June 14, 2014 -- The next generation of American dressage riders hit another bullseye today, as 26-year-old Laura Graves found herself on Steffen Peters' heels after a beautifully produced test aboard Verdades in the Grand Prix Special at the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation headquarters in Gladstone, N.J.
Her score of 74.549 percent in the U.S. Equestrian Federation Dressage Festival of Champions was only 1.098 percent away from the mark set by Steffen, who is nearly twice her age and with far more than twice her experience. His mount, Legolas, earned 75.647 percent for a test that improved on his two-tempi problems from Thursday's Grand Prix, but included a break as he trotted down the long side of the arena at the beginning of his performance.
Laura, reed slim and straight in the saddle, had an impressive ride on the Dutchbred horse she got as a weanling after seeing him on a videotape. She became a working student for former U.S. coach Anne Gribbons, who helped her bring "Diddy" up to grand prix level. Florida-based Laura now works with Debbie McDonald, who also is the mentor of Adrienne Lyle, the USA's individual Olympic competitor in 2012.
The top eight in the Special were not much more than four percentage points apart, with Adrienne (73.412) fourth behind Steffen's 2012 Olympic teammate, Jan Ebeling on Rafalca (74.294). Adrienne had a beautiful ride apart from Wizard's resistance at the beginning of the two-tempis. He's a tough horse, but after he pulled that little stunt, Adrienne went into high gear to figure out where she could make up the points.
Caroline Roffman (72.627) on the silky black mare, Her Highness O, impressed once again with her accuracy and fluid style to finish fifth. And it's only her first season in CDIs.
Laura, Adrienne and Caroline, who tied for fourth in the Grand Prix, are all under 30 and the future of the sport. No one is happier about that than Anne Gribbons, who was judging the class. The former U.S. coach has long been hammering the concept that the U.S. needs more of a pipeline to the top.
That's something with which Debbie is intimately involved as the USA's developing coach (under a grant from Akiko Yamazaki, Legolas' owner). I asked for her thoughts on Laura's success.
The top eight from here will be decided tomorrow in the Grand Prix Freestyle, which counts 15 percent toward the national championship. Steffen already has what looks to be an unassailable lead (the Grand Prix counted 45 percent and the Special, 40 percent.) I will freely admit I didn't do the math, but at this point it would seem he has the momentum to take the title yet again after winning it with Legolas for the first time last year.
Jan, Laura and Adrienne are less than a point apart in the 45/40 scenario, so their order of finish could change.
But the championships, presented by the Dutta Corp., also are the selection trials for the short list from which the team will be picked for August's Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. The top two will be automatically on the team, with the caveat that they do one observation competition in Europe, while the next six on the list must do two.
In addition to the aforementioned riders, those also in line for a ticket abroad at this point include Tina Konyot (CalectoV), Shelly Francis (Doktor) and Lisa Wilcox (Denzello).
I was interested in Laura's advice for those who aspire to do what she has done. Here is what she told me.
Laura, by the way, still does her own stable work and braids her own horse. Her closeness with Diddy, achieved in many ways, but also by doing the chores, undoubtedly is part of the reason for her success.
If you were watching the Special in Gladstone or via streaming video, you may have been puzzled when Anne called Steffen over as he was leaving the arena following his test on Legolas. One of the judges thought he may have spotted blood on the horse's mouth. Steffen looked down and saw nothing, but the technical delegate took a closer look. She found nothing. Incident over.
But I told Steffen I thought it was handled a little too publicly, and he agreed. As he pointed out, the steward (who examines the horses after each ride, checking the bit and the sides of the horse to make sure spurs haven't drawn blood) was perfectly capable of handling the situation where she stands near the arena's exit out of general view.
Anyway, all's well that ends well.
That was Steffen's second class of the day. He also was first and second in the Intermediaire I with Rosamunde, 75.105 percent, with generally excellent work overriding a bobble in a pirouette, and Apassionata (73.211), who settled after spooking as she entered the ring.
The I-1 championship seems a title he is unlikely to lose. His closest competition is Olivia Lagoy-Weltz, whose score of 75.126 to make her third with Rassing's Lonoir today might have been higher, had she not decided to go for it in the extended trot and had a break.
Rosamunde, known around the barn as Queen Rosie, has such an appeal that you can't help but melt when you see her. That's the way Akiko, who also owns Rosie, feels about the mare.
With so many big names and fabulous horses competing, it would be all too easy to ignore the juniors, young riders, and Brentina Cup competitors who had their own finales today. But that would be a mistake. Anne notes how important it is that these divisions get attention (and the pony ranks, too, but their last class is tomorrow). The base of the sport is important, because without it, the top rests on nothing and that all-important pipeline doesn't exist.
The kids really impressed when they sat down for their press conferences. Anna Buffini, a 19-year-old Californian who rode Guenter Seidel's former mount Sundayboy to the Young Rider title, also won the new sportsmanship award.
She couldn't say enough for her horse ("He was there for me every step of the way" ) but Devon Wycoff, third in the competition, couldn't say enough about Anna (who she nominated for the sportsmanship award), and for that matter, reserve champ Cassidy Gallman.
"My motto in showing has always been, `Be the person you wouldn't mind losing to' and both these girls exemplify that, the sportsmanship in the barn," Devon said.
"One night I locked my keys in my car and I couldn't make it back for night check. I frantically messaged them and said, `Please, please check on my horse, I'm so sorry.'
They were like, `don't be, girl, we're all a team, we've got it.'"
That sense of camaraderie pervaded the ranks of the younger set. All were wildly enthusiastic about the experience of coming to Gladstone and competing, as well as bonding with competitors they met from across the country. I suspect many lasting friendships were forged in the past few days.
The junior title went to Cassie Schmitt on Velasquer, while the Brentina Cup--the stepping stone to open Grand Prix won years ago by Adrienne--was earned by Katrin Dagge on the stallion, Dream of Love.
U.S. coach Robert Dover promised that within the next six months "you'll see an even stronger youth program that will in years to come rival the finest youth program of the world. We're evolving."
I asked how this will be funded, and Robert simply guaranteed there would be money for it.
If anyone is so foolish as to expresses skepticism, his answer is, "Remember when there was no Global Dressage Festival?" Robert helped make that happen not so long ago. I'm looking forward to watching this one develop.
I'll be sending another postcard tomorrow that wraps up the Festival, so be sure to look for it in the evening.