April 2, 2016 -- Watch out, Europe. Here comes the USA!
Last night's Grand Prix freestyle finale to the Stillpoint Farm Nations' Cup week featured two 80 percent-plus inspiring performances by American women and their fabulous mounts, serving notice that the U.S. can be a real contender for the podium this summer at the Rio Olympics.
The “Friday Night Stars” competition, run under the lights before a capacity crowd, capped 12 weeks of the Adequan Global Dressage Festival with bouquets of personal bests for thrilled competitors.
Kasey Perry-Glass, riding Goerklintgaard's Dublet in their first season at Grand Prix, drew raves from U.S. Chef d'equipe Robert Dover, who called her ride “ridiculously fantastic,” while U.S. Developing Coach Debbie McDonald broke into a grin and clapped ecstatically for her student.
Kasey, who moved from California to Florida so she could work with Debbie, was marked at 81.325 percent for her expressive effort featuring music from Lord of the Rings.
“I think I found my grit,” grinned Kasey, explaining Robert was always urging her to go for it bigtime, and she finally did. Wiping away a few tears as she talked, Kasey commented on the “conversation” she has in the ring with her horse, to the point that when she puts her leg on and asks him to do something, he responds with “how high?”
That was a hard act to follow. But Laura Graves, her teammate on the winning Nations' Cup squad the day before, was up to the challenge with a performance on Verdades that had Debbie jumping up and down in glee and left Robert awed and beaming with pride as he applauded.
The judges gave Laura a total of 82.800 percent for her execution of a freestyle she was airing for only the second time in a show, having earned 79.475 for its debut last month. The music is from the movie Rudy, about a football player who succeeds against the odds in realizing his dream of going on the field for Notre Dame despite being small of stature.
Laura also has bucked the odds to realize her dreams, and it seems she has no limit as each success builds on a previous triumph. She went for it on the Dutchbred horse her family bought off a videotape as a weanling. (They should make a movie of her story!)
The bond between Laura and her mount over the intervening 13 years was demonstrated in the mutual trust that enabled them to execute high-risk movements, such as smooth two-tempi lead changes on a circle into the one-tempis--and doing it twice.
“It's a lot of counting,” observed Laura, who explained doing something that difficult has to be planned to work with a horse's particular strengths and not overface him.
Hard to believe, but two years ago down here, she just managed to break 70 percent when few people recognized her name. And now she holds the record for the highest score ever recorded in the international ranks at the showgrounds.
“It was an incredible atmosphere in there tonight,” said Laura.
“I could not ask for better rides to end our season with team gold, individual gold, and personal bests. It's really exciting looking forward to the rest of this year with the amazing Team USA we're creating.”
Judging panel member Stephen Clarke of Great Britain, who individually awarded Laura 86 percent, said that as he watched the class, “the hair on my neck was standing up,” citing the “harmony, risk-taking, and really a high degree of difficulty, with beautiful musical interpretation.”
His coat gleaming under the lights, Verdades looks like a different horse than the one who made a sensation as practically a complete unknown abroad at the World Equestrian Games two years ago, where Laura finished fifth on a score of 82.036. His musculature has increased dramatically, and his coat has bloomed to a steady gleam. The accuracy of his movements are a joy to behold, from his rhythmical metronome piaffe to the balanced way he sets himself for his pirouettes.
Both Laura and Kasey have benefited immeasurably from their work with Debbie, who has a close personal relationship with each of them. Debbie and I spoke right after Laura left the arena, even before her score was announced. To hear what she had to say, click on the right-pointing arrow.
The bronze medal in the freestyle went to Canada's Belinda Trussell on Anton. It was her first such individual honor in a long career with her 16-year-old Sachsen gelding that included the 2010 and 2014 World Equestrian Games, as well as the Pan American Games last year.
Belinda was excited because she finally was able to execute the piaffe pirouette one-handed, an achievement that seemed to please her nearly as much as the 76.350 percent score that boosted her to the podium.
