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On the scene at the 2017 FEI World Cup Dressage Final

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Peters Show

There was a bit of harrumphing on the grounds of the United States Equestrian Team Foundation Sunday, the final day of the 2014 USEF Dressage Festival of Champions, presented by the Dutta Corp.

"Well, that's a surprise," one spectator remarked sarcastically after Olympian Steffen Peters swept not one but two of the national titles up for grabs in Gladstone, New Jersey -- and also claimed the reserve championship in one of the divisions, for good measure.
Steffen Peters and Legolas 92 passage their way to Grand Prix Freestyle victory, in the process clinching the 2014 USEF National Grand Prix championship and the #1 spot on the US WEG dressage team. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Riding Four Winds Farm's 12-year-old Westfalen gelding Legolas 92, Peters, of San Diego, CA, took the national Grand Prix title (as expected) with an overall average score of 76.036% -- which was given a healthy boost after Sunday's winning Grand Prix Freestyle score of 79.700%.

Peters had already visited the winner's circle earlier in the day, collecting the Intermediaire I national championship title with Four Winds Farm's newest superstar, the seven-year-old Rhinelander mare Rosamunde. He also took the reserve I-I title aboard the eight-year-old Oldenburg mare Apassionata, owned by Tracy Roenick, who led her mare into the Dick and Jane Brown Arena for the awards ceremony.
Perhaps the only equestrian skill Steffen Peters lacks is the ability to ride two horses at once. He's on Intermediaire I champion Rosamunde while owner Tracy Roenick handles his reserve-champion mount, her mare Apassionata. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

When a competitor is at the pinnacle of his or her career, it does sometimes seem as if victory is a foregone conclusion. But there are a couple of factors that need to be considered.

First, Steffen Peters is arguably the only American dressage competitor with a string of horses rivaling that of the top Europeans. Those riders don't have just one "big" horse to pin all their hopes and dreams on; they have perhaps five or 10 -- large tour, small tour, plus some talented youngsters. As former USEF national dressage technical advisor and current FEI 5* judge Anne Gribbons (who was on the ground jury at Gladstone this year) has pointed out, such depth not only gives the rider competitive options but also keeps him or her plenty busy going down center line. Not to say that the other riders at Gladstone aren't experienced, but Peters has more top horses than they do. All that showing experience counts for something -- perhaps evidenced by the fact that, while other riders said they were eating light (or not at all) before their tests, Peters was tucking into a nice hearty lunch of chicken and pasta before his Grand Prix Freestyle. (Nerves? What nerves?)

Second, if name recognition were a guarantee of top placings, then 26-year-old Grand Prix newbie Laura Graves would not have given Peters a run for his money -- and believe me, she did. Riding her 12-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding, Verdades, Graves was little more than one percentage point behind Peters in the Grand Prix Special and the GP Freestyle -- 74.549 vs. Peters' 75.647 in the Special, and 78.425 vs. 79.700 in the Freestyle. The judges placed Graves above 13 other riders, all of whom are much better known than she.

There are always going to be disagreements over scorings and placings. Some who were in the audience at Gladstone were disappointed that Olympic veterans Jan Ebeling and Rafalca's dynamic and difficult new freestyle was not rewarded with a score higher than the 76.150 it received. Caroline Roffman's fun, upbeat Katy Perry routine suits Her Highness O well, and some said they thought it ought to have scored higher than the 73.775 it received. And so it goes.

But don't take my word for it. Here's the video of Legolas 92's winning freestyle. What do you think? Did it deserve to win?

Click here for video

Monday, June 16, 2014

Eight Is Enough (for a Trip to Europe)

It's possible Lisa Wilcox felt like the luckiest person in the room.

Riding Denzello, an 11-year-old Hanoverian gelding owned by Betty Wells, the 2004 US Olympic dressage team bronze medalist finished eighth in the 2014 US dressage World Equestrian Games selection trials, held June 11-15 at USET Foundation headquarters in Gladstone, NJ.
Lisa Wilcox and Denzello. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Thanks to 0.182 percentage point -- the overall average score difference between eighth-placed Wilcox (71.633) and Californian Kathleen Raine on Breanna (71.451), who finished ninth -- Wilcox, of Loxahatchee, FL, found herself seated at the post-competition press conference with the seven other riders whose placings in the 2014 USEF National Grand Prix Dressage Championship have earned them a ticket to Europe and a shot at making the WEG team.

"To be here was my goal," said Wilcox, who admitted to hoping beforehand, "Please, God, let me be in the top eight."

