August 6, 2010 -- If only I could get a makeover like the one that has just transformed the U.S. Equestrian Team Federation headquarters, I'd look 30 years younger.
Intensive work has brought this storied facility back to the style of its glory days, when coach Bertalan de Nemethy ran a tight ship and everything was as polished as his boots.
A refurbished indoor ring, new footing, a tent to keep the sun from beating down on the bleachers, hillside plantings that will grow into a red, white and blue ground cover, beautiful flowers everywhere--it was amazing, and very much appreciated by the riders competing in the Collecting Gaits Farms/U.S. Equestrian Federation Festival of Champions. Everyone was talking about it.
"I am so impressed," said judge Hilda Gurney. "It's a tremendous improvement and so much more horse-and-rider friendly."
Cesar Parra, number one in the Intermediaire I rankings with Olympia, enthused, "This is first class. I'm proud to show it to Europeans." The native of Colombia, who recently became a U.S. citizen, had always wanted to ride in the arena at Gladstone and today's Prix St. Georges was his debut.
It wasn't quite what he had hoped for, however. The Dutchbred Olympia, who has thoroughbred blood, started bucking for no discernible reason while he was warming up and took some settling down before Cesar went in the ring. He did a good job with the horse, but Olympia likes to throw in some extra lead changes when he's feeling enthusiastic, so the score was just short of 70 percent at 69.737.
The winner was last year's Young Riders Champion, Kassandra Barteau with Toscano, who performed crisply and with exclamation marks to take the blue on 70 percent exactly.
"She rode a very bold test, she went for it and it was a real pleasure to watch,'' said Hilda, who became famous for her 1976 Olympic team bronze medal on Keen.
Chris Hickey and Cabana Boy on paper were contenders for the top prize, but a halt that wasn't quite square and subsequent over-riding led the ebullient bay to break from the trot at the beginning of his test. He still managed to pull out a 68.105 percent performance.
The I-1 championship is far from over, of course. Tomorrow is the I-1 and with national honors at stake, these top contenders will be on their game.
"I'm a fighter and I will fight," Cesar vowed succinctly.
Interestingly, Hilda noted, the I-1 group is "By far the best standard we've ever had." That's a good thing, because the top three horses are pointed toward next year's Pan American Games, and the U.S. might need to medal there to qualify for the 2012 Olympics if the Grand Prix team can't do it at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games next month.
The festival is also a selection trial for that squad, and their work begins tomorrow morning with the Grand Prix. Ironically, the horse/rider combination whose picture is on the program cover won't be participating. Steffen Peters and Ravel, his World Cup and Aachen champion, got a bye based on their past record. But there will be plenty to see the rest of this weekend and next weekend as well, when the trials conclude. Tina Konyot and Calecto V, the favorites, meet such prime contenders as Robin Hood and Sue Blinks, Tip Top with Leslie Morse and others who will give them all a piaffe for their money.
Courtney King Dye came to watch and you could see she was enjoying every minute of her view from the VIP tent. I saw her in June and she really has continued to make progress since then. Don't forget, she was comatose for weeks after fracturing her skull in a hatless fall while schooling a horse last winter.
Her accident has prompted many dressage riders to think about wearing helmets rather than top hats, but that didn't extend to the competition arena for the PSG. Only her student, Jennifer Marchand, wore a helmet. I asked Courtney if she was disappointed that more competitors hadn't followed suit.
"It should be personal choice," she said.
I'll be back with another update tomorrow evening, and then file a longer postcard on Sunday night. I have a lot of ground to cover here at dressage central.