainer Yvonne Barteau. (She has no idea what the music is.)
But you can't stop talent, and that's something Laura and Verdades have in abundance. She learned a lot as a working student for former U.S. coach Anne Gribbons, who helped her bring the horse to the FEI levels, before she went out on her own. She now works with U.S. developing coach Debbie McDonald.
The light dawned on everyone yesterday, when Laura moved up from a tie for fourth in the Grand Prix to second in the Special. And today, she was second again, earning 78.425 percent to Steffen's 79.7.
Clinching second place was particularly meaningful, because the championships were also the selection trials for the eight-member short list of riders from which the team will be chosen later this summer for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in France.
The selection criteria stated the first- and second-placed riders were automatically on the team. While the other six riders will have to do two observation competitions, at Fritzens in Austria and at Aachen, the first two riders only have to do one. Which would be Aachen. (Though considering her greenness on the international scene, which she gracefully acknowledges, Laura may wind up doing both shows.)
Then the selectors will use a combo of scores from the Festival and the European shows to choose a team.
Jan Ebeling was sorry to be aced out of second place by Laura, though he is very supportive of her efforts.
The total percentages (based on 45 percent for Grand Prix, 40 percent for the Special and 15 percent for the freestyle) were 76.036 for Steffen, 74.226 for Laura and 74.134 for Jan and the 17-year-old Rafalca.
At her age, he explained, he worried that doing two shows in Europe before the WEG could be too taxing, although she looks to be in great shape.
The other "young guns," the next generation of riders, also are in the mix. Adrienne Lyle, our Dressage Today blogger, was fourth with Wizard and Caroline Roffman finished sixth with the elegant Her Highness O. Caroline had been a winner at Gladstone previously, but never in the Grand Prix division.
Before the freestyle, the very poised Caroline and I talked about what this week has been like for her.
Tina Konyot had a much better ride today with Calecto V than she did in the Special, and she is fifth. Shelley Francis (Doktor) is seventh, followed by Lisa Wilcox, an Olympic veteran who may have found in Denzello the horse she is looking for in terms of making a big comeback.
So it's all on the table and very exciting. The riders and their mounts leave Wednesday for Europe. I'm looking forward to seeing them at the WEG, and will be following their progress until then.
The U.S. is not predicted to get a medal (but then, no one predicted Laura would make the team) so I asked Steffen for his take on it. Loved his answer.
The Festival offered a chance to assess America's strength in dressage. There are some combinations I hadn't seen, and some I hadn't seen in awhile. One with potential is Alina, Tuny Page's mount, who campaigned in Europe and did well. She is coached by Jurgen Koschel (and also gets pointers from Oded Shimoni.) We chatted about Alina's progress.
Also keep an eye on Kathleen Raine and Breanna, who just missed the cut for the European trip.
Of course, the pipeline is where the strength comes from, and we saw a lot of it in the Intermediaire I division.
Steffen was first and second with Rosamunde and Apassionata (who I really liked, with her black coat and big blaze). Olivia Lagoy-Weltz finished third on Rassing's Lonoir, with a perfectly concocted freestyle that was executed with aplomb by the leggy bay. He reminds me of Laura's horse; a ton of suppleness and elasticity, with beautiful gaits and great style. He's going to be an enormous star if he does as well at Grand Prix as he does in the I-1 division. Gold medal, we'll get you yet.
I got a laugh when I heard the music in his freestyle designed by Terry Gallo. Listen to this soundbyte, and you'll find out why.
Speaking of the pipeline, the other championship awarded today was the pony title, which went to Michigan 15-year-old Katrina Sadis on Poldy 10, who was champion here previously with his longtime owner, Bebe Davis. She has graduated to the junior ranks.
A few years ago, I was talking to Lendon Gray at the Festival and she was mourning the fact that there were only two ponies competing. When I saw her the other day, I said I thought it was amazing that 11 were in the division this year. A lot of that is due to her efforts. Bebe helped by donating Poldy and her other pony to Lendon's Dressage4Kids organization.
Katrina's trainer, Andrea Landis, told me how the child and the pony came together.
"Lendon sent out an email to several trainers throughout the country and put it out there that several top-quality ponies would be available for lease." She was interested in potential riders in the right age group and size, with the ability to make the most of the chance to learn.
Andrea had met Katrina at one of Lendon's shows and started teaching her. Katrina's parents would take her to Andrea's, two hours away, for lessons. Andrea arranged for Katrina to try Poldy in New Jersey at Cesar Parra's stable, where Bebe trains.
"It was a big deal for her," said Andrea.
"Since then, it's been one amazing opportunity after another." Katrina, who had only shown First Level once at a regional show before getting Poldy took "a huge step up. She's an amazing competitor and a very hard worker."
Sadly, Poldy and Katrina will be going separate ways at the end of the season, as she ages out of the division and moves on to a new horse that already is waiting in the wings for her. Hopefully, she will have as much success with the horse, and become another of the young guns like Laura, Adrienne and Caroline, who are moving the sport forward.
Meanwhile, Andrea said, the 18-year-old Poldy "can share his talent with another young girl who has the same kind of work ethic and dedication as Katrina. He's got a lot to teach for someone who really wants it."
She and Lendon want the new rider to be someone "who could continue to learn and grow the sport in our country. It starts with the kids at this age, as Robert Dover and Debbie McDonald have designed."
And maybe that child will take inspiration from Laura Graves and know that sometimes, with talent and hard work, dreams do come true.
I'm taking a break from sending postcards until the WEG in August, when I'll be writing every day to tell you what's happening in Normandy. Be sure to look for my coverage as the Games get under way.