It's a known fact that dressage is a political institution. For years it has been important for riders from countries like the U.S. to spend time competing in Germany before championship competitions, in order for the judges to have what is euphemistically called "confidence" in the riders and horses in order for them to earn the scores they deserve. At the conclusion of the Grand Prix Freestyle on Sunday night, it appeared as though politics had perhaps played their part in the final placings. American individuals had done well, and placed higher than in any WEG or Olympics in history, and yet, despite the smiles, it felt as though perhaps an injustice had been done to our riders.It's a known fact that dressage is a political institution. For years it has been important for riders from countries like the U.S. to spend time competing in Germany before championship competitions, in order for the judges to have what is euphemistically called "confidence" in the riders and horses in order for them to earn the scores they deserve. At the conclusion of the Grand Prix Freestyle on Sunday night, it appeared as though politics had perhaps played their part in the final placings. American individuals had done well, and placed higher than in any WEG or Olympics in history, and yet, despite the smiles, it felt as though perhaps an injustice had been done to our riders.
It’s a known fact that dressage is a political institution. For years it has been important for riders from countries like the U.S. to spend time competing in Germany before championship competitions, in order for the judges to have what is euphemistically called "confidence" in the riders and horses in order for them to earn the scores they deserve. At the conclusion of the Grand Prix Freestyle on Sunday night, it appeared as though politics had perhaps played their part in the final placings. American individuals had done well, and placed higher than in any WEG or Olympics in history, and yet, despite the smiles, it felt as though perhaps an injustice had been done to our riders.
Chapin stadium was packed for the late night performance of the final leg of the individual championship. The top 15 riders after the freestyle would be competing, though only three riders from a given nation can compete in the final, so the standings get altered slightly as riders such as Guenter Seidel from the U.S. and Ann-Kathrin Linsenhoff from Germany are dropped out. After the Netherlands’ Coby van Baalen and Olympic Ferro withdrew from final contention (the horse had gotten his tongue over the bit badly in the Special, and had fallen back in the standings), Denmark’s Jon Pedersen and Esprit de Valdemar were invited to round out the field.
Early in the evening the Netherlands’ Anky van Grunsven showed again why she is considered the master of the musical freestyle with a strong performance aboard the young stallion Gestion Krack C. The tango-flavored music suits the showy bay, and van Grusnven’s choreography is always interesting and unique. The horse is young by dressage standards, and after two days of heavy competition he didn’t have much piaffe left to offer, and missed a few of his flying changes, but he flowed nicely with the music and horse and rider truly appeared to be dancing. As they halted, van Grunsven pumped the air with her fist and patted her horse enthusiastically. As the crowd rose to it’s feet cheering, she pointed to her mount repeatedly and hugged him. Mark my words: in a year or two the world will be chasing this pair.
Hometown hero Raphael Soto Andrade on the Spanish stallion Invasor had the Spanish crowd on their feet clapping and chanting before they even got to the ring. Had he been on anything but the cool-headed Invasor, this welcome would surely have hurt his chances for a good performance. But they put in a powerful and fun freestyle to Spanish music that highlighted the big gray’s elasticity and power, including near-perfect double canter pirouettes, half pass in passage, and half-turns in the piaffe. He finished up with a perfect one-handed passage down the centerline, with the crowd clapping in time to the music. After his halt he shouted, and patted his horse and walked out of the ring on loose reins waving both hands in the air as Invasor gazed about calmly at his adoring public. As he exited the dressage ring, Soto suddenly gathered his snaffle rein, and put the big gray in to a fabulous Spanish walk with one hand, while waving his hat to the crowd with the other. The roar of the crowd was nearly deafening. In theory, performing the Spanish walk is illegal in FEI competition, but it was clear no one was going to deny Soto and Invasor their moment in the sun.
