Wednesday, September 29, 2010

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.

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