Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Grand Prix Special Bronze for Steffen Peters and Ravel!

Grand Prix Special medalists Laura Bechtolsheimer (silver), Edward Gal (gold), and Steffen Peters (bronze)

Folks, the drought is over. With a score of 78.542%, Steffen Peters and Akiko Yamazaki's Ravel rode to the first individual dressage world championships medal for the US in...well, a long time.
Peters and Ravel

On a day when a number of horses looked a bit tired from the Grand Prix exertions of the past few days -- exacerbated, perhaps, by a temperature spike that pushed the mercury up around 80 -- some of the top competitors actually seemed more relaxed and able to deliver better performances. Ravel was one of them, and he looked comfortable on the sunny, dry afternoon very much like home in San Diego.

But another horse that looked more relaxed was Moorlands Totilas, Edward Gal's ten-year-old black stallion, and Gal said afterward that "I could take more risk" in the Special than in the Grand Prix. "I had a really good ride today."
Gal and Moorlands Totilas

"Really good" meant a string of scores that started to be reminiscent of the legendary gymnast Nadia Comaneci's record-shattering 10s at the 1976 Olympics: 10 after 10 after 10. Tens for passage. Tens for piaffe. A 10 for a canter pirouette. Tens for the extended canter. There were just enough marks of 8 and 9 to temper the eye-popping string of high marks, but at one point during the test, I wondered whether Gal was going to get a 90. He finished with an 85.708%.

And then there was the huge, fabulous Mistral Hojris, who stayed right where he'd placed in the GP -- right behind Totilas -- earning a score of 81.708%.
Bechtolsheimer and Mistral Hojris

"It's exciting to be a part of the sport when it's being pushed up so far so fast," Bechtolsheimer said. "It used to be just Isabell and Anky; you knew one of them was going to win."

It's hard to believe that the poised, gracious, well-spoken Bechtolsheimer is just 25 years old. Clearly, she stands to bring glory to the British team for many years to come.

And speaking of people who seem genuinely nice and without a DQ attitude, I'd add Gal and Peters to the mix. I've known Steffen since the late 1980s (I rode with him when I lived in San Diego), and he's obviously a good businessman and an exacting taskmaster, but he's a wonderful horseman and a pretty down-to-earth guy. It's special getting to see someone you know compete and excel on the world stage. My suspicions that the medal ceremony were a special moment for Steffen were borne out when he wiped away a few tears while standing on the podium.
An emotional moment for Peters

Yes, those were tears, Steffen said afterward. "Only Shannon [his wife] knows how tough that was to miss a medal in Hong Kong [the 2008 Olympics, where he and Ravel were fourth]. I never really admitted it before now." Knowing that "we didn't have an individual medal in the US for a really long time" made the moment particularly emotional, he said.

One Unplanned "Air Above the Ground"
Hang on! Exquis Nadine goes airborne with Hans Peter Minderhoud. Photo by JenniferMunson.com.
One of the Dutch team gold medalists, Hans Peter Minderhoud on Exquis Nadine, was favored to place highly in the Special but had an error-marred test capped with a dramatic disobedience. Nadine resisted in a passage-canter transition and later swapped leads early during an extended canter. During the final piaffe-passage tour down the center line, the mare stopped, sank part way onto her haunches, then gave an enormous leap that drew gasps of horror from the audience. Had Nadine kicked out with her hind legs in midair, it would have been nearly a textbook capriole.

A Judge's Perspective 


Mary Seefried of Australia attended the post-competition press conference, as is customary for the head of the ground jury. Like Stephen Clarke yesterday, she fielded questions about scoring discrepancies. She affirmed that the WEG dressage judges did indeed meet yesterday evening for a review of the rides (albeit not of every test, due to time constraints) and called the session helpful, although she acknowledged that "the FEI standard deviation is 5 percent" -- so in some cases, there is work to be done because scores on occasion varied more widely.

Of the top finishers in the Special, Seefried said, "What impressed the judges with the first three [finishers] was the harmony. They were -- do I dare use the word? -- classical. Their horses were so well trained, so responsive. And there was the precision of the riding itself."

Seefried also praised the "wonderful Spanish horse": Fuego XII, a twelve-year-old PRE stallion ridden by Juan Manuel Munoz Diaz of Spain to a fourth-place finish and a score of 76.042%. She said that the Spaniards' dedication to improving their dressage standing internationally shows in the selection of horses and in their performance, willingness to work, and impulsion. There is really no difference between the Iberian horses' training (or, by extension, judging) and that of any other dressage horse, she said.

No, Toto's Not Coming to Kansas


Rumors were flying today that Moorlands Totilas had been sold to the United States. Gal vigorously denied the scuttlebutt and said "not true."

