January 29th, 2012 -- Dressage and exciting. How often do you see those words in the same sentence? But last night's World Dressage Masters freestyle can be best described as an edge-of-the-seat nailbiter, to combine cliches.
Played out before a full house at Palm Beach County's Jim Brandon Equestrian Center, it showed the sport at its best. All the elements were there: An attractive backdrop, two of the world's best horses (both Dutchbred) going head-to-head, and the contrast between a seasoned veteran on his home turf and a young woman from across the Atlantic who's a rising star.
The USA's Steffen Peters and Great Britain's Charlotte Dujardin seem destined to meet again at the Olympics this summer, this time on her home turf, but it won't be the same. Other big names will be in the mix.
I've been privileged to see some great freestyles; Totilas at the 2008 World Equestrian Games; Blu Hors Matine at the 2006 World Equestrian Games; Brentina at several venues.
But a match race has something more to recommend it than a large class; the drama of going one-on-one, boiling competition down to its essence.
Steffen Peters' ride on Ravel to brilliantly produced music from "Avatar" was as smooth as an unrolling bolt of silk. Spectators found themselves transfixed by the harmony between man and animal, a couple in which each partner knows the other well and is the essence of cooperation. The judges graded it at 83.700 percent.
I talked with Steffen moments after his ride; I told him I wanted to capture the emotion of the moment -- both his and mine.
I could see why Steffen was on a post-competition high. Can you imagine how it would feel to be sitting on Ravel?
Steffen described it this way: "So much power, so elastic; it's just absolutely a blast to ride."
Valegro's performance with Charlotte, which came after Ravel's as the last in the eight-horse class, was a completely different experience. It was an energizing presentation that seethed with power, yet was less complex.
I felt sure Steffen would win the freestyle for the second year in a row until I watched Charlotte; then I wasn't so sure. Neither was Steffen. I saw him go up to her afterwards while she was waiting for her score; what he told her was that he thought she had it.
In the end, it practically came down to a tie. Her mark of 83.650 was just 0.05 of a point behind his. Three judges picked him for first; two picked her as the leader.
Wim Ernes, president of the ground jury (who had Steffen at 83.500 and Charlotte at 83.125) said the difference was in the choreography.
"It was a real high standard today. You could see they went to the limit," he commented.
Steffen wove a tapestry in which difficult movements, such as canter pirouette to piaffe and then a calm walk, were the threads that called attention to the teamwork on display.
Ravel has won the World Cup and competed at the Olympics and the WEG. Valegro is relatively new on the scene, making big splashes as a member of Britain's gold medal team at the European Championships last year, and winning the freestyle at Olympia in December.
Charlotte and her mentor, Carl Hester, had no intention of overfacing Valegro with footwork that was too difficult for his level of experience, but she said now it's time for a new floor plan and new music. (However, I loved the theme from "How to Train a Dragon." So does Canada's Ashley Holzer; she uses it for Breaking Dawn, who was seventh after some mistakes. Ashley smilingly did make a point about their duplication of themes as she walked past Charlotte after the class.)
I wondered how it felt to have victory slip away when it was so nearly in Charlotte's grasp. So I asked her.
Charlotte is looking forward to showing more of what Valegro can do.
"I don't think I'll ride another horse like him. He has gears beyond belief, and I mean there's still more in there. When I can make my degree of difficulty harder, he'll be able to do things that will boost his marks right up," she told me.
I don't want to shortchange other competitors in the class, particularly Tinne Vilhelmson-Silfve of Sweden on the Rheinlander, Favourit. What he lacked in piaffe power he made up for in other movements, such as a half-pass in passage on the short side of the arena (can you even imagine doing that?) and a unique pirouette at the collected walk. Her third-place score of 78.250 was something of which to be proud.
Fourth was Carl, Charlotte's trainer, on Wie Atlantico. He had never shown the horse before coming to Florida (it belongs to his pregnant World Equestrian Games teammate, Fiona Bigwood) and his expertise made up ground even between Friday's Grand Prix and last night.
His well-used grand prix music from Tom Jones that had seen a number of his horses through over the years was quite lively. Though he had to keep the choreography relatively simple, given the short amount of time he had been riding the talented chestnut, it was quite an impressive recital. I loved his go-for-it extended canter that demonstrated both showmanship and control. He was scored at 74.850 percent.
The last time I spoke with Carl was at the 2004 Olympics, but he treated me like an old friend. I cannot say enough about his style, class and friendliness. If everyone in the competition horse world were as outgoing and engaging, who knows what other sports we would be able to overtake in popularity.
Here's a taste of the conversation we had after the freestyle.
Earlier in the day, the Grand Prix Special showed off the talents of Adrienne Lyle's ride, Wizard, and the amazing Paragon, ridden by Heather Blitz. They finished 1-2, on 73.244 percent and 72.044 percent respectively.
Although the Special here usually is more of what I would tend to call a consolation class for the bottom eight in the 16-horse field, riders can choose to enter it rather than the freestyle, which carries more than three times the Special's prize money.
But U.S. team technical advisor Anne Gribbons wanted her riders to fulfill the qualifying criteria for this June's Olympic trials, and two Specials is part of that. The Special is taking on more importance than usual at the London Olympics because it is part of the team score. Previously, only the Grand Prix counted for the team total. And in Heather's case, having just finished up her Small Tour experience last fall, her Grand Prix freestyle is still a work in progress.
Adrienne is lovingly coached by Debbie McDonald, who was brought to tears once again by her protege's performance and that of the horse they have trained for six years.
"I thought he looked unbelievable," Debbie commented.
"I feel like a proud mama. It's so emotional for me; it's just special."
Here's what Adrienne had to say after her victory.
The Masters, which offered a total of $130,000 in prize money here as part of the globe's richest dressage series (the other segments are held in Europe) has proved it can draw a crowd. With demand being so great this year (it was a sellout) plans call for adding at least another 1,000 seats in 2013. And at that time, we're told that Totilas (who couldn't come this year because he wasn't fit after a slight injury) will be part of the mix and perhaps some other big-name Europeans as well.
The success of the last two years apparently has prompted the Europeans to re-think their concerns about how their horses would handle shipping here and back at the start of the season.
I'm changing gears this afternoon and heading over to the FTI Consulting Winter Equestrian Festival, about 20 minutes from Jim Brandon, for some show jumping. I wish the cloning thing I've been working on was completed, because I missed a lot at the WEF. But I'll try to make up for lost time, so be sure to check back this evening for a bulletin.