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Live from Omaha!
On the scene at the 2017 FEI World Cup Dressage Final

Friday, August 29, 2014

All Hail Queen Charlotte!

2014 WEG Grand Prix Freestyle gold medalists Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro (with Norman, the WEG horse mascot, redubbed Freddy by the British team) wave to British fans during their victory lap. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Great Britain’s Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro won everything in sight at the 2012 London Olympic Games, and they’re not stopping any time soon.

The 29-year-old protégé of British dressage veteran (and Dujardin’s 2012 Olympics and 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games teammate) Carl Hester has a lock on the individual WEG dressage gold medals. Today in Caen, Dujardin picked up her second individual gold of the week, adding a Grand Prix Freestyle medal (and a Rolex watch) to the GP Special gold she won on Wednesday.
 
"Blueberry" in piaffe: "He's good at everything," Dujardin said. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
It was a decisive victory, with judges Isabelle Judet (FRA), Lilo Fore (USA), Stephen Clarke (GBR), Francis Verbeek (NED), Elizabeth McMullen (CAN), and Dietrich Plewa (GER) awarding Dujardin and Valegro a score of 92.161 percent over silver medalist Helen Langehanenberg of Germany on Damon Hill NRW (88.286).
 
The 2014 WEG Grand Prix Freestyle medalists: Helen Langehanenberg of Germany (silver), Charlotte Dujardin of Great Britain (gold), and Adelinde Cornelissen of the Netherlands (bronze). Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
From the audience’s viewpoint, it was almost a toss-up as to who would win bronze, Langehanenberg or the Netherlands’ Adelinde Cornelissen. But although Damon Hill looked a bit tired, his supple and harmonious test got the nod over Jerich Parzival NOP’s greater power and flamboyance that occasionally showed moments of tension, earning the Dutch veterans a score of 85.714 percent.
 
Helen Langehanenberg of Germany thanks Damon Hill NRW for his freestyle performance. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
“After London, I didn’t really think it could get much better,” Dujardin said afterward. “But then at the Europeans [Championships], two golds there, and then I focused on my first World Equestrian Games. To win any medal is always a great achievement, but to come away here with two individual golds and the team silver is just unbelievable. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”

Dujardin, like most riders, is well aware that the best rider in the world can’t do it on a horse that is not at the top of the international standard. She currently sits on the greatest jackpot the dressage world has ever known. Valegro, a twelve-year-old Dutch Warmblood (Negro x Gerschwin), is the Secretariat of dressage. He is more supple, more straight, more ridable, and with greater talent for both extended and highly collected work than any other horse today. The fact that he has an adorable pony face and is called Blueberry is icing on the cake.

Although Dujardin and Valegro have smashed all the high-score records and have nothing left to prove, the rider knows that although getting to the top is hard, staying there is harder.

“The challenge is then to recreate [the success], and try to do it on some other horse, a younger horse. I enjoy training young horses and getting them up to Grand Prix, so maybe I can do it again on another horse,” Dujardin said.

All of the riders who stood atop the medium podium today expressed fierce pride in their mounts. Dujardin said simply: “He’s just good at everything.”
 
Adelinde Cornelissen of the Netherlands describes Jerich Parzival NOP as "seventeen going on seven." Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
“He really deserved a medal today. I’m really proud of him. He just keeps on doing it, over and over again,” said Cornelissen of Jerich Parzival NOP, a seventeen-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Jazz x Ulft). Several times this week, Cornelissen said: “He’s seventeen going on seven.”

Of the medalists today, Langehanenberg gushed the longest about her mount, Damon Hill NRW, a fifteen-year-old Westfalen stallion (Donnerhall x Rubinstein I).

“He can speak and read; he’s something else than a horse,” she said. “Every time, he gets better and better and better. You think that [a performance] was perfect and the best, and then the next time it’s wow, even better. He has no weaknesses; he has perfect gaits, his mind is perfect. He is like a little dog. If he were a little smaller, he’d sit beside us on the sofa. He has the best character someone can have. He’s absolutely honest and he’s the best.”
 
French judge Isabelle Judet, the president of the ground jury for the GP Freestyle. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Although most of the fifteen freestyles today were not mistake-free—most of the horses showed a few signs of fatigue from the long week of competition—French judge Isabelle Judet, the president of the ground jury today, had nothing but praise for the standard.

“We are like the spectators: We just loved it. We had great fun,” Judet said.

All five judges were in agreement regarding the placings of the gold- and silver-medal winners, and there was little discrepancy regarding the bronze, as well.

Said Judet: “When you are in the booth, you are not thinking about the results. We don’t try to do any placing; it just comes out. We’ve had a lot of experience, all of us. [In the moment] we’re almost not thinking; it’s like second nature. We just trust our feeling and that everybody will do their best. Sometimes, like today, it happens that we all have the same idea. It’s not quite always like this, but today we did.”
 
