Wellington, Fla., March 19, 2006 -- If only they had parimutuel betting on dressage, I'd be financially better off today.
Looking down the line-up for the USEF National Grand Prix Freestyle Championship and U.S. World Cup League Finals, two names seemed like a lock to me for the Cup berths in Amsterdam next month: Leslie Morse and Arlene "Tuny" Page.
And that's exactly the way it turned out under the lights at the Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club, where the competition took place Friday and Saturday nights. The big surprise was that Tuny, rather than the more experienced Leslie, ended up as the winner.
Leslie, whose number one mount is Kingston (winner of the Grand Prix and Grand Prix Special at the Zada dressage show where the finals were held) has tabbed him for the trials for the World Equestrian Games this summer in Aachen, Germany. Luckily, she has an accomplished number two horse in the Swedish-bred Tip Top, earning second place yesterday with a score of 73.4 percent. He showed off to a variety of lively tunes, including "Fever," and had a number of challenging moves in his test, such as two-tempis on a circle. Don't try that at home, kids!
Tuny, meanwhile, is just beginning to expedite the potential in Wild One, a blaze-faced Hanoverian who seems to increase his already considerable 17.2-hand stature when he performs. In the past, he has lived up to his name. This weekend, a better name for him would have been Mild One.
He listened intently to his rider, picking up her cues and, aside from a trot step or two in the walk, being on his best behavior at his least-favorite showgrounds. (He hasn't always reacted well to its hustle and bustle.)
So Tuny had something to celebrate on her husband Dave's birthday last night, as Wild One made it two in a row and won the freestyle on the evening after he clinched the Grand Prix.
"I'm so proud of that horse," a glowing Tuny said after a ride that earned her 73.950 percent, the tri-color ribbon and a trip to the Netherlands.
"I felt like I could count on him if I could go out and ride him as confidently as I did last night (in the Grand Prix). That was the burden, not trying to win or beat Leslie," she said.
It was pretty amazing, because she never before had ridden her freestyle to its music, which ranged from "Wake Up Little Susie" to "Help me Rhonda" (with a cute little vocal of the line, "Get her out of my heart.")
The last time I saw Tuny ride a freestyle, the accompaniment was African chants.
"My husband was so sick of the African thing," she admitted. "Dave loves oldies."
She put the freestyle together with trainer Lars Petersen, the Danish Olympic veteran who is based at her Stillpoint Farm in Wellington.
"Americans need to have fun with their freestyles," she said, and despite the complexity of her effort, she looked as if she were having a blast.
"Three or six months ago, I wouldn't have been able to put together as difficult a freestyle," said Tuny. "I felt like I wanted to open with hard things right away and get points in the bucket, so I had room at the end of the ride to do more chancey things, like a passage zig zag." She started with double canter pirouettes at the entrance and in front of the judges at C, then delivered the rest of her performance with a "go for it" approach. She followed the advice of judges who have been telling her "open this horse up." I think that even more full-throttle work will really show us that Wild One is very, very special.
Tuny, who turns 50 this summer, targeted 2006 as the year to get a U.S. team patch for her coat, and now she has achieved that goal. I hung out with her last weekend, when she was getting help at her farm from U.S. team coach Klaus Balkenhol, and he told me then he saw Wild One as a "horse for the future," but definitely a candidate for the Cup -- where he can go to get experience, the mission for both Wild One and Tip Top (who do you think could even dream of beating Dutch Olympic gold medalist Anky van Grunsven on her home turf? Leslie and Tuny both are just hoping to make the final cut after the Grand Prix.) While Klaus felt the WEG this year wasn't in the cards for Wild One, he was confident the horse could be a candidate for the Olympics in Hong Kong two years from now.
Meanwhile, Tuny, who has a 5-year-old daughter, Charlotte, needs to hustle before her trip to Europe. "Here's what Momma has to do to prepare," she said: "I have to find Nanny McPhee, grocery shop, I have to cook a lot food (and freeze it.) What I need to do is make sure my family's safe."