Wilcox's fellow travelers, officially known as the WEG short list, are (listed in ranked order):

1. Steffen Peters, San Diego, CA, riding Legolas 92, a 12-year-old Westfalen gelding owned by Four Winds Farm (overall average score: 76.036%)
2014 USEF National Grand Prix champions Steffen Peters and Legolas 92. To their right: judge Janet Foy; daughters of Akiko Yamazaki, owner of Legolas; sponsor Tim Dutta of the Dutta Corp.; USET Foundation executive director Bonnie Jenkins; Yamazaki; and USEF managing director of dressage Jenny Van Wieren-Page. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

2. Laura Graves, Geneva, FL, riding her own Verdades, a 12-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (74.226%)
Laura Graves and Verdades. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
3. Jan Ebeling, Moorpark, CA, riding Rafalca, a 17-year-old Oldenburg mare owned by Beth Meyer, Ann Romney, and Amy Roberts Ebeling (74.134%)
Jan Ebeling and Rafalca. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

4. Adrienne Lyle, Ketchum, ID, riding Wizard, a 15-year-old Oldenburg gelding owned by Peggy Thomas (73.543%)
Adrienne Lyle and Wizard. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
5. Tina M. Konyot, Palm City, FL, riding her own Calecto V, a 16-year-old Danish Warmblood stallion (73.038%)
Tina Konyot and Calecto V. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
6. Caroline V. Roffman, Wellington, FL, riding her own Her Highness O, an 11-year-old Hanoverian mare (72.760%)
Caroline Roffman and Her Highness O. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
7. Shelly Francis, Loxahatchee, FL, riding Doktor, an 11-year-old Oldenburg gelding owned by Patricia Stempel (72.119%).
Shelly Francis and Doktor. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Leaving on a Jet Plane

KLM #644, departing this Wednesday from New York's JFK to Amsterdam, for all you flight-trackers out there. That's according to the man who should know: J. Tim Dutta, founder and chairman of The Dutta Corp., presenting sponsor of the 2014 USEF Festival of Dressage Champions and, naturally, the guy who's in charge of getting our precious equine cargo to the WEG and back.

Here's how eight riders and horses will be whittled to a WEG team of four.

As the top two finishers, Peters and Graves are on the team. Still, they must "demonstrate their continued preparation, soundness, and ability," as stated in the USEF selection process, by competing in at least one of the European CDIs designated as a "mandatory outing." Those shows are:

1. CDI4* Schindlhof, Fritzens, Austria, July 4-6. (Owned by the Haim-Swarovski family of Swarovski crystal fame, the Schindlhof estate looks like The Sound of Music meets the equestrian elite. No wonder we want to show there!)

2. The World Equestrian Festival/CHIO Aachen, Germany, July 11-20. The most prestigious horse show in the world will be a fitting final test of our WEG hopefuls.

Based on average rankings based on riders' scores in the selection trials Grand Prix test and at the mandatory outings, the other two members of Team USA will be chosen. The remaining four horse-rider combinations will be named as substitutes, in ranked order. August 14 is the FEI's "definite entry" deadline for the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

A Team Effort

If you're going to be a novice on the world stage, you could do worse than having Steffen Peters and Robert Dover at your side.

With nine Olympic Games between them (three for Peters, six for Dover), the competitor and the chef d'equipe have a lifetime of travel and show-prep experience to offer Graves, the first-timer.

"When it comes to the management of a three-day competition, I have a lot to learn," Graves said after the conclusion of the selection trials. "I'm looking forward to the expertise of a team coach and others to help learn how to manage the stress."

"I'd love to see Laura in Aachen, for sure," Peters said. Asked what advice he'd offer Graves, he said: "We need to train as if we're already in Aachen, already at the World Games. That little bit of adrenaline will take care of the rest. We need to step it up. If I had this freestyle [the quality of the selection trials performance] today, I'd be very happy."

But the process from today forward isn't a dictatorship. Said Dover of the two mandatory outings: "This [the choice of whether to attend one or both shows] is left up to the athletes -- what they think is in the best interests of their horses and themselves. Both are good shows."

"I'm open to suggestions," Graves responded. "I'm a total rookie. I also know my horse; he's exhausted after this long trip up the coast."

Rafalca, the elder stateswoman of the group, was also tired after Gladstone, said Ebeling, who expressed concerns over the back-to-back travel schedule.

"I have to admit I'm a little concerned. I had hoped I could keep the lead being in second [going into the GP Freestyle, which would have given him an automatic team slot]. I was hoping I could avoid that [having to show at Fritzens]."

It's possible Ebeling may be able to avoid it, after all. According to former US dressage national technical advisor Anne Gribbons, the WEG selection committee (of which she is not, however, a member) may find a way to allow Rafalca not to compete at the early-July show.

Even with the somewhat tired horses, some of which are fairly new to Grand Prix, "the standard here was amazing," said judge Janet Foy. "I've been judging the Florida horses since January but hadn't seen many of them since March. Their progress since then is amazing. I'm thrilled to see Rafalca so steady and reliable -- just a perfect team type of horse. And Legolas has come a long, long way; the changes [which have been the horse's weakness] -- Steffen's getting sevens.

"What is thrilling is to have this top group with such great sportsmanship to be mentors to the ones without that experience," Foy continued. "All the judges are happy with how the competition went. We're confident we did the best job and are sending the best group to Europe. Peter [Holler, an FEI 5* judge from Germany and the lone foreign judge on the panel] was very impressed."