Oh well. But Toto and Gal look to be a perfect match, so I'd kind of like for them to stay together. Now, if Gal would like to become a US citizen and bring Toto with him, I don't think anyone in this country would complain!

A New World Order

Dressage enthusiasts have been wishing for a long time that some nations would emerge to challenge the usual European powerhouses in international competition.

2010 WEG dressage team medalists: Great Britain (silver), Netherlands (gold), Germany (bronze)

Yesterday, in the team competition at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Kentucky, they got their wish.

For the first time ever, British riders stood on the medal podium at a dressage world championships. Buoyed by their dressage superstar, Laura Bechtolsheimer on the 15-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding Mistral Hojris (by Michellino), the team from Great Britain won the silver medal. Bechtolsheimer finished in second place individually with a stratospheric score of 82.511%. She was one of only two riders to achieve scores in the 80s, the other being -- of course -- the Netherlands' Edward Gal on the horse that has been called "the Secretariat of dressage," Moorlands Totilas, with 84.043%.

"It was the best score and the best ride I've ever had," Bechtolsheimer said afterward. Of "Alf," she said, "I've never been able to ride him with so much energy yet really relaxed."

Her teammate, the veteran Carl Hester on Liebling II, said, "British dressage has been waiting for a superstar like Laura and Hojris. We are all having to work harder to try to match her. It makes us all ride better. I am old enough to remember being on a team when the best British score was a 66 percent, and we thought we were doing really well," he said with a chuckle.

Dutch drama 
Dutch gold medalists Adelinde Cornelissen, Imke Schellekens-Bartels, Hans Peter Minderhoud, and Edward Gal


Led by Gal on his ten-year-old Dutch fantasy horse (by Gribaldi), the Netherlands handily won the team gold medal. But the victory was bittersweet for Gal and teammates Imke Schellekens-Bartels on Hunter Douglas Sunrise and Hans Peter Minderhoud on Exquis Nadine.
Edward Gal and Moorlands Totilas


During yesterday morning's session, on day 2 of the team competition, Dutch rider Adelinde Cornelissen was part way into what was shaping up to be possibly a third 80-something-percent-scoring test when, just after her halt and rein back on Jerich Parzival, Stephen Clarke, the head of the ground jury, rang the bell. Clarke had spotted blood coming from the mouth of the 13-year-old KWPN gelding, and FEI rules state that blood from a horse's mouth requires immediate elimination. A stunned Cornelissen patted her horse and walked from the Kentucky Horse Park main stadium to applause as the Dutch riders and supporters sitting in the stands stampeded toward the exit to find out what had happened and to comfort their devastated colleague.
Adelinde Cornelissen and Jerich Parzival prior to their elimination

What had happened, the Dutch contingent announced in a midday press conference, was that Parzival had bitten the tip of his tongue, presumably sometime after leaving the warm-up. The blood mixed with the horse's foamy saliva to produce a red froth that looked alarming but in fact was a minor injury: The bleeding stopped shortly after Cornelissen left the ring, according to Dutch team veterinarian Dr. Jan Greve.
Cornelissen and Parzival leave the arena. The horse's bloody mouth is visible in the photo.

Of having to "ring out" Cornelissen, Clarke said, "I think that was the worst moment of my career. I thought I would have a second heart attack." He praised the Dutch rider's composure and said, "She was so gracious and professional about it."

"It was a difficult day for us," said Gal. "We are happy to have won, but we are so sad for Adelinde. There were many tears in the stable today."

Cornelissen was permitted to stand atop the podium with her Dutch teammates and received a medal (the announcer called it "special recognition"), but she did not participate in the victory gallop and, having already endured one press conference about her ordeal, she did not attend the post-medals press conference with the rest of the medalists.

I've gotten this far in my report on dressage medals and haven't yet mentioned the Germans. That must be a first! It's because yesterday, they had to settle for bronze, which surely is a color they haven't seen much for the past couple of decades, at least. The team anchor, the much-decorated Olympian Isabell Werth on Warum Nicht, joked afterward about being "one of the old ones" on a team consisting mainly of freshmen international competitors who need some seasoning before they're ready to reclaim top medals for Germany.
Germany's Isabell Werth and Warum Nicht

Werth's teammates were Christoph Koschel on Donnperignon, Matthias Alexander Rath on Sterntaler-Unicef, and Anabel Balkenhol (daughter of Klaus) on Dablino. Balkenhol was the youngest member of the German squad.

