August 15, 2010 -- I feel as if I had peeked at the end of the book before I bothered reading the beginning when the dressage team selection trials for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games finally ended today at the U.S. Equestrian Team (USET) Foundation headquarters.
There were few surprises in the outcome of two weekends of intense testing for riders who aspired to represent their country at the biggest equestrian sport competition on earth next month.
Tina Konyot was four-for-four with the energetic Calecto V, topping off her victories with a lively performance in the freestyle finale to the signature lyric, "Big black horse and a cherry tree" from a KT Tunstall tune. Calecto actually is dark brown, but he's close enough.
As everyone had expected (they peeked at the end of the book too) Tina was crowned national champion at the Collecting Gaits Farm/U.S. Equestrian Federation Festival of Champions. Her total of 73.320 percent (the two Grands Prix counted 30 percent each, the Special 25 percent and the freestyle 15 percent of the scores) gave her a comfortable margin over Todd Flettrich, whose total was 71.177 with Otto. His musical mantra was "This Is How We Do It" from the Montell Jordan song of the same name, and Todd definitely showed off Otto's spectacular passage and other attributes to tunes that also included "King of the Road." (The pirouettes still need work, however.).
He had a whoops when Otto broke in the trot half-pass, and Tina had a whoops when her stallion fumbled the end of a pirouette, but they still shone, with Tina graded at 75.750 for her freestyle and Todd at 75.600, very respectable scores.
Todd overtook Katherine Bateson-Chandler, who had been standing second in the rankings with Nartan, but give the girl a break. She's only been with the horse since mid-May and she was riding the "Hernando's Hideaway" freestyle used by his former owner, Jeannette Haazen.
"I'm still a little feeling that freestyle out," she said, citing her brief association with Nartan, but after everything she's been through at the trials, she said, "I feel like he's mine."
Well, not exactly. He's owned by U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation President and CEO Jane Clark, who today could proudly say that she had short-listed team contenders in three sports--dressage, four-in-hand driving (Jimmy Fairclough) and show jumping (Mario Deslauriers.) That must be some kind of record.
"All you need now is eventing," I said to her, as she laughed and said, "And vaulting, and reining, and..." Yes, there are eight disciplines at the WEG; probably a bit much even for someone of Jane's caliber to handle.
Katherine was third overall with 71.127 percent, though she came fourth in the freestyle (72.600) behind Jan Ebeling and Rafalca (72.950). I haven't always been impressed by Rafalca, but the mare has improved vastly since the last time I saw her, and I loved her freestyle, particularly the piaffe "fan" pirouette at the end.
One of Rafalca's owners is Anne Romney. Her husband, Mitt, the former Massachusetts governor and presidential contender, was on hand to watch. I asked him if he really enjoyed seeing the dressage and he told me he did, but that his chosen style of riding is western. He still owns horses he used to ride when he ran the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, but he told me that (not surprisingly) he hasn't had much chance to spend time in the saddle recently.
But I digress. Tina, Todd and Katherine, along with Steffen Peters (Ravel), who got a bye from the trials, are at the top of the "short list/nominated entry" lineup that the USEF is submitting. Basically, it means that the aforementioned four are the team, unless something goes wrong between now and the WEG. Standing fifth, in line to be the first alternate, is Germany-based Catherine Haddad with the adorable Winyamaro, who turned out to be a lot more experienced than many thought before he shipped over. Her freestyle was fun, done to music from Pink that started out with the kind of loudspeaker announcement you hear at airports. That was because she first performed the freestyle at Berlin's Tempelhof Airport, after it was shut down and became an exhibition center.
Right behind her in the rankings is Pierre St. Jacques with Lucky Tiger. The top six will get together again at the USET September 4 for training until they depart for Kentucky September 18.
Operating in close quarters like that, as the riders have for weeks now, can be tense. Katherine noted someone (not the team) had a meltdown, but she refused to tell me who it was.
Steffen, who flew in from California on the red eye last night, did the commentating for the USEF's live feed. I asked him about that after we discussed the fact that Ravel got a career-best 82.5 percent Saturday in a national show on the West Coast.
Steffen would be the strong man of any U.S. team, but in this case it's even more so, since neither Todd, Katherine or Tina have been senior team members.
Anne Gribbons, the technical advisor for dressage, is multi-faceted. She's both a top international judge and a trainer, so she will be presiding during the time everyone is at Gladstone.
There's always an undercurrent when the stakes are high and riders are together for a long time, and one topic that came up was grade inflation -- that is, judges putting the scores higher than they should be, perhaps convincing foreign judges that the horse/rider combinations are really world-beaters. It happens in lots of countries, so I asked judge Hilda Gurney about it.
There are a few other things about the trials I should mention. I loved Leslie Morse's freestyle on Tip Top, done to the powerful theme from "Rocky." It gave me goosebumps, and was so appropriate for a horse who battled back from life-threatening colic surgery earlier this year.
And I took note of Tina's fashion show; she would always change before the press conferences and swept in wearing civilian clothes, looking very fancy. I loved the black flower-printed slacks she wore today and thought her one-shouldered Pucci-style top the other day also was eye-catching.
And then there is the list of dropouts. We started with 15 contenders; Elisabeth Austin (Olivier), Sue Jaccoma (Wadamur) and Jane Hannigan (Maksymillian) bowed out last weekend. Today, Lauren Sammis (Sagacious) and Sue Blinks (Robin Hood) didn't start.
"I feel like we came in really quite strong, but as the show is progressing, I was feeling like his back was getting sorer and sorer," said Lauren.
Sagacious was out for months after a bout with colic and injuring his back, and only had one show before the trials.
"He's just not ready yet," Lauren continued. "It's not worth it to push him."
Robin Hood ran a fever and needed medication, but one of his qualifying scores was substituted for the freestyle. He is ranked seventh on the short list.
While the freestyle was the focus, packing the house with spectators during the morning, two other national championships were on the agenda.
Meagan Davis of New York prevailed to become national Young Rider champion, even though her unpredictable mount, Bentley, decided to do airs above the ground in the middle of his test before resuming it in fine form.
She finished second in the class behind Jillian Kemenosh (Nelzon) but her score from yesterday was so good that she wound up with the title on 69.658 percent over MacKinzie Pooley who enjoyed her last competitive ride on the 19-year-old Jonkara (68.079). Meagan didn't take any chances in the awards ceremony, leading Bentley into the ring.
The Brentina Cup, for riders 22-28 making the transition to Grand Prix, went to yesterday's winner, Georgia professional Kayce Redmond on Latino. Her test was marked at 65.535 percent, a good distance ahead of Erin Shea (Marshal) whose score was 63.860 and also wound up as reserve champion. Kayce's overall was 65.152 to Erin's 63.315 percent. Debbie McDonald, Brentina's rider, was on hand to present the awards, which had to be done in the VIP tent to avoid the rain that politely held off until the end of the day.
One thought I'm sure everyone carried away with them is how lovely the USET's facilities and grounds look. There's more to come in the way of improvements, but it's great to know this historic (and useful) site is being well taken care of. It's all evidence of money well spent in a campaign to keep the place in shape. The USET employees and the footing folks worked really, really hard to make the experience here the best it could be. I hope many more competitions will be held at the USET--everything can't go to the Kentucky Horse Park, after all.
I've got a bunch of fun photos from the past two weekends, which are now available in the photo gallery, so be sure to take a peek.
The next outing for me is the Hampton Classic September 5.