In the two-round Stillpoint Farm Nations' Cup that ended Thursday, the U.S.--led by Laura and Kasey--was a runaway winner. The team total, with contributions from Tuny Page (Woodstock) and Shelly Francis (Doktor) was 454.698. Canada finished second with 428.708 and Spain third on 414.421. As in the Pan American Games last year, countries were allowed to combine Small Tour and Big Tour competitors, but the U.S. and Canada were all Grand Prix (carrying a 1.5 percent boost for each horse) while Spain was all Small Tour, with the disadvantage of no bonus.
The star of the Small Tour was Juan Matute Jr., a Spanish high school student who is based in Wellington for much of the year. Charming, personable, articulate and wise beyond his years, he is a marvelous rider is doing a great job bringing along the 9-year-old Hanoverian Dhannie Ymas.
Their score was the top in all three phases this week, the Prix St. Georges, Intermediare I and the I-1 Freestyle. Next year, Juan will be eligible to become an American citizen, a step he plans to take.
But he will hold dual citizenship with Spain, and I get the feeling from things he has said that Juan will continue to ride for that country, rather than the U.S., though he will have the option. After he graduates from high school next year, he likely will be spending more time in Europe, he noted.
The way the individual competitions were held was something new, with separate medals for the I-I competitors. At the Pan American Games last summer, you may recall, the Grand Prix and I-1 riders competed for the same medals. Grand Prix participants Steffen Peters and Laura Graves of the U.S. took gold and silver, while I-1 rider Chris von Martels of Canada earned bronze.
Thomas Baur, the sport director of the AGDF, is hoping the Pan American Sports Organization will permit separate freestyles for Small Tour and Big Tour at the 2019 Pan Ams in Lima, Peru, which would mean an extra set of medals awarded for the discipline.
Aside from a spook in the walk section of his freestyle, and finishing a bit after his music ended, Juan's ride showed great promise and earned him 74.550 percent.
“I have not felt a better test ever...he felt unbelievable. We're evolving. It's a super great end of season,” said Juan, who is heading to Europe for more competition. Interestingly, all three medal horses in the I-1 freestyle were started by Juan's father, Juan Matute Sr.
The silver went to Austria's Katarina Stumf, resplendent in a shadbelly with an Austrian flag of red and white rhinestones on the chest, perfect with rhinestone buttons and glitter-edged vest. Katarina rode For My Love (whose music appropriately was all love songs) to a score of 70.
Raul Corchelo of Colombia, third on Beckham, took the bronze with 70.900 percent.
The U.S. Cup victory was hardly a surprise, but American efforts here were not an end unto themselves. Robert Dover and I talked about what he was looking for in this competition, which is a prelude to a European tour for a squad of eight, from which the Olympic team will be selected. Watch this video to understand his vision.
At this point, you don't have to be a handicapping genius to figure that Laura and Kasey should make the team for Rio with Olympic medalist Steffen Peters, who was competing on the West Coast this weekend. There is still another slot, with Allison Brock, who was not on the team but won the 3-star Grand Prix here on Rosevelt, a key contender as well, along with Tuny and Shelly.
Unfortunately, the unpredictable Florida weather meant the Cup was held in the covered arena, which detracted from its look--but not as much as if the riders had been soaked in one of the downpours that have been so frequent here in the last few weeks.
Tuny, who owns Stillpoint Farm with her husband, Dave, was riding in the Cup for the first time here. She enjoyed her dual role as a sponsor and competitor. Watch this video to hear what she had to say.
The Nations' Cup was the first in a series that now moves to Europe. The AGDF has done a great deal to help dressage competitors from Central and South America, but Thomas Baur is hoping more of them will take part in the Nations' Cup in the future.
I asked Thomas about the prospects of increasing the number of teams for the future, since there were only six competing this time. It would be nice if more European teams were in the mix. Click on the right-pointing arrow to hear what he had to say.
Now I have to hustle over to the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, a half-mile down the road, to spend some time with the jumpers. Tonight is the $500,000 Rolex competition, the biggest prize of the circuit, and tomorrow is the hunter derby on the grass over at AGDF.
I'll be doing a postcard on that at practicalhorsemanmag.com tomorrow night. In the meantime, be sure to check out more photos at facebook.com/dressagetoday.