September 29, 2010 -- Today we were in "goosebump territory," as judge Mary Seefried, president of the ground jury for the Grand Prix Special, phrased her feelings.
What a privilege to be at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games and see the best dressage, ever. I remember well the epic battles between Denmark's Anne Grethe Jensen riding Marzog and Germany's Reiner Klimke on Ahlerich in the 1980s, as well as the contests between Germany's Isabell Werth and the Netherlands' Anky van Grunsven with various horses during the 1990s and the early years of this decade.
But Edward Gal on Moorlands Totilas, Laura Bechtolsheimer with Mistral Hojris and Steffen Peters aboard Ravel took things to a whole new level today. And I should also mention Juan Manuel Munoz Diaz, justifying the effort Spain has put into its dressage program with its native horses by finishing fourth behind the top three on the energetic gray stallion, Fuego XII.
Everyone expected Edward to win, and his score of 85.708 was justified for a test beyond reproach with a bouquet of 10s; in the passage, the extended canter, the half-pass and the final, drum roll piaffe as he ended a spectacular test on the black Dutchbred stallion. He also got unanimous 10s for his position.
When you watch him closely, you can see that he and Toto are having an intense conversation, blocking out the thousands of people in the arena at the Kentucky Horse Park as they concentrate on each other, just as they did yesterday when he led the Dutch to the team gold medal.
"Totilas felt more relaxed than yesterday, so I could take a little more risk," said Edward. Before the WEG, he wasn't sure what would happen, since Toto had never been on a plane before, and the WEG is so different from the four- or five-day shows in which he competes in Europe.
Mistral Hojris, the star of the British silver medal team, earned 81.708 percent with three marks of 10 for his last piaffe. Laura was, as they say in Britain, "over the moon" with joy, so evident on her face as she left the ring.
And Steffen, wonderful Steffen. Gracious in both defeat and victory. He missed a medal (some feel unjustly) at the 2008 Olympics in Hong Kong, and hasn't stopped working with Ravel (who he got from Edward Gal, by the way) since the moment of his loss. You know that old cliche, "what does not kill you makes you stronger?"
Steffen's success here (and previously at the World Cup finals and Aachen) proves that. His score of 78.542 finally earned him that piece of bronze to hang around his neck. Who knows, he may double the pleasure tomorrow in the Grand Prix Freestyle, the dressage finale here.
He was emotional on the podium, wiping away tears, of both joy and relief after a long journey to that special spot in the middle of the arena.
We talked about what the Special medal means to him.
The two other Americans who qualified for the Special, Tina Konyot and Katherine Bateson-Chandler, did not make the cut for the freestyle but were happy nonetheless.
Katherine was 19th on Nartan with a score of 68.875 percent. I watched her ride while standing next to her mentor, Robert Dover, here as the Canadian coach. It was an emotional moment for him; as he mentioned to me, she came to him at age 15 and he was responsible for much of her growth in the sport. She went to her first WEG as a groom for him.
Katherine had some trouble with the one-tempis, as she did in the Grand Prix, but now she knows what she has to work on. I saw her later in the afternoon, with a smile on her face as usual, and asked her about her ride and her experience at the WEG.
Tina Konyot finished 20th with Calecto V (68.625 percent).
"I lost a lot of points on my first passage, where he was a little bit skipping behind, but that's something that I created with that horse when he didn't have any hind leg at all and since we're only into this Grand Prix for the past year and a half--so we're quite green at it--we have good Grand Prix and not so good Grand Prix," Tina said.
"The opening of it was just not very good, and after that it sort of evened out and got better and better. I had a beautiful canter tour. I was very happy with that."
Anyone who was nearly dozing in the sun while watching 31 competitors go through their paces woke up during the ride of Dutch team gold medalist Hans Peter Minderhoud.
Exquis Nadine had trouble getting into the canter from passage, and then decided to audition for the Spanish Riding School by demonstrating airs above the ground. It was amazing, but even more amazing was that Hans Peter didn't turn a hair and just kept on riding.
He finished 22nd, with marks ranging from 65.833 percent to, you won't believe this, 75.625 percent. And this was after judge Stephen Clarke told us yesterday that the judges were going to work last night on getting scores closer together. I couldn't reach judge Linda Zang to ask why she placed Hans Peter sixth (two judges actually had him 27th) but Judge Mary answered that question.
"One judge was very impressed with the good parts of that test, while realizing that down the center line something drastic happened; in balance the good parts outweighed that."
It reminded me of the Satchmo incident in Hong Kong, where Isabell Werth's mount bucked and still got a silver medal. We got the same explanation there, but that was before the FEI dressage committee was fired and things were going to be different. Judge Mary said the FEI rule is that the differential among the judges shouldn't be more than 5 percent. Hmmmm. Never mind; let's not go there now, there's too much to talk about at the WEG. I asked Hans Peter for his thoughts on Exquis Nadine's departure from the script.
Oh, there was a big rumor that Toto was being sold to America and someone asked Edward about it during the press conference. He was so funny, playing along and saying Steffen had tried the horse. Then he said there was no truth to the rumor. We shall see, but my take would be that anyone who buys the horse has an impossible record to live up to if they want to compete with him, though I supposed he could just be used for breeding. Anyway, I hope he stays with Edward; they're quite a pair!
Tomorrow eventing begins with dressage. The U.S. had a last minute change on the team, subbing Karen O'Connor with Mandiba, originally scheduled to ride as an individual, for Kim Severson after her horse, Tipperary Liadhnan, had a cellulitis problem.
I asked coach Mark Phillips about it.
I'll be back with you tomorrow to tell you who's in the lead for eventing, though that continues Friday, morning and afternoon. Friday night is the freestyle and Saturday is cross-country. Don't think I'll be getting much sleep. I'll put that on my to-do list after the WEG.
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