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Thursday, August 9, 2012

A New Dressage World Order

Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro of Great Britain on their way to victory in the Grand Prix Freestyle and individual Olympic gold. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
The Germans have been toppled off the dressage pedestal. The Dutch have lost their grip on the top spot. There's nary a Dane nor a Swede to be seen. What has dressage come to?

What it's come to is a complete erasure of the conventional wisdom about which nations do and do not belong on the dressage world stage. If there was any doubt about Great Britain's dominance after it won 2012 Olympic team gold on August 7, those doubts were wiped away when two British team members stepped back on the podium today to claim individual Olympic dressage gold and bronze.

The 26-year-old phenomenon Charlotte Dujardin rode Valegro to a movie-soundtrack medley including The Great Escape and Live and Let Die, which segued into canter pirouettes to the bonging of Big Ben, extended canter to "Pomp and Circumstance," and passage to John Williams's "Summon the Heroes," better known as the Olympic theme we hear on TV. Together the musical selections made for an enjoyable freestyle; my main quibble would be over some choppy edits and musical transitions.
British fans go wild after Charlotte Dujardin's score of 90.089 went up on the board. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
"With the Olympics being in London, I wanted something special," Dujardin said of the freestyle. She described being "totally unprepared" to do a freestyle until she rode a Grand Prix Special test at the 2012 CDI Hagen (Germany) to which organizers used The Great Escape as background music. "I thought it was brilliant, and I thought that's what I'm going to do: I'm going to have a British theme. I went back to Tom Hunt, the composer, and I said I want a British theme, and I want Big Ben, and I want all the other stuff. And he was like, 'I'm not sure if I can do that.' And I was like, you can, and he did, and he produced an amazing freestyle, and it's really, really great to ride to."

The musical selections suited the ten-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (by Negro), who executed a technically outstanding test marred only by a bobbled transition from an extended canter down center line to passage at D. Judges Stephen Clarke (C), Leif Tornblad (K), Wim Ernes (E), Jean-Michel Roudier (H), Maribel Alonso (M), Evi Eisenhardt (B), and Gary Rockwell (F) awarded Dujardin's effort a technical average score of 86.750 percent and an artistic average score of 93.429 percent for a combined average of 90.089 percent--an Olympic Games record.

"It's unbelievable," said an emotional Dujardin afterward. "[Valegro] felt tired, but he still gave me everything. I can't believe it was only last January that we did our first Grand Prix, and now we have two Olympic gold medals."
Individual silver medalists Adelinde Cornelissen and Parzival of the Netherlands. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Finishing a close second for the individual silver medal was the Netherlands' Adelinde Cornelissen on Parzival. Showing great musicality to pleasantly amped-up versions of The Nutcracker Suite, the Dutch pair earned marks of 92.286 (artistic) and 84.107 (technical) for a total score of 88.196 percent.

Parzival's piaffe to the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" was a highlight of Cornelissen's freestyle, as was his extended canter to the "Russian Dance." The routine featured numerous double pirouettes, clearly one of Parzival's strong suits. The fifteen-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (by Jazz) was short in the neck at times in the extended trot, and later piaffes started to get a bit croup-high.

Stephen Clarke, who served as president of the ground jury today, said of the rides: "I think the first two horses were very close. The impression we had was that Adelinde had huge power and expression, but for us there needed to be a little more lightness and self-carriage. You could see sometimes that the horse crosses his jaw a little bit, so that took down the harmony mark a touch.

"Charlotte's [horse] generally has a little more self-carriage but maybe not quite as much power and expression in some of the piaffe-passage," Clarke continued. "So they were very close together. I'm sure lots of people will have different opinions, but our decision was for the harmony."

Of her ride, Cornelissen said: "Parzival felt great. I think it has been one of his best tests ever. I gave it all."
Great Britain's Laura Bechtolsheimer exults after her bronze-medal-winning ride aboard Mistral Hojris. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Dujardin's gold-medal teammate Laura Bechtolsheimer and her longtime partner, Mistral Hojris, had a lovely interpretation of music from The Lion King. "Alf's" movement harmonized well with the music, including a passage half-pass to a piaffe pirouette that was right on the beat, and a piaffe-passage tour that showed great musical interpretation. Alf's movement looked a bit flatter than in the Grand Prix Special, but Bechtolsheimer was exuberant at the conclusion of her performance, which earned a technical score of 80.679 and an artistic score of 88.000 for a combined total of 84.339 percent and the individual bronze medal.

"Today I wanted to do him justice," Bechtolsheimer said, referring to the little mistakes of her previous tests at the 2012 Olympic Games. "I wanted to go out and enjoy the atmosphere and enjoy riding to an awesome freestyle in front of so many spectators and fans. He rose to the occasion. He gave me a very special ride. I felt like finally I'd done him justice."
Anky van Grunsven thanks Salinero for a job well done. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
The previous Olympic individual champion, the Netherlands' Anky van Grunsven on Salinero, ended the eighteen-year-old Hanoverian gelding's (by Salieri) competitive career on a high note. Salinero gave his best performance of these Olympics, and in fact it's the best I've ever seen him look. He showed greater softness over his topline and relaxation to a French-themed medley that showcased van Grunsven's famous freestyle artistry. The freestyle was so good that I wouldn't have been surprised if she had medaled. The ride scored 77.714 (technical) and 86.286 (artistic) for a combined score of 82.000--and I actually thought it might have deserved a tick higher.

"I am not sad. It has been an emotional week, but it was always in my head that it was my last time, and I wanted to enjoy it," van Grunsven said afterward.
You can tell everything you need to know about how Steffen Peters felt about his GP Freestyle on Ravel by the expression on his face. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
The other emotional ride of the day, unfortunately not in a good way, was that of the lone American rider to qualify for the Grand Prix Freestyle. Steffen Peters and Ravel's ride to music from the movie Avatar was artistically compelling but riddled with minor mistakes. Supporters, including Peters' wife, Shannon, teared up watching the ride, which Peters acknowledged afterward was indeed Ravel's competitive swan song.

"We did a super warm-up," Peters said of the freestyle. "We can't blame the heat; we are used to that, and I had plenty of horse. There were just too many mistakes. That is it for Ravel. He is retiring now to his owner's [Akiko Yamazaki] stud in California. I will remember him for his great career. If you put it all together, today was only a glitch. He has given us so much, and it is so sad, but it was not quite happening today."

Endings are always a little sad. The 2012 London Olympic Games have been a thrilling and memorable experience. The organizers did a superb job, and the Greenwich Park venue received accolades from every rider, veterinarian, and official I talked to. Over the past fourteen days we've seen outstanding displays of horsemanship, and we've seen the sport of dressage lifted to new standards. I will go home with memories of the friendly and welcoming staffers and volunteers and the hospitable locals, who seemed to enjoy sharing Greenwich and London with us. But I will also go home feeling sad for the American riders and their wonderful horses, owners, and supporters who worked so hard and yet will go home empty-handed.

Medals aren't everything, but at this level they are of course what competitors are striving for. Teams and individuals want to bring home medals to make their nations and their supporters proud. I know that Steffen Peters in particular is having a bittersweet evening, for this is not how he wanted to end Ravel's career. But I think I speak for the American dressage community when I say that we are proud, we appreciate Ravel's incredible legacy to US dressage, and we look forward to seeing Steffen doing great things in the future. He is a great rider and a great horseman, and his own legacy, although secure, is far from over.

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