September 25, 2016 -- Will we ever again see anything like the magical partnership of Valegro and Charlotte Dujardin? Ahlerich, Rembrandt, Totilas--all were great but Valegro unquestionably is the greatest of them all, winning three Olympic gold medals and holding every record in the discipline.
He and Charlotte last night demonstrated once more how dressage should be done; every movement a masterpiece of athleticism and harmony, from striking trot extensions to powerful pirouettes.
They radiate star power, and fans at the Rolex Central Park Horse Show showed their appreciation, mobbing horse and rider when they were given the chance of a lifetime to meet them after watching a fabulous, heart-pounding exhibition ride to music from “How to Train Your Dragon” in the Wollman Rink.
Cellphones and tablets were raised high to click off shots of the famous couple as the spectators who gave the emotional freestyle a standing ovation swarmed out of the stands to be close to their icons, have their photos taken and actually touch the equine superstar.
“I was shaking,” confessed Gemma Starn of Larchmont, N.Y., recounting how it felt to put her hand on Valegro.
“I told Charlotte that she's my idol,” added the 15-year-old, who rides dressage herself and of course, hopes she, too, someday will be in the Olympics.
After watching Valegro, the pronouncement from Deena Cahill of Ringoes, N.J., was,“You can't really find any fault in him.”
Deena, who rides dressage and events as well, moved right in when Charlotte invited everyone to visit Valegro. “I got to pet his grooming spot right on his wither, and he was moving his lips,” she said happily.
Valegro handled all the love with aplomb, basking in the adulation that is his due, staying completely calm in the midst of the scrum. True, he's been there, done that, but having hundreds of people get up close and personal is asking a lot of anyone, human or equine. Valegro delivered, as he always does, with Charlotte and caretaker Alan Davies (supplying treats) by his side.
“He's just the most amazing animal, and especially to allow this many people to surround him after he just competed. He's phenomenal,” said Jennifer Kellogg of Ontario, who hopes to get Valegro to come to Toronto's Royal Winter Fair next year.
Charlotte is such a good sport. She surprised everyone by riding the Friesian stallion Frederik the Great into the arena for his exhibition before the dressage competition. Everyone chuckled and clapped as soon as they recognized her on the animal billed as “The world's most handsome horse.”
I had the chance to speak with Charlotte as the evening ended. She's been living a whirlwind since the Rio Olympics, but she was, as always in my experience, extremely gracious about taking a few minutes to talk. And she had some interesting things to say. Click on the right-pointing arrow to watch the video and get a bit of breaking news.
Under the guidance of trainer/rider/mentor Carl Hester, the personable genius who masterminded the success of British dressage, which went from zero to 60 with team gold in London and silver in Rio, every move of Valegro's career had been artfully planned.
After the 2015 World Cup finals in Vegas, which Valegro won, of course, Carl first revealed what the future would hold for his equine superstar. I found the old audio clip of our conversation there and thought it would be worth a re-listen because it illustrates the type of long-range thought that has helped make Valegro what he is. Click on the right-pointing arrow to listen.
During our chat, Carl also said he envisioned Valegro retiring at Olympia, London's Christmas show, and the horse will indeed make his formal farewell there in three months.
“For us,” explained Carl “Olympia is such a huge show at home that Olympia obviously would be a fitting place for him to go and make 5,000 people cry. It would be the best crybaby session in the world.”
Valegro's appearance was the pinnacle and climax of the Central Park show, which ends today with a free afternoon of exhibitions, aimed mainly at young people. For show mastermind Mark Bellissimo, the show is about affording people in an urban metropolis a chance to see what horse sport is about, and perhaps get them involved, either as competitors or fans. It was an enormous success, demonstrating once again what imagination and persistence can do. (In line with that, Mark kept after Charlotte until she agreed to come to the show, despite wishing to take more time off after the Rio Olympics. He's a hard guy to turn down...)
I don't mean to shortchange the actual dressage competition, but it was all a prelude to the main act.
As the announcer noted, the way to make people stay for an awards presentation is to promise them a performance by Valegro afterward.
Judy Reynolds made Irish history by being the first person from her country to win both the Grand Prix and the Freestyle on the same weekend at a CDI. The Olympian and Vancouver K scored 77.051 percent in their ride to music in the $75,000 class. Sweden's Tinne Vilhelmson-Silfven was second on 76.650 percent with Paridon Magi, normally ridden by her stable jockey, because Tinne's regular mount was resting after Rio.
Judy began riding dressage, not a major discipline in Ireland, after her hunter ponies couldn't jump anymore. She has been living in Germany, perfecting her art. We'll be following her in my postcard next weekend from Dressage at Devon, where she will be appearing.
There were three top hats on the podium, with Mikala Gundersen of Denmark taking third on My Lady. That's a very European thing these days; most dressage riders in the U.S., with the notable exception of Steffen Peters, wear helmets when competing.
Mikala, who is based in Florida, was the closest thing to an American rider in the seven-horse competition. Charlotte Jorst was supposed to compete, but she was eliminated after protocol was not observed when her horse was given medication following the horse inspection. It was a legal substance, but the situation was not handled according to FEI guidelines.
I wondered why there wasn't more of a U.S presence, and talked to judge Janet Foy about that.
Click on the right-pointing arrow to hear the conversation.
Michael Stone, Mark B's right-hand man, also noted that it wasn't possible to keep stallions and mares separated as required by federal regulations in the stabling, because the area where horses stay in the park is so small. That meant Isabell Werth, the dressage winner for the show's first two years, couldn't come, because her gelding was injured, and it also limited who else could come.
Hunters ruled the afternoon yesterday. The feature was the $50,000 Duchossois Cup, a competition open to professionals.
Kelley Farmer and Kodachrome had a one-point margin over Liza Towell Boyd and O'Ryan in the class run over New York City-themed jumps that really added to the atmosphere. The jumps, a collaboration among course designer Bobby Murphy, LA Pomeroy and artist Tracy Oberc, captured the spirit of the city with obstacles representing the Staten Island ferry, a baseball bat (the Yankees and Mets both call the city home) and a wall of coins for Wall Street.
Kelley told us a little secret about why the horses jumped the latter so willingly. To find out, click on the right-pointing arrow and watch the video.
Central Park's Rolex show jumping grand prix, held Friday night, will be televised this evening at 9 p.m. Eastern time on the NBC Sports Network, with 1984 gold medal Olympian Melanie Smith Taylor giving the expert commentary. If you want to read about it beforehand, go to my story here.
Don't forget to click on www.facebook.com/practicalhorseman to see more photos from the Rolex Central Park Horse Show.
As I said earlier, be sure to check back next Sunday for my postcard from Dressage at Devon.