Dave obviously knew something about how last night was going to turn out -- he brought a Jeroboam (a big, BIG bottle) of 1983 Dom Perignon champagne to celebrate (though Klaus prefers Port, so wine maven Dave supplied that too). There were cakes to go with it (Dave's was decorated with a bottle of champagne etched in frosting, while Tuny's barn manager, another birthday boy, Craig Bernstein, had horses on his cake.) And celebrate we all did as the "Dancing Under the Stars" party continued after the competition. It was held in the Jockey Club, overlooking the ring where the horses piaffed, with an appreciative crowd packed on the berm in between.
This is the first time the championship/League Final has been held outdoors, and it was also its first time at the equestrian club. Winter Equestrian Festival impresario Gene Mische was saluted at half-time last night for having the vision to offer the facility, even though his main focus is show jumping.
From the comments I heard while sitting among the fans, I think his decision to stage the event drew a lot of converts to dressage.
Okay, now I have to admit that picking Tuny and Leslie as the favorites before things got under way didn't represent any special acumen on my part. Unfortunately, the ranks of contenders were very thin, with just eight riders taking part. The only Californian participating was Leslie, and she was training in Florida this winter. The other West Coast players, Debbie McDonald, Guenter Seidel and Steffen Peters, all stayed home.
Marilyn Adams, the USEF's dressage high performance director, explained that it would have been too much for their horses to come East for this competition, head to Europe for the World Cup, then go back to California and still have to fly East once more to attend the WEG selection trials during June in Gladstone, N.J., before going back to Europe for the WEG. And the WEG is very important to us because only the first three finishers there are going to qualify for the 2008 Olympics. We need to make a good effort at the WEG, since other methods of qualifying will be quite difficult.
Also among the missing was Rocher, the dynamic black mare who wowed everyone with her third Dressage at Devon freestyle win last fall. But she hasn't been out and about yet this season. Her rider, George Williams, told me is saving her for the trials. George finished sixth last night on his second-string horse, Marnix, whose score was 67.775 percent.
So the pickings for this weekend were rather slim. Only eight entered the championship and of that number, just three were candidates for the World Cup, Leslie, Tuny and Karen Lipp with Caribi. The deal was, however, that to qualify for the Cup, according to the USEF high performance dressage committee's decision, horses had to get 68 percent or better in the Grand Prix and 70 percent or better in the freestyle.
Tuny was the only one who made the cut in the Grand Prix, earning 68.792 percent, while even Leslie fell below that, at 66.500, after Tip Top spooked badly at the noise of the timer, yielding him scores on his initial halt that dropped as low as a "3" from the judges. Technically, therefore, Leslie didn't qualify for the Cup. But I'm sure the selection committee will fix that when they meet on Tuesday and officially give her a waiver on the Grand Prix score.
The big surprise of the evening was the performance of Jessica Jo Tate, who finished third with 70.375 percent on the Swedish-bred chestnut, Cambay, after a very focused ride to Muppets music and "Sing a Song."
JJ is a finalist in Robert Dover's enterprise, "The Search for America's Next Equestrian Star -- Dressage," which will have its grand finale at the showgrounds on April 15. Robert describes the contest, in which the winner becomes his assistant, as a blend of "The Apprentice" and "American Idol."
The show attracted loads of dressage big names as spectators, including former expatriate Lisa Wilcox. You'll remember Lisa from the 2002 WEG and the 2004 Olympics. She had been based in Europe for 12 years, first in Germany and then in Switzerland.
She missed her family, though, and now will be working out of a farm owned by her best friend, Cindy Snowden. Though she has several 6-year-olds, Lisa is lacking a Grand Prix horse who can put her back on the team. I did see her talking with German horse dealer extraordinaire Ulf Moller, however, so maybe there will be a deal brewing down the road.
Well, the Florida circuit is winding down. But I'll be back with you here on EquiSearch in two weeks to give you the rundown on the Budweiser American Invitational, one of my favorite classes of the year, as the Winter Equestrian Festival ends with a last hurrah.
See you then!