Gladstone, N.J., June 18, 2007 -- A preview of America's future dressage stars was on display at the U.S. Equestrian Federation National Championships, which ended its four-day run yesterday at the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation's Gladstone headquarters.
Having five championships in the same place provided a nice glimpse of the big picture in this discipline. It was exciting to watch the competition for the Grand Prix and Intermediare I championships/Pan American Games trials, won in close matches by Steffen Peters on Lombardi II and Chris Hickey on Regent respectively. Chris's victory earned him a spot on the Pan Am team, along with runner-up Lauren Sammis (Sagacious HF) and third-place Katherine Poulin-Neff (Brilliant Too).
In a way, though, it was even more interesting to see what's developing further down the pipeline from the Juniors, Young Riders and also the up-and-coming professionals, making the transition to Grand Prix as demonstrated in the Brentina Cup competition.
"There's a lot to be said for experience, but we need new young riders to come on, and we're getting them. There are a lot of new faces here," Judge Ann Gribbons said. That statement included horses, too.
One of the brightest of the new equine faces in the Grand Prix ranks is Mythilus, Courtney King's impressive mount, who performed his first Grand Prix for the judges at the Collecting Gaits Farm Festival of Champions. The ride was an exhibition during the lunch break, but it probably would have been scored in the neighborhood of 70 percent, at least according to Ann. And when Mythilus develops more power in his passage, watch out. The score will only go up.
Mythilus made a quick transition to the top level. He had led the standings in the I-1 group trying to qualify for Gladstone. However, on the recommendation of U.S. Coach Klaus Balkenhol, who is looking ahead to next year's Olympics, Courtney decided to go to Aachen with her longtime Grand Prix partner, Idocus, rather than the Pan Ams. She withdrew Mythilus from the I-1 fray, because finishing in the top three there required the riders to go to the Pan Ams in Brazil next month. The timing was such that she couldn't do both competitions.
But early in the championships, it looked like an unfortunate decision ("heartbreaking" was the word a distraught Courtney used). Idocus was lackluster in the Grand Prix, and she even considered withdrawing him from the competition. Of course, by that time it was way too late to reconsider and show Mythilus. Happily, Idocus bounced back with the help of intravenous fluids, massage and a chiropracter. He was second to Lombardi in the Special and then overtook his rival in the freestyle, though it was not enough to keep Steffen from winning his second straight overall Grand Prix national championship, the third of his career.
Courtney was discouraged on Friday, noting that Idocus had wrenched his back performing breeding duties before the show. Since his owners had other contracts in that regard for him before Aachen, she told me she didn't think going there under those circumstances would be fair to the horse, or even possible. But Klaus talked to the owners yesterday to see if something could be worked out, so Idocus is now a definite "possible" for Aachen.
It was a rollercoaster weekend for Courtney, yet there is no doubt this young woman is up to the task. Her freestyle was performed with style even as a dark storm bore down on the showgrounds. While she was riding to the tune of "Follow the Yellow Brick Road," I wondered whether she (and the rest of us) would be going to Oz as the sky turned black. Courtney said later she was oblivious to the weather. Now that's focus!
After she finished to a finale of "stripper music," as she calls the bit from Gypsy, part of her old freestyle, the show was suspended and everyone crammed into the indoor ring or the rotunda of the stable to wait out the rain that came down in sheets, punctuated by thunder and lightning.
When the show resumed more than hour later, the only white horse in the competition, the Andalusian stallion Rociero XV, was next to go. His rider, Kristina Harrison-Naness, was at a distinct disadvantage in rain-soaked footing that splashed all over his lovely coat.
His dance to Spanish-inspired music recorded by a live orchestra was good, but not at its optimum under the circumstances. That's the way it too often goes in this sport, as Krisi's coach, Debbie McDonald, can testify. Debbie, you'll remember, had to withdraw from the individual competition at last year's World Equestrian Games when Brentina suffered a tendon tear during the team competition in which she helped bring home a bronze medal.
Steffen's freestyle to the Celtic rhythms of "Riverdance" was well-suited to Lombardi's emphatic style, but his 76.400 percent mark fell short of Courtney's impressive 78 percent. The freestyle only counted 20 percent of the total for the championship, though, and Courtney's fifth-place Grand Prix finish brought her down. Steffen took the title with 72.084 percent overall, to her 70.172 percent.
And Lombardi is no easy ride. So it was especially gratifying for Steffen to achieve this victory.
