Updated December 3, 2010 -- It could have been one of the great dressage match-ups of all time: Steffen Peters, the USA's best rider in the discipline on Ravel vs. the world's current top combination, Adelinde Cornelissen of the Netherlands on Jerich Parzival.
That was the hope of organizers for the Exquis World Dressage Masters competition set for Wellington, Fla., Feb. 3-5. They wanted Adelinde, who has never completed a dressage test in the U.S., as a drawing card to attract spectators so ticket sales could defray the considerable cost of presenting the event. But several things conspired against the competition.
While organizers delayed as long as possible before pulling the plug, "it was just impossible," said Michael Stone, president of Equestrian Sport Productions, the producer of the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival, explaining why the event at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center is cancelled.
That leaves the U.S. without a world class dressage show to draw European riders next year. Under the every-other-year scenario of the last seven years, 2011 should have been a joint dressage/show jumping World Cup finals in Las Vegas, but that plan was scrapped as crowds dwindled while the economy worsened, so Vegas now will bid for the 2014 finals.
Anthony Kies, CEO of WDM management, reacted with surprise to ESP's announcement, "First of all because WDM has a running contract with ESP and secondly because several top North American and European riders had already confirmed to travel to Florida to compete in the WDM.
"WDM regrets that ESP has chosen to inform the press without consulting WDM. This has resulted in a situation where the U.S. dressage community is left with many questions about the future of WDM in the US."
You bet. However, John van de Laar, managing director of the WDM, doesn't want to take no for an answer and is hoping to stage the competition elsewhere in North America, though he conceded he doesn't yet know when or where. An announcement will be made Dec. 28 at the Mechelen, Belgium, show about the WDM schedule for 2011.
Steffen, who had been planning to compete in the WDM in Florida, is working with Ravel's owner, Akiko Yamazaki, in an effort to find another venue.
"We are very glad that several North American riders, owners and fans have sent their support message to WDM," John told me. He added four Europeans were slated to compete in Wellington, but declined to reveal their identities.
I asked John if he would think about holding WDM at Dressage at Devon, which stages its well-attended freestyle Oct. 1.
"We didn't consider that event so far," he said, adding, "We have no doubt that we will find a good place to stage WDM. If Devon is interested, I would invite them to get in touch with WDM."
I spoke with Brian O'Connor, Dressage at Devon's high-profile announcer, who is involved with production of the show. The thought intrigued him, though of course there would be logistical problems, but he said he will mention it to the show committee.
It shouldn't be a surprise that Adelinde decided not to come to this country, even though the WDM in Florida was penciled in as a destination on her website calendar. You'll recall that she had only moments in the spotlight during the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games at the Kentucky Horse Park this fall, before she was eliminated after Parzival bit his tongue and the foam around his mouth was flecked with blood.
Her previous trip to America with the chestnut gelding for the 2009 World Cup finals in Vegas ended early when the horse went lame and was able only to circle the arena at the walk during a warm-up session before heading home.
After all that, can you imagine why she'd be reluctant to return here? Hmmmm... Actually, Michael said that Adelinde's victory in the World Cup qualifier in Stockholm last weekend paved the way for her to qualify for the Cup finals in Leipzig, Germany, this spring and led her to decide against making the trip to America. She wants to stay in Europe to hit qualifiers there.
As the only horse to have beaten the amazing Totilas at Grand Prix, Parzival's WEG performance was eagerly anticipated. Instead, the medal ceremonies went on without him. Adelinde's teammate, Edward Gal, swept all the gold medals on Totilas, with Great Britain's Laura Bechtolsheimer (Mistral Hojris) taking the individual silvers and Steffen the individual bronze medals.
While Gal and Totilas are still officially ranked as number one, that partnership has been dissolved, making number two Adelinde/Parzival number one in reality. Post-WEG, Totilas was sold to German breeder/horse dealer Paul Schockemohle for a price that may have been as high as $21 million (Paul isn't saying) . Paul partnered with Ann Kathrin Linsenhoff, the stepmother of rider Matthias Rath. So guess who's getting the ride on Totilas? That's right, 27-year-old Matthias, a member of the German bronze medal team at the WEG.
The phrase "German bronze medal team" is a big clue here. The Germans are tired of being beaten by the Dutch (not to mention the silver medal British) and want to regain their golden world supremacy in the sport. Having Totilas on their team should go a long way toward that. Matthias, the son of trainer Klaus Martin Rath, isn't planning to show Totilas until the outdoor season, however, so we have to wait to see how that partnership develops.
Orignally, some speculated that Edward and Totilas might come to WDM in Florida, since the horse's former owners have had a sponsorship role with that organization. What a draw that would have been, but the sale scuttled that dream.
So at this point, Michael said, "What we were hoping for was to get Steffen against Adelinde. That would have been a huge draw."
Anky van Grunsven and Isabell Werth already have been to the Masters in Wellington, so organizers felt something new was necessary to bring the paying public in and defray what Michael estimated as the $200,000 cost of flying in the European and California horses and all the ancillary expenses.
The Masters, held in Florida for the last two years as a kick-off of a series that continues in Europe, features a number of European riders. So Adelinde wouldn't have been coming over alone to vie for the 100,000 Euros purse. But Michael speculated that since the dressage riders were just here for the WEG, another trip across the Atlantic may not have been particularly alluring for the big names.
Steffen is, understandably, quite disappointed. His year was planned with the Masters and Aachen as the centerpieces. Yet it's possible that Steffen and Akiko will come up with something for WDM; they're a pretty powerful duo. Meanwhile, Steffen was uncertain about his own alternatives should WDM not happen in the U.S. next year. If Steffen wanted to switch gears and shoot for the World Cup finals, he would have to stay in Florida for the U.S. qualifying classes and then go to Europe.
"That's a really long time away from home again," Steffen observed. Then he added dryly, "I think what we need to do is talk to Matthias and see if can come (to the Masters) with Totilas," chuckling that such a marquee entry would certainly bring in the spectators. Since Matthias has only ridden the horse six times, however, I don't think they'll be hopping on a plane to the U.S. anytime soon.
Thinking ahead as he spoke, Steffen speculated one possibility for his reconfigured season could involve going to the Amsterdam show in January, as that is a relatively easy flight right into the Dutch city, where Adelinde also would be on the roster. Then he could go right home.
Meanwhile, Ravel has been in light work since the WEG and will be ready to compete.
"Things are going well," Steffen said wistfully, "and I'm dying to go back into the show ring."