A sigh of relief for the US 


A year ago, US dressage-team technical advisor Anne Gribbons's main goal was for the US WEG team to qualify for the 2012 London Olympic Games. The team accomplished that goal yesterday by finishing fourth. (Ordinarily we'd have needed to finish in the medals, but as the home team the Brits have a bye, and so the fourth-placing team also qualified.)
Steffen Peters and Ravel

With the relatively recent emergence of a strong group of players, Gribbons's hopes had risen considerably, and the conventional wisdom going into WEG was that the Americans had a good chance of winning bronze. But the top teams bankrolled scores in the 70s, and US riders Tina Konyot on Calecto V (69.915%), Katherine Bateson-Chandler on Nartan (69.617%), and Todd Flettich on Otto (66.553%) put the anchor, veteran Steffen Peters on Ravel, in the position of having to earn a phenomenal mid- to upper-80s score in order to medal. With a lovely test marred by just a bit of overeagerness on Ravel's part, Peters' score of 78.596% put him in third individually but wasn't high enough for a team medal.
US fans cheer an American rider
"It is one of our higher scores," Peters said after his test. "It's exactly the same score we had in Las Vegas [2009, when they won the FEI Dressage World Cup Final]. "We got a lot of criticism for not showing up in Europe this year, but it was the right decision for the horse."

Peters knew, of course, that his score would make or break the team's chances at a medal, but "I've done the mistake before where I chased the scoreboard, and it was one of the worst tests I've had. I learned I just have to ride -- take what the horse has to offer that day. Today I asked for a little more than he was offering" (Ravel kicked at the leg during one passage transition). "But today, third place, that's awesome, with first and second over 80 percent."

Peters said he was looking forward to today's Grand Prix Special, the first leg of the individual dressage competition. "We usually score a little higher in the Special," he said, citing the lines of "flowing half-passes" in which the extraordinarily supple Ravel shines.
Australians Hayley Beresford and Relampago Do Retiro prior to their elimination

There was one other disappointment in the team dressage competition. Australian pair Hayley Beresford and the Lusitano stallion Relampago Do Retiro were eliminated during their test for irregularity of steps.

The Special


The top 30 pairs from the Grand Prix will contest the Grand Prix Special today. Of those, the top fifteen will go on to Friday night's highly anticipated Grand Prix Freestyle. Both competitions will award separate individual medals.

Photographs by JenniferMunson.com.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Cautious Optimism After Team Dressage, Day 1

So far, the teams are placed exactly how everyone had predicted: Netherlands in the lead, Germany second, Great Britain third, and the United States fourth. Those were the standings after the first of two full days of team dressage competition at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Kentucky.
The main stadium at the Kentucky Horse Park during the dressage competition


The Grand Prix will decide the team medals, which will be awarded late this afternoon, September 28. Only three scores count (some teams have only three members), which gives four-member teams the advantage of having a drop score.
Todd Flettrich and Otto in the team dressage competition
Half the US team competed yesterday. Todd Flettrich on Otto was the first American to go, right after the lunch break. The pirouettes could have "sat" better behind, and afterward Todd admitted that he relaxed his aids a moment too soon during the final piaffe-passage tour and Otto walked momentarily. The pair's final score was 66.553%.

Despite the fact that his ride time got changed more than once -- a significant time difference, with the time moving from before the lunch break to afterward, a difference of nearly two hours -- Todd was relaxed and happy after his test.

Oded Shimoni, who resides in the US but who competes for Israel, earned a score of 66.298% aboard Granada

"It was fabulous," he said afterward. "I made a few mistakes, but I was very pleased with Otto. I hope I get to do this [ride for the US] again sometime."

Katherine Bateson-Chandler, the youngest member of the US team at 35, was the final competitor on day 1. She put in a solid and elegant test aboard Jane Forbes Clark's Nartan for a score of 69.617%.
Although Bateson-Chandler has attended her share of big international championships during her apprenticeship as Robert Dover's groom, the WEG is her first as a competitor. And she had not one speck of nervousness, she claimed.
Katherine Bateson-Chandler and Nartan

"It was exciting, actually," she said of her test. "When everyone starts cheering, you just have to smile. I was happy with my test, although I had two expensive mistakes. We had a mistake at the end of the ones, where he threw an extra one in. I thought his highlights were the extended canter and the pirouettes."

The damp, chilly weather didn't bother the former Dutch team horse a bit, Katherine said. "In Belgium [right over the border] they don't have an indoor arena, and you know what winter there is like. It doesn't bother him."
Imke Schellekens-Bartels (right) receives congratulations from her mother, Dutch Olympian Tineke Bartels (left), and another competitor after her Grand Prix test, which was the high score of the first day of WEG team dressage competition.