Steffen Peters and Legolas 92 performing their "Under Pressure" freestyle. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Steffen and Legolas: Looking Ahead to Las Vegas

Aboard Four Winds Farm’s twelve-year-old Westfalen gelding, Legolas 92 (Laomedon x Florestan II), Olympic team and WEG individual bronze medalist Steffen Peters expressed satisfaction with today’s “Under Pressure” freestyle, which earned a score of 77.321 percent for tenth place.

“A lot of things worked out great, especially the difficult parts: going from the extended canter to the pirouette, from the pirouette to the piaffe. And when he’s this excited, as he was today, the walk can be difficult. But today he walked absolutely beautifully, very relaxed. I could push him actually a little bit in the extended walk. The collected walk was great; I could actually relax for a moment myself. Then he came very nicely into the piaffe from the walk. Overall, a very good freestyle. I’m super happy,” Peters said. “It’s always the one-tempis that are tricky, but they worked out today. There was one where he was a bit tense, they were not perfectly straight; but I don’t think we had a mistake.”

Of his score, Peters said: “Seventy-seven at the World Games, nothing wrong with that. Of course you’re always hoping in the freestyle that you get a little closer to 80 percent, but we’ll leave that up to Laura today.”

The US dressage-team veteran already has a long-term strategy planned for Legolas: “The next big step is the [2015 FEI] World Cup [Dressage Final] in Las Vegas,” he said. Referring to the very electric atmosphere in the Thomas & Mack Center, with the audience positioned very close to the arena, he said: “It’s obviously a very difficult arena for Legolas, a bit of a nervous horse, but we’ll go there in plenty of time, a few days before, to practice there. Right now he gets a long break, at least four weeks; then we’ll pick up again from there.”

Legolas’s freestyle won’t be quite the same when we see it again in Las Vegas, Peters said. “When we made the music for the freestyle, we made a couple versions of the music. There is room for some new ideas. Those I’ll show you guys in Vegas.”
 
Laura Graves and Verdades have trotted -- make that galloped -- onto the world scene, finishing fifth in the WEG GP Freestyle. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Hello, World, I’m Laura Graves

The 27-year-old American phenom from Geneva, FL, was the talk of the WEG dressage competition. If I had a nickel for every time a foreign journalist asked me what the US press knew about her before the WEG and whether we were surprised that she was doing so well, I’d be considerably wealthier.

Graves’s story has grown more and more remarkable this week. I’d never heard her name before the US WEG selection trials in June. She stormed in and finished second to Steffen Peters on her developing superstar horse, Verdades, a twelve-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Florett AS x Goya), elbowing many decorated veterans aside. She and “Diddy” proceeded to travel to Europe—their first time—and made the Europeans sit up and take notice at the CDIs Aachen and Fritzens. To top it off, the pair came to Caen, qualified for the Grand Prix Freestyle, and then finished fifth—fifth!—on a score of 82.036 percent.

Do you have any idea how hard it is to break 80 percent in, well, any competition, but particularly international championship competition? And the WEG was Graves’s first score over 80.

“It’s a great feeling,” she said afterward. “If we hit 82 now, I’m excited to see where this could go. Just because your horse is talented doesn’t mean you’re going to get the big scores right away. It has to be really reliable; it has to be beautiful; it has to be strong; it has to be relaxed. All these things have to come together.”

“I wasn’t even expecting to come to Europe, let alone ride on this team,” Graves said.

Of her freestyle performance, Graves was particularly thrilled that Diddy “was really, really calm in [the stadium]. I could feel how cool he was. That was the most exciting of all. I worked him really lightly this morning; I didn’t want him to be tired, but I didn’t want him to be wild.” As it turned out, Diddy was a bit lazy in the trot half-passes early in the freestyle—but “he’s an easier horse to rev up than to cool down.”

Whenever a horse starts to get noticed, purchase offers usually follow. Graves concedes that she’s been approached, but “I refuse to hear numbers because he is never for sale,” she says.

Diddy is a gem, and “I want a horse for many years,” Graves said. So she’ll “take really good care of him” and then begin pointing him, carefully, toward the 2016 Olympics in Rio. But the US dressage team didn’t qualify for Rio here at the WEG—we would have had to medal in the team competition in order to do so—so there’s work to be done before then, she said.

Meanwhile, although “everyone’s looking forward to going home,” there’s little time to relax and celebrate. “The horses have to be out of here between six and seven tomorrow morning,” Graves said. The riders will return to their Belgian training base, and then Graves flies from Belgium to Miami on Monday. So let’s get the party started without further ado: “Hopefully there’s cold champagne at the barn!”


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