Lexington, Ky., October 2, 2010 -- The idea of filling a 25,000-seat American stadium to the brim for dressage would not even have risen to the status of being an impossible dream just a few years ago.
The concept wasn't on the horizon, and where was the stadium? But as a perfect example of "If you build it, they will come," last night's world championship Grand Prix freestyle drew a knowledgeable and fervent crowd to the centerpiece of the Kentucky Horse Park for perhaps the greatest competition of its kind ever held.
The quality of the horses and the riders elicited several standing ovations and proved something dressage lovers always believed: Theirs is indeed a spectator sport.
Let me qualify that by saying the freestyle is a spectator sport. The addition of music heightens the drama, giving fans another dimension that adds to their enjoyment. Horses who dance to their own tune aren't as riveting as those who dance to the tunes of others, whether it's a movie theme, rock or something specially composed for the occasion.
The three medalists from Wednesday's Grand Prix Special at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) were heavy favorites to repeat in the freestyle, as they did. It was no surprise that Moorlands Totilas completed the hat trick of gold medals here, taking team gold, the Special and the freestyle under the expert guidance of the Netherlands' Edward Gal. His score of 91.800 percent wasn't a record, but anything over 90 is impressive in my book. Totilas has an incredible, if short, history. He has been beaten only by Adelinde Cornelissen's mount, Jerich Parcival, the horse that unfortunately was eliminated after a tiny nick on his tongue turned his mouth red.
I talked to Edward about what's in the future for himself and the Dutchbred black stallion, who amazingly, is only 10.
Great Britain's charming Laura Bechtolsheimer (85.350) again was runner up with the blaze-faced Danish chestnut, Mistral Hojris, while the USA's favorite son of dressage, Steffen Peters, took another bronze on the Dutchbred seal-brown Ravel (84.900).
There was some suspense during the evening. All the medalists had mistakes in their performances. Totilas, impressed by the intense atmosphere in the arena, broke from the extended trot to the canter early in his test. The fact that he went on to regain his composure spoke to his training as well as his talent.
"It doesn't matter how you train, it just matters that you have fun. You have to be good to a horse... and always respect a horse," said Edward.
Mistral Hojris took a step back in the initial halt, and then stopped for a moment in the piaffe before picking up and continuing.
Laura noted her mount often found it difficult to deal with the freestyle. The piaffe mishap, however, was uncharacteristic for the boy she calls "Alf" around the barn.
"He showed his true colors; the fact that as soon as he sort of realized, 'Oops, sorry Mommy,' he straightaway picked it up again," she said.
Ravel's first rendition of the one-tempis wasn't perfect, but as for the rest of it "he felt wonderful," said Steffen, who credited the U.S. technical advisor, Anne Gribbons; his wife, Shannon, and the judges' score sheets for helping him improve his freestyle.
Steffen wore a GPA helmet when he came back for his victory gallop. He explained he did that in honor of former teammate Courtney King Dye, dedicating his ride to the woman who is still recovering from a March head injury that had left her in a coma, though she did come here to watch. Ravel tends to get a little rowdy sometimes during the gallop, so it's a good thing when Steffen wears a helmet, but then, I think everyone should do that at all times and make their top hats into planters.
Meanwhile, two worthy challengers made their presence felt. Last to go was Imke Schellekens-Bartels of the Netherlands riding to the specially composed symphony for her mount, Hunter Douglas Sunrise. She couldn't surpass the leaders, however, and wound up fourth (82.100).
I had thought that placing, or maybe even a medal, would go to Spain's Juan Manuel Munoz Diaz with Fuego XII. His routine, to music heavy with castanets, had the crowd on its feet and cheering. The end of that freestyle featured one-handed passage down the centerline. When the spectators erupted with cheers, Fuego jumped and his rider looked as if he were on the verge of falling off for a second.
After a score of 81.450 was announced, the cheers turned to boos; the audience obviously felt its favorite had been shortchanged. They eventually calmed down, and the gray PRE stallion (what we used to call an Andalusian) remained fifth.
Steffen was the first American to win a medal at an Olympics or World Championship since Col. Hiram Tuttle won a bronze in the Olympics in 1932, in the days when the Army fielded the teams. Steffen performed to a "turbo-charged" version of his "We Can Dance" freestyle and as always, displayed great sensitivity to his partner.
I caught up with Steffen after the awards ceremony to get his thoughts on his second bronze.
Linda Zang, president of the ground jury, noted the medal mounts are "three totally different types of horses.
"Totilas shows so much power and at the same time is very easy and seems very light. Edward does an amazing job to be able to sit and keep a horse with so much power and energy into a frame."
Mistral Hojris, she noted, is a lot more powerful.
"The propulsive power is wonderful, but I think sometimes it's hard to keep balanced. But when Laura comes out she gets 100 percent," she noted.
Ravel had another essence: He's "very elastic and soft," she said, with "a different type of harmony."
The evening was incredibly exhilarating. We also saw some terrific performances from people in the field of 15 who didn't get near the medals, but at the same time, delivered beautiful rides. I was impressed by Brett Parbery, the first Australian to qualify for the freestyle, and his horse, Victory Salute, who finished ninth (76.350). They will be heard from again.
Canada's Ashley Holzer had the ride of her life on Pop Art to fireworks music, and she began celebrating right after her final salute, reaching her arms toward the sky in elation. She finished eighth on 76.550 percent. Her excitement was contagious.
Let's see, what else. It was such a night I don't want to leave out anything important. Oh yes, Edward revealed that Brentina, Debbie McDonald's ride who retired in 2009 and already has had two foals via surrogates, was bred to Totilas. Unfortunately, Debbie told me the breeding didn't take, but that she's hoping to try again next year.
I spoke with Alltech President Dr. Pearse Lyons, the visionary founder of the feast, as Dickens would say. He was, needless to say, smiling broadly after the success of the night. Word is that he will be involved with the next WEG, set for Normandy, France, in 2014. Alltech has poured money, people and effort into this WEG to make it happen, so I was wondering what his thoughts were on this night of nights.
One other note: I was dismayed when I got to my car to see a sea of taillights in the parking area. I had been in the press center for at least 45 minutes following the competition and thought everyone would have been gone by then. But no, here was what looked like a giant traffic jam. I despaired of getting out in a timely fashion, but I did; traffic control was quite effective. I don't know how people in other lots did, but I was impressed. I've noticed they're figuring things out and the WEG is running much more smoothly seven days in. Let's see how it goes today with an even bigger crowd here for cross-country. I'll let you know tonight.
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