The highlight of day 1 was Dutch rider Imke Schellekens-Bartels on Hunter Douglas Sunrise, whose expressive test earned them the day's high score, 73.447%. The 16-year-old Hanoverian mare is a leggy dressage supermodel. A walk into a halt transition and an awkward canter zigzag (Imke said later the mistake was pilot error) were the main flaws in an otherwise impressive test.

Monday, September 27, 2010

All Clear in WEG Dressage Horse Inspection

The USA’s Tina Konyot and Calecto V, with the other three American horses, passed the FEI horse inspection one day before the start of WEG dressage competition

There haven’t been too many glaring glitches thus far, two days into competition at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. Unfortunately, the scheduling of the dressage veterinary horse inspection was one of them.
The press center told us 11:00 a.m. All materials indicated 11:00. So it was with panicked voices that press-center workers dashed about the building this morning, calling that the horse inspection was already under way. In fact, it had started an hour ago—something to do with a last-minute rescheduling to accommodate the endurance competition, which was taking place today.

THE BLACK STALLION: The overwhelming favorite for gold, the Netherlands’ Moorlands Totilas and rider Edward Gal
 
So I’m sorry to say that I (and most other media folks) missed France, missed Germany—missed nearly every nation from A to G, seeing as they “trot up” in alphabetical order. Fortunately N and U come later in the alphabet, meaning that we made it in time for the Netherlands, the heavily favored gold-medal contenders; and for the good old US of A. Also fortunately, all 66 of the dressage horses representing 24 nations passed inspection, although Norway’s Carte d’Or and Switzerland’s Corinth were “held” and had to be re-presented to the veterinary officials before getting the green light to compete.

The Schedule
Dressage competition begins tomorrow, September 27, at 8:34 a.m. There will be two successive days of Grand Prix competition, which will decide the team medals. Then on Wednesday, September 29, it’s on to the Grand Prix Special. The top-placing horses and riders from the Grand Prix will contest this class for the first set of WEG individual dressage medals. They’ll get a day off on September 30, and then the grand finale comes the evening of October 1, when the final fifteen will ride their Grand Prix Freestyles for the second and final WEG individual dressage medals.

 An Equestrian Cornucopia
ALL UNDER ONE ROOF: These World Equestrian Games comprise eight disciplines. A para-equestrian dressage competitor practices under her coach’s watchful eye.

There were naysayers who said the WEG would be a mess: There wasn’t enough money, everything was too expensive, and the organization would be a disaster. Well, so far, I can tell you that it appears there was plenty of money, everything is kind of expensive (food is pricey, which makes for a handy diet plan), and the organization seems pretty good for such a massive undertaking. And the volunteers and workers seem determined to impress all visitors with a healthy dose of friendly Kentucky hospitality.

KENTUCKY PRIDE: American horses, celebrities, and music—especially those hailing from Kentucky, like this champion Saddlebred—were the focus of WEG opening ceremonies
If you’re not here, you’re missing out. This is my first WEG, and even an Olympic Games pales in comparison for sheer horse-world scope. I walk down the lane at the Kentucky Horse Park, and on my left are eventers schooling. A para-equestrian competitor is hard at work at the ring on the right. Over on the steeplechase course, endurance riders, eventers, and jumpers (maybe even some dressage riders!) are enjoying a walk or a bit of a hand-gallop. The reiners are up there on the hill in the indoor arena. The really fun part is watching the cross-discipline interaction: folks in cowboy hats and Wranglers, taking in a driving exhibition; or the opening ceremonies themselves, probably the first time many in the audience had seen high-stepping Saddlebreds, racing Standardbreds, or native Americans and their horses.

DRESSAGE ON DISPLAY: Come visit the USDF National Education Center at the Horse Park. Attractions include a special Members Lounge and the Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame (pictured).
 I haven’t been to downtown Lexington’s equine expos yet (a trip is planned for this week), but there’s plenty of shopping at the WEG. The Trade Fair Village, the Kentucky Experience, the Alltech Experience—these aren’t the standard pipe-and-drape vendor booths; these are full-fledged perma-tents with doors, floors, lighting, air conditioning—buildings, really, with walls and furniture and d├ęcor. Today I retreated to the “Media Chill-Out Zone” in the Alltech Experience pavilion (which is big enough that I had to ask directions) to conduct a phone interview. I chilled in comfort on a comfy barstool with a cup of coffee, surrounded by wood flooring and TV screens showing the progress of the reining competition. Too bad I was on duty and couldn’t enjoy a complimentary Alltech Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale. Maybe later…

SHOPPING: The Bit of Britain mega-booth at WEG
 Not too shabby, all around. I’m grateful to be here and excited for tomorrow’s dressage. Check back daily for the latest from WEG.

Jennifer O. Bryant