September 10th, 2011 -- I didn't make it to Aachen this year, or the European Dressage Championships either.
But I don't feel cheated out of an opportunity to watch world class practitioners of the discipline, because for the last two days, I've seen some incredible dressage -- and every rider has been an American!
I'm at the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation headquarters for the Collecting Gaits Farm/U.S. Equestrian Federation Dressage Festival of Champions, otherwise known as the national championships. This year, it includes the Pan American Games team selection trials, which are being held at the Prix St. Georges/Intermediare I level.
The PSG was postponed Thursday because the morning Grand Prix was held for the most part in torrential rain, and more was forecast for the afternoon.
As it happened, none fell, but it did give workers a chance to groom the ring. It held up fairly well, though some of the Grand Prix riders felt it was not an ideal surface for their horses under the barrage of wetness.
Rain or shine, the star of the show so far has been Steffen Peters: Not only with Ravel, who won both the Grand Prix (77.660 percent) under a conservative ride because of the conditions, and Friday's sunshine Special (his 80.083 percent was the super horse's best mark ever in the class) but also with Weltino's Magic, who won the PSG during the afternoon (79.789 percent) and the Intermediare I (76.421) today.
Magic, who is dark brown like Ravel, looked very polished for a 9-year-old as he sailed through his paces with an easy joie de vivre. It was also great to watch Heather Blitz's 18-hand Paragon, who is incredibly light on his feet, floating over the surface. I noted when I watched him in Florida earlier this year that people gather as he comes into the ring because he really is something to see.
Paragon's score put him second with 74.737 percent in the PSG and 74.684 in the I-1, which also is pretty impressive. Speaking with judge Axel Steiner yesterday, he noted what a strong group we have coming up on the small tour, and today's performances underlined that.
I asked Steffen what he had expected from Magic here, and then got Heather's thoughts as well.
By the way, just to set the record straight, Heather couldn't figure out what "one little fumble," as Steffen said, could be. She only noted she didn't have a very square halt. Steffen, meanwhile, got 10s for his halts with Ravel, who has improved his fitness with treadmill work.
Heather has a long history with Paragon, which is key to her success.
Cesar Parra, who rode in the Pan Ams and earned a silver medal as a Colombian, is now a proud American who is betting the team for this fall's Games in Mexico will include the first three in the Prix St. Georges and the I-1.
He rode Grandioso to third place in the PSG (74.526) and as usual thanked God for his good test, crossing himself between jubilant waves to the spectators.
"I've been saying since winter that this is like a dream team and I'd be honored to be part of it," said Cesar, who also was third (72.316) in the I-1. "I'm excited. What else can I ask, to be in the best company to go to Mexico." If he does go, he can be extra useful doing double-duty as a translator.
The PSG, like the Grand Prix, counted 45 percent toward the national championship in each division. The Special counts 30 percent and the Intermediare I 40 percent. Sunday's freestyles count 25 and 15 percent respectively.
Interestingly to me, all three of the top PSG and I-1 horses lived up to their names in their performances. And names like that really are something to which their riders can aspire.
Conditions have been practically perfect post-rain, and last year's Grand Prix champ, Tina Konyot found that to the liking of her powerful stallion, Calecto. He was second in the Special with 73.417 percent.
"I love my horse," she said, by way of preamble.
"I thought all my passage was very even. In the past I've? had issues with unevenness in passage, and I think that's completely behind us.
"I probably should have practiced it a bit, but I felt pretty comfortable and smooth going through the test. My weakness is my extended trots," she continued emphasizing that it's her problem, not her horse's fault.
I've been wondering if Gladstone will be the scene of next year's Olympic trials (certainly Thursday's rain was good practice for a Games that will be in London).
I had been told previously that everyone wanted to wait and see how the footing held up, but it seems to have passed the test, at least in the view of Technical Advisor Anne Gribbons, who thinks Gladstone is the best place for trials. Horses can stay on there to get ready for competition, and it's not like being at a showgrounds where permission has to be sought for everything.
The test rides for the Grand Prix level tests were performed by Adrienne Lyle on Wizard and Catherine Haddad Staller on Cadillac. Anne said having them do the test rides gave judges a chance to see both combinations. (Adrienne didn't qualify for the competition and Catherine's husband, Dr. Greg Staller, is the veterinarian on the premises this weekend, so she couldn't show her European-based mount.
I ran into Adrienne's coach and mentor, Debbie McDonald, who told me why she was on hand and updated me on Brentina, who retired after the 2008 Olympics, and the mare's owner, Parry Thomas.
One of the nicest things about an event like the championships is running into so many people you haven't seen for ages. One was Guenter Seidel, who recently lost the ride on his top two horses, U II and Sundayboy, when he and his longtime sponsors, Dick and Jane Brown, went their separate ways.
Guenter obviously misses the horses, but he was gracious when I asked about the situation.
"It was fun while I was doing it," he said like the gentleman he is, noting his time is spent giving clinics and teaching. I have a feeling he won't be horseless for too long; he'd be quite a catch for anyone with a nice horse who wants to see it go to the top.
He looks extremely fit, completely recovered from a broken pelvis he suffered last year, and was able to compete at Aachen.
I was sorry to hear that Susie Dutta's mount, Currency DC, came up lame just before he was ready to compete today. Her husband, Tim, noted the horse is very special to them, a great combo of sensible personality and talent.
"We like them spicy but not stupid," he said, explaining how he and his wife pick horses, with safety a big consideration. Vets are trying to determine what's wrong with this solid campaigner.
It was good to see Cathy Morelli competing yet again in the Grand Prix ranks with BeSe. Announcer Brian O'Connor said she probably holds the record for the most starts in the championships. I asked her how many, and she couldn't tell me, saying with a smile that the list was "endless." She's 67; aside from her gray hair, she doesn't look a day over 50 and still rides beautifully.
If you're anywhere near the foundation's headquarters, try to come by this weekend. This is a competition worth seeing.
I'll update you on the dressage Sunday night, but most of my next postcard will be devoted to HITS' $1 million Pfizer Grand Prix and the new $500,000 Diamond Mills Hunter Prix.
For more photos from this event, go to the photo gallery.