I also caught up with Lombardi's owner, Akiko Yamazaki, who beamed with joy as she came into the ring to accept the trophy. It's great to see someone so excited about winning, and the whole Lombardi team made quite an effort, coming all the way from California.
The I-1 freestyle was a showdown between Chris, winner of the Prix St. Georges and Lauren, who took the Intermediare I.
"Lauren and I were joking all day today," Chris said afterwards. "I told her the gloves were off, it was time for a real fight...in a totally friendly, good sportsmanship way."
But what won the day for Chris was the intricate difficulty of his work to original music with techno overtones. He called the heavy beat for the trot work "dangerous," meaning that if he didn't match it, that mishap would be glaringly obvious to the judges.
But such complex movements as tempi changes on a curved line and a pirouette to a half-pass, climaxed by his bold one-handed ride down the centerline before his final halt, clinched the prize for Chris.
Lauren's simpler routine, and the fact that she got a little ahead of her music at one point, put her second with 73.450 percent more than a point behind Chris's mark of 74.5. That gave him the overall title with 72.063 percent, making Lauren reserve champion with a score of 71.725.
She's definitely going to re-do her freestyle before the Pan Ams, noting that a turning point in her horse's development recently came when he learned passage, giving him "a lot more expression" with "this new button that appeared."
Poor Susan Dutta, who has been a reserve rider for the Pan Ams before finds herself in the same position again with Pik-L. She finished fourth, but the new rule about three-member teams in dressage for the Pan Ams and Olympics comes into effect this year, so she's out of luck again. And her husband, Tim, made all the complicated shipping arrangements for the team to get to Brazil.
We had several dropouts during the show. Carol Lavell's Much Ado has pneumonia and will stay in New Jersey to recuperate after being withdrawn from the I-1 freestyle, scuttling the 2003 Pan Am team gold medalist's chance for another such title. Sue Halasz came all the way from California with Paradiso B, only to have him suffer a hind end problem and drop out. Rainier, Robert Dover's 2000 Olympic mount, was making a comeback from several years of retirement, but wasn't up to par in the Grand Prix and Special. He didn't feel right while warming up for the freestyle, so rider Katherine Bateson-Chandler decided not to compete.
Your heart breaks for all of those who suffer that misfortune at such a big event, getting to the brink and then not being able to be part of the big moment.
Chris Hickey knows all about that. He learned early in life, at a 4-H show, not to count on anything in this sport. After he'd won a bunch of classes in the show, his mother warned him not to get overconfident going into the championship (which he won). But he's still sad when he talks about missing a chance to compete in an Olympic festival years ago because he contracted appendicitis at the last minute.
"I'm a little emotional," he confessed after giving the thumbs-up in his victory lap. "I've had a lot of things happen at the last minute when I've been close to being near a big thing, so this means a lot to us."
The Brentina Cup went for the second year in a row to Elisabeth Austin, already in the process of breaking into the Grand Prix ranks with her homebred Olivier. He must have made his daddy, Idocus, very proud on Father's Day. Announcer Brian O'Connor paid special tribute to both of them by playing, "The Boys are Back in Town" for their victory lap.
The Brentina Cup, named after Debbie McDonald's equine partner, was presented by Debbie. The concept is to bridge the gap between the junior/Young Rider ranks and grand prix. The test devised for the competition, to which Debbie contributed, is shorter than the Grand Prix, and while it includes the Grand Prix movements, it requires less of a horse than the highest level test.
Young Riders Champion Kassandra Barteau, a gold medal veteran of the North American Young Rider Championships, called her 15-year-old mount Gabriella "a big old happy mare," something that was reflected in the obviously pleasant partnership between the two.
She had seen her mother, Yvonne Barteau, compete once at Gladstone on the small tour, and was delighted to actually be part of the scene here herself. Kassandra called the experience "extremely amazing. I couldn't stop smiling."
In the junior ranks, Bonnie Efird took the title with Magie Noir.
"It's been my goal for a long time, I'm glad I've finally reached it," she said. "It's a much bigger show than I've ever ridden at. So I was a little nervous coming in, but it's all positive energy. You can feel it when you're riding, everyone is cheering for everyone else. It's not scary once you get in there. So you just take it all in and enjoy it while you're here, because we're really lucky to have the opportunity."
I agree, Bonnie. Those of us on the rail felt the same about being privileged to be at one of the world's equestrian landmarks and watch such great competition.
That's it from here. I'll be back next Monday with a postcard from the Wachovia Jumper Classic grand prix at Stacia and Frank Madden's Beacon Hill.
View the full results from the competition (PDF files):
Day 1 - Day 2 - Day 3 - Day 4