Saturday, June 14, 2014

WEG Selection Trials: A Newcomer Among Familiar Faces

Two-thirds of the way through the selection process for the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games US dressage team, and lying in a strong second place is Laura Graves.

Who?

She's a 26-year-old Vermont native, former 4-Her, and former working student of Anne Gribbons, that's who. And you'd better get accustomed to hearing her name and that of her horse, Verdades, because I suspect you'll be hearing them a lot in the weeks and years to come.
Laura Graves and her Verdades finished second in the 2014 US WEG selection trials Grand Prix Special. A highlight was the Dutch Warmblood gelding's rhythmic, relaxed piaffe and balanced piaffe-passage transitions. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Graves, who now calls Geneva, FL, home, trains with Olympian Debbie McDonald. She bought her 2002 Dutch Warmblood gelding (by Florett) as a weanling in the Netherlands based on a video. And she and "Diddy" displaced many better-known names -- Olympian Tina Konyot on Calecto V, Olympian Lisa Wilcox on Denzello, and Olympian Adrienne Lyle on Wizard, to name just three -- to place second in the Grand Prix Special with a score of 74.549 percent. The competition was part of the 2014 USEF Dressage Festival of Champions presented by the Dutta Corp.

"My horse was there for me. He was really, really there for me," said Graves afterward. "This [riding at the high-performance level] has always been my dream, and I'm very fortunate to have this horse who is helping me fulfill my dream."

Graves admitted to some show nerves, saying she didn't watch the other competitors in the class and "hid in my stall" beforehand to escape the hubbub at the USET Foundation headquarters in Gladstone, NJ.
Steffen Peters and Legolas 92, winners of the Grand Prix Special. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

The only competitor who could best Graves today was Captain America, Steffen Peters, and two-time USEF national Grand Prix champion Legolas 92, owned by Four Winds Farm. After a winning yet not bobble-free Grand Prix test on Thursday, Peters, of San Diego, CA, put in an improved (yet still not mistake-free) effort to clinch the Special with a score of 75.647 percent aboard the 12-year-old Westfalen gelding.

Peters' test was not without a moment of anxiety. Following his final halt and salute, the judge at C, Anne Gribbons, stepped into the arena and began to examine Legolas's bits. Gribbons was joined by the technical delegate, Elisabeth Williams. Shortly after, the two women exited the arena and Peters gave the crowd a thumbs-up. He explained later that the judge at B, Gary Rockwell, had asked Gribbons to check the bits. Fortunately nothing was found to be awry.
Technical delegate Elisabeth Williams and judge Anne Gribbons inspect Legolas's bits after Steffen Peters concluded his GP Special test. All was deemed OK. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

"I wish we could have put in a clean test," Peters admitted afterward, but "I was happy we got the changes; those are always extremely difficult with Legolas. His pirouettes were good, and his half-passes felt wonderful. It certainly wasn't a bad test but not what I wanted to take from here to Europe. We'll polish it, and hopefully by Aachen we'll have all of it in place. Robert [Dover], Shannon [Peters, Steffen's wife], and I have a very good plan; we're going to polish it for Aachen and then hopefully take it a step up for Normandy."

Finishing a strong third was the darling of the 2012 Olympic Games, Rafalca, whose connection with co-owner Anne Romney (wife of 2012 US presidential candidate Mitt Romney) made for a perfect storm during the run-up to the London Games. The reliable 17-year-old Oldenburg mare, also co-owned by Beth Meyer and Amy Roberts Ebeling, finished second in Thursday's Grand Prix and scored 74.294 in today's Special with longtime rider Jan Ebeling, of Moorpark, CA.
Olympic veterans Jan Ebeling and Rafalca passage to third place in the Grand Prix Special. Photo by Jennifer Bryant. 

If anything, Rafalca looks stronger and fitter than she did in London. Ebeling said: "She's having a good week. She is fit and she feels great, and being beaten by someone like her is absolutely wonderful," he said, smiling at Graves. "I've always said we want more younger riders coming up. It's exciting -- good riders, good horses, good backgrounds, good training. This is what our sport needs."

Ebeling admitted to some relief at not being a staple on "The Colbert Report" and in the mainstream media this time around. Of the pre-Olympics media circus, he said, "It was a bit more attention than I asked for."

London Olympics individual competitors Adrienne Lyle, Ketchum, ID, on Wizard, a 15-year-old Oldenburg gelding owned by Peggy Thomas, placed fourth in the GP Special with 73.412 percent.

Tomorrow we'll wrap up the WEG selection process with the always eagerly anticipated Grand Prix Freestyle, which commences at 2:35 p.m. EDT and which will be streamed live via the USEF Network. For purposes of determining the 2014 USEF National Grand Prix champion (and the short list for the 2014 US dressage WEG team), the Grand Prix score is worth 45 percent, with the Special accounting for 40 percent and the Freestyle, 15.