September 29, 2013--The electricity of Dressage at Devon's Grand Prix Freestyle has never been quite the same since Rocher's last appearance in the competition. But the sizzle was back last night as Rocher made one more bow to her most ardent fans, prancing into the arena for a retirement ceremony with her longtime rider, George Williams, by her side.
The 17-hand charmingly lop-eared black Westphalian mare, now 21, returned to the scene of perhaps her greatest triumphs, and the crowd adored her-- as they always have at this charismatic venue. The setting on Philadelphia's Main Line seems to bring out the best in top freestyle contenders, but I think it may have been Rocher who set the bar here with her record three victories.
She was in perfect form and so lively it appeared she was part of the competition, ready for another go at her Madonna medley under the lights. Instead, George and owners Joann and Chuck Smith of Ohio accepted flowers, posed for photos and then Rocher headed out of the Dixon Oval for the last time to applause mixed with tears for a great campaigner.
I caught up with George right after Rocher went back to her stall. Despite his understandable emotion, he was gracious as always while we talked about the moment.
The greats come, and the greats go. That is life. We swallow hard, wipe our eyes and move on, looking for the next star who will make us catch our breath.
Devon is a showcase not only for the Grand Prix horses, but also for others on the way up. Who are the contenders for greatness? In the Small Tour ranks, that would be Kimberly Herslow's Rosmarin. He swept all three classes in the division; the Prix St. Georges, the Intermediare I and the I-1 freestyle, getting better as he went with scores over 72 percent, 73 percent and 75 percent respectively.
Kim, who runs a stable in Stockton, N.J., is an incredibly hard worker. She made this horse herself, and has been patient, letting him tell her when it's time to move up. We talked about what it's like to win at these famous showgrounds (D at D just became a U.S. Equestrian Federation Heritage show), where everything that doesn't move is painted pale Devon blue (with the exception of the brown barns).
Over the last three days, I saw a lot of talent on display; some of it raw, some of it polished and thought it was an amazing smorgasboard of dressage possibilities.
Robert Dover was busy at ringside, obviously enjoying his first year as U.S. dressage coach (formally called technical adviser/chef d'equipe). He had plenty to look at, and we discussed the prospects.
By the way, I did ask who he had his eye on, but he just chuckled and wouldn't answer. I didn't expect him to, actually. I'll just wait for the next training list to see if our minds are on the same track.
Robert used to be the Canadian coach, and if he had stayed on in that position, he would have had a lot of talent to work with. Canadians always come out in force for D at D, and they make a big impression. Of course, at the top of every list is Ashley Holzer (as she walked by while I was chatting with Robert, she called out, "The Americans are lucky to have Robert Dover" and he beamed).
Robert and I talked about what he was seeing at Devon.
If Devon had a queen, Ashley would be it. This year, she won three of four Grand Prix classes; the GP for the Special and the Special (Jewel's Adelante) and the GP for the Freestyle (Breaking Dawn). She missed a clean sweep when Lars Petersen nudged ahead of Breaking Dawn in the Freestyle on his reliable Marriett, winning by just 0.450 percent.
Breaking Dawn, Ashley's 2012 Olympic horse, has great energy and a rhythmic piaffe, though a few transitions weren't as smooth as they should have been when she performed her test to "How to Tame Your Dragon."
Lars rode to his good-natured compilation of circus music. Frankly, I find the whistles involved distracting, but Marriett matched her hoof-falls to the beat and was especially good on the lead changes along a serpentine.
Marriett the miracle horse, who belongs to the devoted Marcia Pepper, is quite a story. She lost part of her hoof a few years ago, and it seemed unlikely that she would ever compete again. Actually, the prognosis was far worse than that, as I discussed with Lars.
One of my favorite freestyle performances belonged to Ashley's dear friend, Jill Irving. Jill took over Ashley's longtime mount, Pop Art, and is doing an amazing job. In the freestyle, where she finished sixth, Poppy displayed his measured piaffe and stylish pirouette.
Being involved with Poppy has helped Jill deal with a family tragedy; her father and two other relatives were killed in a plane crash earlier this year, and of course, Ashley was there to comfort her.
