September 28, 2014 -- The high excitement level of Dressage at Devon always cranks up a few more notches for the Grand Prix Freestyle, with a crowd that makes the evening crackle and horses who give their best when the music is playing.
Ashley Holzer was dominant during the competition in many ways. The most obvious was her victory on Tiva Nana, but no less impressive was the fact that four of the riders with whom she has worked made a good showing in the Dixon Oval, where a capacity crowd gave support and applause to all 12 entries who piaffed and passaged their hearts out under the lights.
Interestingly, two of her students rode Ashley's former Olympic horses. P.J. Rizvi, who owns Tiva Nana, was up on Breaking Dawn to the familiar music of "How to Train Your Dragon," while Jill Irving rode Pop Tart to another familiar theme, the fireworks music from Epcot.
Ashley's freestyle started out quietly with the walk, building suspense as she moved diagonally across the ring to V, then heading to the center of the arena before dramatically going into high gear with the piaffe. The rest of her performance unspooled beautifully with lots of that piaffe, which looks easy for Tiva Nana, and an ambitious parade of three canter pirouettes down the centerline. The last pirouette looked a little flat, but with all the hard work she had to do in the white box, that was understandable.
Ashley finished with a score of 76.125 percent, ahead of another Canadian, Karen Pavicic on Don Daiquiri (73.575).
The top American was Catherine Haddad Staller with Mane Stream Hotmail, who was rather tense (he kept busy bucking and standing on his hind legs during the awards ceremony) but still earned a very credible 73.100 percent to finish third.
Ashley was ear-to-ear smiles after the victory ceremony.
"I think I'm going to send flowers to Lars," said Ashley, referring to Lars Petersen, often a winner at Devon, who is taking a break after the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games and did not compete.
"It's the first time I've ever won the freestyle. He always beats me in the freestyle," she said.
Ashley called Tiva Nana "an unbelievable mare," noting she had never done this freestyle before and it was practically a last-minute decision to go in the class.
Even her music was rather catch-as-catch-can.
"I went on YouTube and looked at epic emotional orchestral music," confessed Ashley, who doesn't know what most of the tunes are, with the exception of the theme from the movie "Titanic."
It all came together in a hurry, with Tiva Nana's cooperation.
"She's just such a great horse," said Ashley, who believes that if she asked Tiva Nana to jump out of the ring, "She'd be like, `I've never jumped before, but I'll try.'"
Jacquie Brooks, a former D at D freestyle winner with D-Niro, met Ashley at the outgate and bowed low several times, echoing the opinion of the judges. Jacquie wound up fourth on 71.725 percent. What a crowd pleaser she is. She got the fans going after her ride when she dropped the reins and waved both hands in the air. I love that kind of enthusiasm.
Ashley doesn't like it when I ask about her future plans with a horse, but I had to know if she would try for Canada's Pan American Games team next year. Canada, like the U.S., must win the gold there in order to qualify for the 2016 Olympics.
She wasn't making any commitments, but did note that P.J. suggested right after the class, "Let's go to Vegas," referring to the Reem Acra World Cup finals there next April.
Go to www.facebook.com/dressagetoday for a wonderful interview with Ashley by guest videographer Wendy Wisz. You'll get real insight into this great and charming competitor.
Olivia Lagoy-Weltz was tops in the Small Tour, winning all three classes with Rassing's Lonoir, who was a bit awed by the Devon atmosphere when he entered the ring at the bustling showgrounds for the first time. He whinnied throughout his test, so I asked Olivia about that after her ride.
She wound up her Devon stay with a victory in the Intermediaire I Freestyle, marked at 74.300. This horse obviously has quite a future.
It was good to see Silva Martin doing well on the Small Tour, finishing up today with a score of 71.050 to be third in the I-1 freestyle behind Chris Hickey, second with Ronaldo (71.4).
Silva, as you will remember, was badly injured after having a fall in Florida, and was out of action for awhile. She looked like her old self at Devon, and was thrilled to be back.
There always is so much to see at Devon. I caught up with Paragon, the 18-hand sensation who was the alternate for the 2012 Olympics. Things after that didn't go quite the way his owner/rider/trainer Heather Blitz had planned, so she took a break to rebuild. In the Grand Prix for the special, Paragon was a bit flustered going into the ring because Australian showman Guy McLean and his small herd of equine performers were warming up as Heather was getting ready for her test.
Paragon showed his unhappiness with that by resisting in his first piaffe, but Heather persisted and made the rest of her ride flow.
Here's what she had to say.
Heather rode despite a spiral fracture of her fibula, and if we hadn't talked to her about it (check out our video interview on Facebook) we never would have known she wasn't firing on all cylinders.
I love a new face. Look at what Laura Graves did for the sport when she came from out of nowhere to finish fifth at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games on Verdades. I would put Allison Brock of Keswick, Va., and Wellington, Fla., in that category, as she won the Grand Prix for the special and then, earlier today, the Grand Prix special on the charming stallion Roosevelt. But actually, as she told me, she's no ingenue, though she has just started him in the international ranks.
Her score of 72.961 percent was well ahead of the 69.804 percent earned by her trainer, Michael Barisone on Ellegria, who placed second.
For more on Allison, visit our Dressage Today Facebook page and watch the video of the conversation she and Michael had with Wendy.
Catherine, who was the force behind the Festival of Champions coming to the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation headquarters in Gladstone last June, said she would love to see the European competitors brought over for the Central Park show, held last week, move on to Devon next year. Her dream is to have Devon become a 5-star dressage show during what Catherine noted is a quiet time on the European dressage scene, but it takes two to tango and she hasn't gotten any response from Devon about upgrading.
"We could turn this into a truly international show. I've been on this mission for two years, but I keep getting blocked by the organizing committee here," she said.
"I've been pushing for it, and there hasn't been a lot of warm response," added Catherine, noting Devon is not a well-known show in Europe. She thought some Europeans might have wanted to come in order to get World Cup qualifying points, if they were aware of the show.
Thomas Bauer, the guru of the Adequan Global Dressage Festival and an FEI dressage committee member who was visiting Devon for the first time, said (when I asked if it were possible to achieve Catherine's dream), "Sure it's possible. It's a great venue and a great show."
While you're on Facebook, check out more photos and videos to get the complete picture of what went on during this wonderful show, always an autumn highlight.
As you probably can imagine, I have writer's cramp after everything I covered on this busy weekend. So I won't be sending another postcard for three weeks. Look for my coverage of the Fair Hill International three-day event on October 19.