March 12, 2011 -- Seeing Steffen Peters and Ravel win the World Dressage Masters freestyle reminded me of watching a favorite movie again: You know how it's going to end, but you enjoy it anyway.
After Steffen's dominating performance in the Grand Prix with his Dutchbred "best friend" on Thursday, last night's outcome basically was a foregone conclusion. His score of 84.55 percent was simply awesome, the reward for a ride that riveted the sold-out crowd of 1,200 at Palm Beach County's? Jim Brandon Equestrian Center. As the last notes of his rock soundtrack melted away, the fans gave him a well-deserved standing ovation.
Steffen had tried three times to earn this trophy, a globe enameled in gold and white. Though he won the Grand Prix segment the first two times the Masters was held in Florida, the freestyle crown had eluded him as it went to Dutch dressage queen Anky van Grunsven instead, frustrating Steffen and Ravel's owner, Akiko Yamizaki. Their persistence finally paid off in an intimate and electric setting, a stage suitable for a coronation.
Ravel was nearly flawless, though as Steffen put it, "he over-reacted" going into the canter from the passage (you might say he was very prompt in the transition) and got a little "croup-high" in the one-tempis, but why quibble? Compelling moments included passage half-passes (hard enough to do passage going straight ahead, right?), a piaffe pirouette, and lots of canter pirouettes, as well as textbook examples of piaffe very neatly in place. This is the last time he is using the music that served him well at the World Equestrian Games, Olympics and elsewhere, so it will be interesting to see what he comes up with for a new presentation that will premiere at Aachen, his next major stop.
I wondered if, having conquered the Masters, whether Steffen would return to this fixture in 2012. This is what he told me.
Here's another question I had: How did Tinne Vilhelmson-Silfven of Sweden, who finished second with Favourit on an excellent but far-back score of 77.975 percent, feel about chasing Steffen when it was so obvious that he would win, barring some weird calamity?
"Of course I want to beat him; but I do ride for the best ride and the best feeling I can get," said Tinne.
"You have to be concentrating on doing the top job of that horse." These world class competitors have a different mindset from ordinary people. As Tinne explained, she didn't focus on the inevitability of Steffen collecting that trophy.
"I don't think you can think like that, then you would be scared to go out and ride," she offered.
Tinne switched places from the Grand Prix with Steffen's WEG teammate, Tina Konyot and the imposing Calecto V. This black Danishbred stallion radiates power. Not having seen him compete for five months, I was impressed at the increase in his confidence that garnered him a total of 76.775, well ahead of fourth-place finisher Ashley Holzer of Canada and the popular Pop Art (74.550).
"I believe that's my highest freestyle score so far, and we're gradually trying to creep up the ladder," said Tina. "I've got to catch my friend here," she continued, looking meaningfully at Steffen, "and I've got a long way to go, but I had a good try."
She was critical of a turn in Calecto's initial piaffe/passage effort and thinks it doesn't suit him, so she plans to eliminate it for the future. Tina will be sidelined for a short while as she undergoes knee surgery, but knowing her determination and fitness level, I'm sure she'll be riding again with very little downtime.
The word "miracle" was used over and over to describe the presence of the Masters in Florida after the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center cancelled it, citing a lack of big-name European riders at the top of the computer list committing to a trip here and claiming that would cause problems with its financial viability.
In a short time, the WDM contingent and new sponsors, including the International Polo Club; Ravel's owner, Akiko Yamizaki and the Axel Johnson Group of Sweden managed to pull it together and pull it off, awarding a total of 100,000 Euros in prize money ($147,000), the largest purse in dressage.
When the work was finished, no one would have thought Jim Brandon was a public facility. The covered arena (it doesn't have sides) was transformed along the French Provence theme with artful landscaping and scrims of sunflowers and French vineyards. They looked beautiful with the evening lighting, making the perfect setting for a five-course French meal that included pate, filet mignon with foie gras and gold-dusted Belgian chocolates. Tables, set with blue and yellow cloths and decorated with pails of sunflowers and other bright blooms, were priced at $4,000 for front-row seating for eight.
A few bleacher seats were available at the end of the arena for $85. I was talking to one woman, asking if her vantagepoint was blocked by the judges' booths. She didn't care.