After, thankfully, a break to rake the ring, the first American competitor Sue Blinks and Flim Flam came in to perform their freestyle set to Cirque de Soleil music. As she rounded the C end of the ring, Flim spooked badly at the TV cameras set between the judge’s boxes. For a few hairy moments the horse reared, ran backwards, and balked badly, nearly unseating Blinks. She got him to walk back and forth in front of them gingerly, and then the bell rang. Unfortunately, the horse’s nerves were frazzled and it showed throughout the performance. He bolted in one of his trot extensions, breaking in to canter, and leaped out on one pirouette. His signature move in this freestyle is usually a series of 20+ one-tempi changes on the centerline, but as the horse became more and more nervous as the approached the cameras, Blinks pulled him out early. After that, she seemed to accept that tonight wasn’t her night, and just let the horse finish quietly, halting and beginning to exit the ring before the music was ended. Her score of 74.375 would drop her four places to 10th
"He was overwhelmed by the cameras and didn’t let it go through the whole test," said Blinks. "He’s not a horse that deals with new circumstances well, and this was a totally new circumstance. I was hoping it would pump him up, but it gave him stage fright.
Ulla Salzgeber and Rusty of Germany had been favorites coming in to this competition, but after battling a fever, the big liver chestnut just hadn’t performed to his normal standard. Standing in fifth coming in to the freestyle, Salzgeber had nothing to lose, and rode for broke. Though the big horse was moving fabulously, and has an intricate and interesting pattern, performed to a combination of music including Carmina Burana by Orff, and what I can only identify as that Zales Diamond "A Diamond is Forever" music. However, it was not a fault-free performance. He looked around in his first halt, and in an early piaffe he kicked out several times, and continued to be uneven and hike up one of his hind legs differently from the other through all of his piaffe-passage work. In his second big extension he spooked badly in a corner and broke in to the canter. He missed in his one-tempi changes on the quarter line, though his series of canter pirouettes performed around the ring dangerously close to the boards added a fun element of jeopardy an intrigue to the performance. His score of 83.775 would give him victory in the freestyle, and move him into a controversial bronze medal position.
The next American horse was the stallion Relevant with Lisa Wilcox. This horse is light on his feet, and dances in his normal test. His light and airy music with a modern flavor (including some Janet Jackson) highlights the dancing nature of this pair. Her opening sequence of trot extension to passage, back to extension to passage and then piaffe was electrifying, and her canter-pirouette-half pass made an interesting ring pattern. He did miss one of his one tempi changes on a short diagonal, but her final move of a full pirouette in piaffe to halt was quite impressive, though overall the performance was not quite as bursting with energy as the other two nights. However, her score of 82.850 seemed questionable in light of Rusty’s more numerous mistakes.
"He wasn’t quite as fresh as on Special day," admitted Wilcox. "But that score of over 82% is his highest ever."
When Debbie McDonald and Brentina came in to the ring, it was clear that unlike her teammate Flim Flam, Brentina liked the lights and the crowd, and was coming to strut her stuff. She entered in passage to "Who Could Ask For Anything More" the irony of which was soon to become clear. She struck off immediately in canter and performed a double pirouette, with one-tempis immediately on the centerline. Her pattern was intricate and beautiful, showing off the mare’s flexibility and fabulous transitions. They were in time with their music throughout, especially in the walk sequence where the mare sashayed perfectly to the brassy sax medley. She finished with a full turn in piaffe on the center line, performed better than any competitor that night, to extended trot to halt perfectly with the music. She pointed to the sky, no doubt in reference to her mother, and then threw her arms around her horse’s neck. The crowd was on its feet, cheering and screaming. The victorious American eventers from this morning cheered from their box and waved a flag. It was, in a word, breathtaking. Her only error was a miss in one of her two-tempi changes.
When her score of 82.700 was announced, the crowd changed from cheering to booing and whistling (which I’ve discovered is what many Europeans do instead of boo) and for a moment I wasn’t sure they were going to start hurling things at the judge’s boxes.
As we sat their puzzling over what other test the judges seemed to have been watching, Beauvalais and Beatriz Ferrer-Salat rode in to the ring. Though this pair made no overt mistakes, the horse tends to be not as engaged behind throughout his test, resulting in unlevel piaffes, and extensions which are very showy in front, but not matched by the activity in the hind end. Her music was enjoyable, and suited the horse, and her choreography was simple but included an interesting set of mirrored moves which drew a symmetrical pattern in the ring. She too attempted a full turn in piaffe, but the horse became slightly stuck halfway through, and began to four-beat in the piaffe. Her score of 82.825 made McDonald’s score seem even less understandable. However, it was enough to clinch silver for Spain’s first-ever individual dressage medal.
