Devon, Pa., September 27, 2009 -- Umbrellas unfurled, poncho-clad fans happily stood ringside in the rain for two hours last night to watch the highlight of Dressage at Devon, the Grand Prix musical freestyle.
They proved yet again that the theatricality of this competition is a definite draw whatever the weather. And appropriately, a rider with a show business pedigree who artfully topped the class was on stage until the curtain came down, enthusiastically blowing kisses to the crowd as she made her victory pass.
Tina Konyot, scion of a Hungarian circus family, knows how to present herself and her horse, the Danish-bred Calecto V, a black stallion for which she has turned down a seven-figure offer. They earned 72.600 percent--the only score over 70 percent in the competition--for a performance to music written in 2004 for another of Konyot's horses, Anna Karenina, since she didn't have time to finish a freestyle for Calecto.
The beat was as sexy for a stallion as it would be for a mare, and the 11-year-old Calecto did it justice with a great passage, using his hocks well while achieving lots of elevation and plenty of expression.
"I thought Tina did a very good job," said judge Linda Zang. In the Grand Prix on Friday, where Tina was second behind Jacqueline Brooks of Canada and Balmoral, "I thought she had maybe a little too much energy behind, so in the passage it was getting too high, almost asking for too much, so the horse wasn't able to carry what she was asking.
"Today, it was a little calmer," the judge continued.
"I think Tina has a very nice horse with a big future if she can just settle down a little bit and allow the horse to be a little more relaxed and forward. I think she could be a top rider for our country.''
That's certainly Tina's ambition. She's been close in two Olympic trials and thought she was on track again with Calecto until she was carrying a basket of laundry down the basement stairs before the 2009 Florida circuit and fell, breaking her ankle in nine places. It was four months before she could walk, but she had a reason to recover as quickly as possible.
"It's nice to have something special I'm trying to develop. There's a lot of little things to make stronger and more consistent, but he has so much talent and is happy doing this job, which is the most important thing," said Tina.
The win was especially impressive, since it was the first Grand Prix freestyle class in which she'd entered Calecto.
"I'm just so thrilled with him. I'm actually overwhelmed," she said.
I asked Tina how she happened to get Calecto at an auction in Denmark, and this is what she told me.
There are all sorts of interesting things about Tina. They include the fact that she takes one of her former competition mounts, the 27-year-old Anouska, around the country wherever she goes because she can't bear to be parted from her. And she's going out with Canadian racehorse trainer Roger Attwood, back together with him 27 years after they originally dated.
Tina plans on going to the track with Jackie Brooks, a Canadian. Tina seems to have a symbiosis with her and Lauren Sammis, who was third on Sagacious HF and years ago worked for Tina.
Jackie, calling her mount "a mudder" who didn't mind the rain or the mush underhoof, said "he's really solid in his balance. I actually scored a 10 on him at second level in a thunderstorm in huge mud. It doesn't seem to bother him,'' she said after receiving a mark of 69.800 percent.
Jackie is "spoiled for choice" as the British say, since it looks as if she will be able to select either the Canadian-bred 10-year-old or her 14-year-old Olympic veteran, Gran Gesto, for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games next year. Her success here however, has been "bittersweet," because the father of her trainer, D at D regular Ashley Holzer, died last week.
Lauren, (another Ashley-trained rider) coming off a string of victories at the HITS facility in Saugerties, didn't have her best show with the talented Sagacious.
He was only fifth in the Grand Prix, and Lauren admitted she didn't ride him enough in the days beforehand.
"'Mama, not only are there lights, but there are ponchos and umbrellas,''' she said, recounting what his thinking must have been as he entered arena, spooking even before he got in the dressage ring. Lauren kept her cool when he got a little difficult; appropriately as the song "Pressure" was playing, and rode through the problem spots. Even with the problems, Sagacious maintained his uphill bearing barely missed second place with 69.750 percent.
"That was my error...that I wasn't prepared,'' the New Jersey rider said. Lauren felt Sagacious was all set for a big performance to her Billy Joel medley that had stood her in good stead since his medal-winning performances at the 2007 Pan American Games, but his debut at night in such an atmospheric setting left him starstruck.
"It was like foreigners walking down 42d Street,'' she laughed.