Jill has been a good match with Poppy. She was the show's high-score adult amateur, understandably so. Actually, she had no idea she was getting the award, and when Ashley found out, she called Jill.
"But I'm already on the Turnpike," Jill told her.
"Well, turn around," said Ashley, and so she did.
Jill rides to Ashley's old Epcot fireworks music, which I like best of all the freestyle accompaniements. It has majesty and drama. It never fails to give me a thrill when I hear it.
Ashley, who isn't planning on continuing with Breaking Dawn and Jewel's Adelante as they go back to their owners, is just thrilled to see her students riding well. That's her biggest joy at the moment, since she's been there and done that at every major event herself for years.
Second in the Special (70.375 percent, behind Jewel's 73.708) was Catherine Haddad-Staller on the developing Mane Stream Hotmail, a fiery chestnut Danish warmblood she bought as a sale prospect--who developed so well she kept him around.
When she bought him, he was doing Third Level, "he had one change in each direction and I got bucked off every time I asked for it," she recalled with a laugh. It took nine months to get him to Intermediare II and suddenly, he wasn't for sale any more.
"It's a miracle, it will never happen again in my life," she said of Hotmail's turnaround.
When I arrived at the show, I asked why Catherine also wasn't showing her 2010 World Equestrian Games U.S. team alternate, Mane Stream Winyamaro. She sold that personable horse (remember his fluffy forelock?) to one of her clients in Califon, N.J., former model Olivia Hallman. Olivia's riding experience is with jumpers and Icelandic horses, so Catherine is going to start her in Small Tour with Winnie and let her work her way up.
In case you're wondering about the Mane Stream prefix, it refers to a therapeutic riding center in New Jersey. Catherine hopes her endorsement will encourage similar support from other top-level dressage riders.
One of the Canadian up-and-comers is Caravella, a big mover who is correct and really throws out her front legs at the extended trot. I had been looking at the ring for three days, so I was getting a little tired, but watching Caravella woke me up big time. She was wonderful in the Grand Prix Special, where she finished fourth on 68.458 percent.
The mare is by Contango, a name with which any dressage fan is familiar, and ridden by North American Junior and Young Rider Championships multi-medalist Megan Lane, now 22, a professional who trains with Oded Shimoni in Florida in the winter and works alone in Ontario in the summer.
Interestingly, the mare was bred by Jill Irving, who put her up for sale in a hunter/jumper barn. As Megan noted, "She should have kept her." The horse, which was considered a reject, went to Megan for a bargain $13,000. She's worth multiples of that now. The mare is the first horse Megan has brought to Grand Prix and when I asked about her goal, she said she wants to go "as far as she'll take me."
Silva Martin, wife of Olympic eventer Boyd Martin, has been showing a legion of horses. The one that caught my eye is Rosa Cha W, sixth in the I-1 freestyle with 68.475 percent. Rosa is a homebred, imagine that, and there's quite a story behind her dam, as Boyd will tell you.
Boyd was on hand at the show to ride in a 5-year-old class and sign autographs, as well as to support Silva. He was surprised to see me there, since I had been interviewing him last week at the Plantation Field International Horse Trials. I'm guessing he thought I only cover eventing; I hope he didn't think I was stalking him!
We had a good chat about Rosa's background. See, there still are bargain horses around, and American-bred, yet.
Devon was the last CDI that Axel Steiner will judge. He got a salute from the crowd, but the USA's most senior judge should get a salute from everyone in the discipline. The retirement age for international judges is 70, and he was awarded a two-year extension beyond that, but now he will only be able to judge national shows. What a pity not to utilize the wealth of knowledge he has.
Of course, he's sad, but he'll still judge nationally and be a mentor. What he'll miss, he told me, is being part of a panel as one is at international shows, enjoying the give and take and the discussions. We all wish him well, but happily, in this country, we aren't saying goodbye.
I'll be sending my next postcard from the Fair Hill International three-day event in three weeks. Hope Boyd doesn't think I'm there just to stalk him...