"It's better than nothing," she said, so eager was she to see what the Masters had to offer.
The presentation of the main event was very professional, but the pre-show of a clinic by dressage star Hans Peter Minderhoud of the Netherlands seemed out of place. I also had trouble understanding him--was he speaking in Dutch? Was I going deaf? No, it was the sound system for that segment. But no matter, people were eating and still coming in to catch the big show.
It really was impressive. Akiko had been determined since the cancellation to make sure the Masters--the USA's only 5-star dressage show--happened this year, and we talked about that.
Antonia Johnson of the Axel Johnson Group (and the owner of Tinne's horses) spoke to me about her commitment to the Masters as well.
Side note on Antonia: She grew up in the U.S. (I'm sure you noticed her lack of accent) and spent summers working on a ranch. While Favourit is a Rheinlander, she is known for her love of Morgans. Her family imported Morgans from Vermont to Sweden, where they became the first breeders of these all-around horses.
Tony Kies, the WDM's CEO, was smiling every time I saw him at the showgrounds. His goal is to make dressage more popular worldwide, and that is why having a U.S. venue is so important.
While Tony and the others involved like the facilities at Jim Brandon, I'm thinking the Masters may be held elsewhere in 2011, perhaps at PBIEC again, where many more people can watch. It might dovetail nicely with plans for the PBIEC expansion that has an emphasis on dressage, and its new dressage series.
However, Tony emphasized, "If there are discussions about going back...they are going to have to give us certain guarantees that things like January don't happen again. I think that in Europe they would have big problems if they are doing these things."
Tony, who was "shocked" at the cancellation, contends there was no reason for it.
"WDM wants to spread out dressage. Yes, we have to do that with relative high prize money and top riders. But if people are going to tell me that riders out of the first 30 or 40 of the world are not top riders, then they do not know what they are doing."
The only negative moment in a celebratory evening came after judge Wim Ernes left his box to eliminate Anja Ploenzka of Germany when her horse, Le Mont d'Or, showed signs of bleeding in the mouth. We've been through this before; the same thing happened during the WEG Grand Prix to Jerich Parzival, one of the key horses in the competition. Turned out he had bitten his tongue, but there was no recourse for his disappointed rider, Adelinde Cornelissen.
Chatting with Wim before the awards ceremony, he told me that at first he thought the blush color in the foam around Le Mont d'Or's mouth came from a bit of leftover carrot. But as it got worse, he had no choice but to act as he did, even though he thought perhaps the horse had bitten his lip or his cheek. While we all felt bad for Anja, who is leading the WDM series standings and an eye-catcher in her shiny gunmetal gray tailcoat , she was not a key contender for the prize, as Parzival had been.
The Grand Prix Special, a sort of consolation class for the bottom nine from the Grand Prix, still had a very high standard. It was won by Poland's Michal Rapcewicz on Randon. That pairing finished behind the USA's Pierre St. Jacques and Lucky Tiger in the Grand Prix, but moved up to take the Special with a score of 69.771 percent to Pierre's 69.417.
Michal, who came on my radar screen at the 2009 World Cup finals, where he and his horse impressed me, was wildly enthusiastic about his experience here, which included his 29th birthday Thursday.
"Oh my God, I am so, so happy," he said, his words tumbling out in a delighted torrent as he described the high point of his career so far.
"I decide this year I'm coming here because I've never been to Palm Beach. This is really paradise for the horses and for me; I could easily move here and spend the rest of my life here, because there are super people, super atmosphere, beautiful place. On my birthday, people sang `happy birthday' to me and today I won. I'm really, really happy. My horse really enjoyed the atmosphere here?he was like, `Whoa, now we dance.'"
While Randon tends to go off his feed when he travels, Michal found a solution in the supermarket, where he bought pre-cut carrots to mix in to his 14-year-old gelding's ration.
Be sure to check the gallery next week for more scenes from the Masters, but before that, I'll have a postcard tomorrow highlighting tonight's $231,000 show jumping World Cup qualifier at the PBIEC. The prize money includes $31,000 from Thursday's WEF class, cancelled due to weather, which oddly had no impact on the dressage Grand Prix at Jim Brandon about 20 minutes away.