"He settled down a notch," said Lauren. But she noted "When you ride in and come through that little passageway from the Gold (warm-up) Arena to the back of the judges' stand...you're going from nighttime to daylight, the horses' heads go up... and they want to see what's going on, so it's totally different.''
A lot of people were wondering why Succes, winner of the freestyle with Danish rider Lars Petersen for the last two years, wasn't here. Lars, who is from Florida, won the Grand Prix for the Special with Naomi, Lisa Wilcox' former mount, and was second to Susan Jacoma and Wadamur in the Special itself today after a relatively conservative ride in which his horse slipped a bit in the drenched footing. Lars is involved with a good string of horses now with another horse, Beemer, also competing at the highest level, who was entered but didn't show here.
I caught up with Lars' partner and girlfriend, Melissa Taylor, to ask where Succes was.
Also among the absent in additon to Succes and Pop Art, were Mikala Gunderson's ride, Leonberg, injured during the initial vet check, and Michael Barisone's mount, Neruda, who is taking the a break this fall and enabling Michael to do some things around his New Jersey farm that have been put on hold while he's been traveling over the last two years.
The Small Tour at the show was completely dominated by Cesar Parra, who rode for his native Colombia in the Pan American Games and Olympics, but is now happily a U.S. citizen.
He was aboard Olympia for victories in the well-populated Prix St. Georges (which took eight hours to run) the Intermediare I and the I-1 freestyle. I asked him about his triumphs here at one of his favorite shows.
Would the Grand Prix be next for Olympia, I wondered. Cesar said no, he felt the horse had found his niche on the small tour.
"Not everybody is for Grand Prix, like not everybody is supposed to be a doctor or a lawyer," he observed.
"He has done enough for me."
In the Young Rider ranks, Caroline Roffman took two of three classes with Bulgari, who miraculously came back from a tendon injury sustained three years ago during an awards ceremony. But it was Kassie Barteau on the consistent GP Raymeister, winner of one class here, who had accumulated the higher score as nine months of qualifying ended in the quest for a berth at the FEI Young Riders' World Cup finals this fall.
However, Caroline, who lives in Florida, is still just thankful that she can ride Bulgari.
"It's a blessing every time I'm on him," said the 21-year-old, who is graduating from the Young Rider ranks now.
"They're special animals and you don't realize how special until sadly, it's taken from you. Every ride I have, I realize how lucky I am to be on him," she commented.
Needless to say, Bulgari "does not do award ceremonies anymore." Caroline rode in on her other horse, Accent Aigu.
Bulgari "is very brilliant and thinks very highly of himself, as do I, but he likes to show it off too much," she explained.
Earlier in the day, I ran into George Williams, famous for his wildly popular freestyle victories here with the black mare, Rocher. He no longer rides Rocher; her owner, Joanne Smith, told me she will be aboard the veteran for amateur competition next year when the horse turns 19.
But George has another elegant black horse, second yesterday in the I-1.
I asked George, head of the U.S. Equestrian Federation's Dressage High Performance Committee, what he thought of the turnout at Dressage at Devon. While he noted the breeding divisions were down about 25 percent and the Grand Prix ranks were a little light, he felt that was just a cyclical thing and cited the huge entry for the PSG/I-1.
There were just 10 rides in the freestyle and while considering the rain that might have been enough, I would have liked to see a few more horses in contention, though I understand that there were an unusual number of dropouts for the reasons given above. But since there has been talk for awhile of a dearth at the upper level. I asked Linda Zang what she thought.
"When I look at what's happening in the U.S., I think we're having a little bit of a lull with the recession,'' she commented.
"We're now starting to see a new group, new faces of young riders coming through. Maybe it's not the same amount of numbers, but they're coming and they're starting and it's going to get better and stronger.''
I think she's right--we just have to be patient. Next year won't be the year to draw conclusions at Dressage at Devon, however, since it clashes with the WEG in Kentucky. Such a shame; they tried to resolve the conflict, but they couldn't. Still I'm sure it will remain one of the country's most interesting shows, even against that kind of competition. And there's another draw here, great shopping. You can get the latest in equestrian wear, jewelry in all price ranges, tack, artwork, fabulous knick-knacks. It's all part of the scene that makes this show so special.
So for more glimpses of Dressage at Devon, be sure to look at my photo gallery. And I'll be sending you another postcard next Sunday from the Platinum Performance/U.S. Equestrian Federation Medal Finals East, so check in.