March 29, 2014--The Adequan Global Dressage Festival glittered as the star of its own show last night, wrapping up the season in fantastic style, with great performances and a crowd to match.
As I thought about writing you this postcard from the equestrian heart of Wellington, Fla., I debated what to mention first. Should it be the development of Adrienne Lyle and Wizard, winners of the 5-star Grand Prix and the Special, as spectacular performers who give a boost to U.S. team prospects looking toward this summer's Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games?
But then how could I not lead with the dynamism of team stalwarts Tina Konyot and Calecto V, who won the Grand Prix freestyle under the lights in dramatic fashion before a packed house, with the fans entertained during the breaks by exhibitions and wonderful performers from the University of Miami's music school.
What about the fact that the day also included a 3-star Grand Prix Freestyle, not to mention a Prix St. Georges with a whopping 33 entries?
You see my problem. But then I realized the caliber and quantity of dressage that went on yesterday as 12 weeks of showing drew to a close all was due to the existence of the GDF. It offers proof that, "If you build it, they will come" is more than just a cliche.
The GDF, born three years ago, came to life through the persistence of Equestrian Sport Productions' Mark Bellissimo, the ability of Adequan's Allyn Mann to understand a vision and the support of backers such as Devon Kane of Diamante Farms, presenter of the 5-star, and Kimberly Boyer. She earned the spotlight last night for making construction of the massive covered arena a reality and eloquently expressing the need for dressage to have a place of its own in the village.
The entries have grown 160 percent over last year, according to Thomas Baur, the director of sport for the GDF, who is working on juggling the schedule to get European-based riders to come here in 2015, along with Californians such as Steffen Peters, who supported their own West Coast shows this year.
The GDF has been a subject of controversy and the object of lawsuits, but its shining success overrides all that.
By offering a venue where horses and riders can stay in one place to show regularly and develop, the sport in this country benefits.
A prime example is the pairing of Adrienne and Wizard, who earned a mark of 10 for a pirouette (her first 10 in a CDI, or international competition) and several 9's for her riding.
"It's been a big changing season for him, he's always been up and down and kind of all over the place," Adrienne reflected about Wizard, who benefitted from competing regularly over the last three months.
"Having the chance to come to a facility like this and show on a regular basis and not have it be a huge ordeal...you're not putting him through a ton of transport, the footing's great, the stabling's great. That started to make it (his performances) more workmanlike."
No one has been more impressed with the progress of Adrienne and Wizard than Robert Dover, the U.S. dressage coach. Unlike Germany or Holland, the U.S. isn't flush with riders who can get tip-top scores in international competition, so Adrienne's emergence, and her dominance this weekend with the 15-year-old Oldenburg gelding have been particularly meaningful.
Not everything is perfect, of course. Adrienne acknowledged she had a little problem with a slow canter transition from passage, but that's easy to fix, and something to work on as she points to the national championships and the WEG selection trials at the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation headquarters in Gladstone, N.J., this June.
"I chose to do the Special because it is so important for Gladstone and the WEG qualification, as much as I really would have loved to ride the freestyle tonight," said Adrienne, referring to the fact that the Grand Prix and Special will be used to determine team placings at the WEG. She explained she had to keep her long-term goals in mind as well as continuing to build Wizard's confidence.
Her winning score of 75.588 percent was a personal best, and built on another personal best, the 74.160 she and Wizard earned Thursday in the Grand Prix. You can see the rapport between horse and rider during their tests. It's a wavelength that's almost palpable, and they're both on it.
After the Special, I talked with Adrienne about her fabulous season.
Adrienne is, of course, working here with her mentor, Debbie McDonald, but Spain's Juan Matute Sr. is helping out with piaffe/passage work. In return, Debbie is giving pointers to his two amazing children, Paula and Juan Jr., who are competing in junior classes and have been a sensation at the venue.
Debbie's husband, Bob McDonald, is the one who selected Wizard for Peggy and Parry Thomas (owners of Debbie's iconic mount, Brentina) so he is due a lot of credit as the horse continues to bloom.
While we were chatting yesterday, I asked where he found Wizard.
Tina summed up her freestyle experience in one word, "Wow," which matched the reaction of the crowd. She has the perfect music in her "Big Black Horse and a Cherry Tree" signature tune, and Calecto knows how to rise to an occasion -- love his well-defined pirouettes and proud passage.
Her score of 79.250 percent was a personal best (there have been personal bests all over the place this week!), as she led a triumvirate of Danish-bred horses in the top placings. Danish rider Mikala Gundersen had the crowd clapping in rhythm to her perfomance on My Lady to bouncy tunes as she earned 76.775 percent, while another U.S.-based Dane, Lars Petersen, finished third on Marriett (76.625). He has refined his freestyle to a lively circus theme, but cut back by about half on his previous 30 one-tempi approach.
"I'm getting too old for riding that many one-tempis," chuckled Lars.
"That's very difficult," he continued, noting it's "too risky," because one mistake can be big trouble.
Tina's score gives her a big boost as she heads out next month for the World Cup finals in Lyon, France, along with Lars, who last night was awarded the prize for the rider who accumulated the most world ranking points during the AGDF season.
While last night ended 5-star dressage competition in spectacular fashion, classes continues through tomorrow, with both FEI competitions such as the Intermediaire I and national tests. But I'll be busy elsewhere.
Tonight is the $500,000 climax of the international jumper offerings, a half-mile from the GDF at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center. Rain is predicted, but I'm hoping it holds off. Tomorrow is the hunter derby over at the beautiful course that adjoins the dressage rings. Since I've still been unsuccessful thus far with my continuing effort to clone myself (I hope I can finish it for the WEG), I won't be able to see any more dressage. And being at dressage precluded me from covering as much of the jumper action as I would have liked to do.
I did manage to nip over to PBIEC earlier this week, however, and was able to watch one of the most amazing jump-offs I've seen in awhile. The Thursday Ruby et Violette WEF Challenge Cup series is second only to the grands prix in terms of excitement, and its $50,000 finale exemplified that. Fifteen from a field of 70 came back for the tie-breaker over Anthony D'Ambrosio's course, and as one would expect, the rounds kept getting faster and faster. But when Jessica Springsteen clocked 38.19 seconds on Vindicat W over the shortened course, I thought the Duke University student might be able to beat all the professionals. Her mount, after all, clinched team gold for Great Britain at the London Olympics with Peter Charles aboard before she bought him, so the horse has a history. I asked her if she could have gone any faster and she said no, that was her best.
Then along came 2008 Olympic individual gold medalist Eric Lamaze of Canada on Zigali PS, who is so adjustable and right on it. He nailed the route in 37.74 seconds and I thought, "That's it, then." When you're watching the jumpers, though, don't ever jump to conclusions yourself.
Beezie Madden was last to go on Cortes C, and I was watching her instead of the clock, thinking how smooth her trip was and how easy she made it look. There was none of the frantic mad dash you often see when time is of the essence. But Beezie, another Olympic gold medalist (she earned the team prize in 2008) and individual bronze medalist, is just amazing, and took the class in 36.91 seconds, having done just enough to win.
Of course, she gives all credit to the horse.
Can't wait to see everyone again in the biggest class of the circuit this evening. I'll be sending another postcard about the jumpers late tomorrow morning, so be sure to look for it at www.practicalhorsemanmag.com and on Equisearch. And I'll be posting a few photos late tonight on www.facebook.com/practicalhorseman. There also are some more dressage photos at www.facebook.com/dressagetoday.