Last in the ring were Capellmann and Farbenfroh. Her Grand Prix had been gorgeous, her Special less so, but the flashy chestnut was on form tonight. He strutted to his music, pointing his toes in the trot and showing great freeness in his shoulders. However, his piaffe was somewhat lacking today, with very little activity behind, and some unevenness. His canter work was handsome and strong, though his overexuberance to throw big tempi-changes caused him to miss in one of his two-tempis. It wasn’t perfect, but it was more than good enough to guarantee her the title of World Champion. She sat for a second, taking in the enormity of what she had done, then waved to the cheering crowd, and hugged her horse’s neck and patted him. Her score of 83.675 was still behind Rusty’s, but her margin of lead going in to the freestyle kept her on top with a combined score of 237.515. Ferrer-Salat would take silver with 234.385, and Salzgeber would take the bronze with 233.535. Less than one point behind in fourth was McDonald with 233.460 and Wilcox took fifth with 232.530. Soto and Invasor were sixth with 224.100.
"To win the individual gold is my life’s dream, as you can imagine," said Capellmann. "I would like to say thank you to Farbenfroh who was really great and really concentrated. And thank you to Klaus Balkenhol [her coach of ten years] who was really busy with the U.S. riders but gave me help when I needed it.
"I’m really happy right now," she concluded, breaking in to tears.
"I though we had a very good test," said an equally happy Ferrer-Salat. "Everything went really well with the music."
"I had a great ride with this atmosphere," said Salzgeber. " He was back to the old Rusty I know and my head could be totally free. Today I showed everybody I could fight for it and would. He fights so much-I’m so happy."
Sentiments were less rosy in the American camp, though McDonald and Wilcox were gracious and circumspect about their results.
"I can’t ask for more than that performance," said McDonald. "I’m ecstatic-I have to be. I couldn’t asked more of my horse-every time I went in to the ring this week she gave me 100% and I excelled more than I ever imagined. And, the team is going home with the silver."
When she first heard the score, McDonald said she was very pleased because it was the first time she had scored over an 80% in the freestyle, though she couldn’t hear the crowd’s boos and whistles from the outside ring. When asked how she felt about the crowd’s reaction, she smiled demurely and said simply, "I’m glad people enjoyed [my performance]."
Wilcox was also positive and excited by the final placings. "We’re just getting started here folks," she said. "This is the beginning, not the end. We just got excited by the possibilities in the meantime, but this is right where we were really planning to be all along. This is great, and it’s a historical show for us."
However, team chef d’equipe Jessica Ranshousen was less shy about showing her displeasure. "I have to be a little careful, as I’m also a judge," she said. "But this has been a historical show. For the first time, the judging has been much more open and is being far more realistic-it’s the direction we should be heading. But we have some hangers-on who get a little nervous when it’s time to decide between what is safe and what is right. And some would rather be safe than right.
"I’m pissed off," she continued. "And I’m allowed to be because I’m the chef and I love all these riders, and we had some lovely moments out there. But, I’ll get over it. We fight, and we’ve fought for a long time, and we’ll fight another day, and when we’re through we’ll be on the podium for the individual [medals]."
I have to admit, I watched all the tests that night, and have since seen the top five on video again, and I don’t get it. I’m glad that Debbie and Lisa are happy with their results, and thrilled with the future of American dressage, but I don’t get it. I don’t want to take away from the accomplishments of the other riders, who have worked long and hard with their mounts to get to this level, but it’s hard to justify what happened tonight.
However, maybe it’s best to think about these results like the Academy Awards. It’s often said that actors or actresses can get Oscars for roles that my not be their best performance, but are indicative of a body of work over a lifetime of the craft. So perhaps with that in mind, I can feel less indignant at the results. Relevant and Brentina are young, and have many years ahead of them in their careers. I can only hope their just reward is waiting in Athens, or at the next WEG (which will either be in Aachen, Germany or Lexington, Kentucky-announcement to be made later this week). I don’t know if Lisa or Debbie will ever read this, but ladies, you got robbed.
Tuesday is a day off here at the WEG, and if the weather cooperates, I’m hoping to see something of the city (it’s been raining hard much of the last 36 hours). Competition restarts on Wednesday with the first individual qualifier, or speed leg, for the show jumpers, and the first day of dressage for the drivers. The reiners also start their team competition over in the indoor.
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