For much of the afternoon, British Olympic team gold medalist Carl Hester and Nip Tuck looked untouchable in the Grand Prix, the first leg of the 2017 FEI World Cup Dressage Final in Omaha.
Hester’s score of 76.671% set the bar high, and it wasn’t until the last two riders that anyone was able to top it.
Dutchman Edward Gal, who won the Final in 2010 aboard Totilas, seemed Hester’s closest contender. But his score of 74.485% with Glock’s Voice put Gal in fourth place after the last of the 16 riders had gone.
Along the way, the USA saw strong scores from 2016 Olympians Kasey Perry-Glass on Goerklintgaards Dublet (who finished seventh on 73.828%) and Steffen Peters on his new partner, Rosamunde (eighth on 72.257%). “Dublet’s” test showed lovely harmony and relaxation, with accurate and correct work that prompted audio commentator and retired US FEI 5* dressage judge Axel Steiner to call the 29-year-old Perry-Glass “one of our up-and-coming stars.”
“I think she has what it takes to really move up” in the international standings,” Steiner said.
The almost ridiculously supple Rosamunde can flex her loins and hindquarter joints so much that she can “pedestal” in the piaffe, and one wonders if she can be a bit of a Gummy Worm in movements requiring straightness. Her tempi changes “swing” a bit—more noticeable in the twos—and she became a bit quick and frantic for a moment in the final piaffe/passage tour, probably a result of a momentary loss of balance. But it’s important to keep in mind that this mare is only 10 years old—and, as Steiner pointed out, Peters wasn’t really aiming her for this World Cup Final; he knows she needs to mature a bit, and she’ll be stronger, more experienced, and better by the time the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games and the 2020 Olympics roll around.
In today’s Grand Prix, however, both Perry-Glass and Peters took a back seat to the USA’s current number-one pair, Laura Graves and Verdades, who didn’t quite break the 80-percent barrier with their score of 79.800, which was good enough for second place. Graves put in a powerful and accurate test. There was one unsteady moment in the transition from passage to extended walk, and from my vantage point it appeared that “Diddy’s” haunches led in one canter half-pass right in the zigzags. The overall impression, though, was of great correctness and gaits that head judge Katrina Wuest of Germany praised as “maybe the best paces” of the three highest-placed finishers.
The adage about saving the best for last was true today: Isabell Werth of Germany, ranked number one aboard Weihegold OLD coming in to this Final and favored to win, did not disappoint. Despite a flubbed line of two-tempis that Werth later called pure rider error, the 12-year-old Oldenburg mare put in collected work of such high quality that she alone broke 80, winning the Grand Prix on a score of 82.300%. At the post-competition press conference, Carl Hester praised Werth’s unsurpassed ability to produce outstanding piaffe, passage, and other collected work from her mounts, with great shortening of the strides yet maintaining maximum activity.
“I was very happy,” Werth said afterward. “She felt a little bit tense when I came in, and of course there was big applause for Laura, so I had to start a bit careful. Besides the two-tempis—and certainly it was my fault, like always it’s the rider’s fault when you have mistakes—I felt safe. The rest was really good, very fantastic. The pirouettes and piaffe/passage, I’m completely happy, and I’m looking forward to the next days.”
“I came here to win,” Graves said, “and finishing second to Isabell still feels a lot like winning. I’m super-proud of my horse and the way he’s developed in the past two years. He’s extremely spooky; he’s a lot to manage in that kind of environment. He felt really honest. We had a couple of mistakes, mostly rider error, and they were unfortunately in double-coefficient movements, but that puts me in a place to be very excited about Saturday—knowing that if [I] ride clean, it could be a really good show.”
Wuest, who officiated at “C,” offered her assessment of the day’s top finishers.
“Verdades is an extremely powerful horse…. But sometimes Laura has to keep this big, big impulsion under control, and that made her appear sometimes just a little crooked on the center line. Isabell’s horse is extremely collected and does everything with ease and is extremely straight. Except for the two-tempis, there was not the slightest hint of an inconsistency or a mistake. The same with Carl. The motor of his horse is not a Ferrari, and he knows, but he gets a 9 for [the entry halt and salute] for straightness and accuracy.”
Hester has said many times that “Barney” is hot and spooky, and he said that his World Cup strategy was “to give him an easy Grand Prix, coast around so that he’s fresh for Saturday.” But I’m going to make sure I put my foot on the pedal for Saturday,” he said in response to Wuest’s observation, garnering laughs from the audience and the other riders.
Saturday, of course, is the one that counts: the Grand Prix Freestyle, the winner of which will be crowned the 2017 FEI World Cup Dressage Final champion.
One incident marred the otherwise outstanding day of competition: Wendi Williamson of New Zealand was eliminated after the Grand Prix when the FEI steward’s post-competition equipment check revealed blood in the mouth of her mount, Dejavu MH. The FEI “blood rule” mandates automatic elimination.
A score of 60% or better in the Grand Prix is required for a World Cup Dressage Final competitor to advance to the freestyle final. Therefore, the other rider who will not compete Saturday is Hanna Karasiova of Belarus, who achieved only a 58.885% aboard Arlekino today.