When Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro were crowned the 2015 Reem Acra FEI World Cup Dressage Champions on April 18, it marked the fourth time in a decade that the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas has hosted the world’s most high-profile annual dressage championship. Las Vegas hosted the final in 2005, 2007 and 2009, but went on a five-year World Cup hiatus until the event’s exciting return in 2015. This edition of the World Cup Final was a success in virtually every respect, from the world-class field of horses and riders to the tremendous audience of nearly 11,000 during the freestyle.
A League of Their Own
The strength of the field in Las Vegas in relation to years past is apparent by comparing the scores with those of 2009, when Steffen Peters and Ravel became the first American World Cup Champions on home soil. Peters’ 2009 score of 84.95 percent would have put him ahead of this year’s runner-up, Edward Gal and Glock’s Undercover, who earned 84.696 percent. Across the board, the scores at this World Cup Final were considerably higher than in 2009. But at the very top is a soaring score for the champions, who didn’t so much defend their title as reaffirm their dominance. Dujardin and Valegro won the Grand Prix test with 85.414 percent, more than six points ahead of Gal with 79.057. The gap widened to nearly 10 points in the freestyle—Dujardin came within one-tenth of a point of breaking her own world record, with 94.196 percent in the freestyle.
Among the many aspiring dressage riders in the World Cup audience was Lara Oles, a Para-Dressage Grade III athlete whose goal is to compete for the U.S. Dressage Team at next year’s Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. She was awestruck by Dujardin’s and Valegro’s performances in Las Vegas. “The talent and harmony that those two have is out of this world,” says Oles. “Valegro doesn’t seem to have any weaknesses; he does both sides and every movement equally well. That is so rare. It’s like watching a miracle unfold in front of your eyes.”
As impressed as Oles was with Valegro’s near-perfection, she was equally moved by the manner in which Peters accepted Legolas 92’s elimination after blood on his side was discovered by the steward following Peters’ freestyle performance. The pair would have finished fourth with a score of more than 80 percent. “I respect Steffen even more than I did before, if that is possible,” she says. “The gracious and humble way he apologized to everyone, especially Legolas, for their elimination is as rare as Valegro.”
Ground Jury President Lilo Fore of the U.S. was in the unenviable position of having to officially eliminate Peters from the competition. “It was my saddest moment in Las Vegas,” Fore recalls. “I wanted to sink into the ground, find a hole and disappear. It is always a judge’s worst nightmare to have to eliminate a rider. We all know what a sensitive rider Steffen is, and every one of us felt for him. I can only imagine what Steffen had to go through at that moment.”
The Newcomers Hold Their Own
Another spectator highlight of this World Cup Final was the opportunity to see a number of up-and-coming combinations for the first time. Germany’s Jessica von Bredow-Werndl soared to third place on the elegant Gribaldi son, Unee BB, in her debut at a World Cup Final. Behind the German pair, in fourth place, were the USA’s stars from last year’s Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, Laura Graves and Verdades. Their freestyle score of 79.125 percent is all the more impressive when one takes into account this was the first indoor competition of this kind for both horse and rider. Verdades (aka “Diddy”) was visibly intimidated at times by his surroundings in both the Grand Prix and the freestyle, but Graves continuously reassured her horse and delivered technically impressive rides. “Vegas was completely different from what I had expected,” says Graves. “There was no way to prepare a horse like mine or a green rider like myself. It wasn’t the atmosphere that was difficult so much as the physically small space.”
This first World Cup experience was a memorable one for Graves in many respects. “Diddy could not have been more of a superstar,” she says. “He flew like a VIP and settled into the stabling like a seasoned pro. It was an entirely new competition experience for us and to finish in the top five both days makes me very proud.” Graves says the only time during the World Cup season she felt any pressure was at her first competition in Florida. “Then I got over it! I always tell my students, ‘If you go in and ride the very best you can ride, what is there to be worried about?’ We have been on a steep learning curve the last 12 months and I, in true dressage-rider fashion, enjoy the uphill climb. I see what this horse is capable of and I hope that I can do him justice.”
Even though this year’s field was larger, with 18 combinations compared to 14 in 2009, this World Cup Final had fewer North Americans than at any past U.S. World Cup Final. Graves and Peters were the only Americans, and no Canadian competed in Las Vegas. In 2014 the FEI Dressage Committee changed the way it distributes what were formerly known as “wild card” spots. In the past, these extra spots tended to go to riders from the home country or region of the world, but now the spots are assigned based on World Rider rankings. The result of this process in 2015 led to three Russian and three Danish combinations in the final.
“This is the first time we have used this system, so we will have a debriefing to see if anything should be adjusted,” says FEI Dressage Director Trond Asmyr. As Asmyr points out, the lower number of North American competitors was no reflection on the caliber of the competition. “We saw already in the qualifiers this season that new and exciting horse/rider combinations gave signals of high results and good entertainment for the final. In the final, they really showed how good both the riders and the horses are.” Asmyr believes a combination of training and breeding is what contributes to this rising standard. “This together brings the performances to this fantastic level, which is enjoyed by all dressage fans.”
Growing the Fan Base
One of the primary reasons the Dressage World Cup was created was to increase the discipline’s public profile. It is a fact that even people who know nothing about dressage can be inspired and excited by watching horses perform to music. Glenda McElroy and her company, Cornerstone Event Management, have been the organizers of all four Las Vegas World Cup Finals as well as the organizers of the first World Cup Final in the U.S., which took place in Los Angeles in 1995. In addition to the entertainment features that make Las Vegas a unique host of the World Cup Finals—acrobats, fireworks, singers and dancers—this year, Friday (the noncompetition day) was dedicated to dressage-focused entertainment. The afternoon featured freestyles from America’s rising stars, an Elvis-themed quadrille performance led by Olympian Guenter Seidel and the return of the Grand Prix pas de deux competition, which was a hit in 2009. As Oles pointed out after watching the afternoon of fun, “I have never seen so much smiling in the ring, ever.”
Olympians Jan Ebeling and Charlotte Bredahl were winners of the pas de deux competition, enchanting both the audience and the judges with their “Grease”-themed performance. Both riders were impressed with the composure of their relatively inexperienced horses. “Both of them were perfect,” says Ebeling. “Darling, Ann Romney’s new horse, surprised me at how great he was both with the crowd exuberance and his technical performance, especially the piaffe and passage. We loved dressing up for the part and we had a hair and make-up artist help us, which was a blast.”
Ebeling says extra features like the costumed pas de deux elevate dressage to a point where it can attract more fans. “I truly believe that classes like this raise the fun factor of dressage and give us the opportunity to portray our sport in an easy-to-understand and light way, especially for those who don’t understand dressage well.” And for those who do already understand the discipline, Ebeling says there is equal but different value: It helps to show how fun dressage can be.
It has been a tradition in dressage to expect audiences to hold their applause until a test has been completed. At past editions of the World Cup Final in Las Vegas, the announcer reminded spectators of the importance of not disturbing the horses’ focus by cheering or clapping during performances. This year, however, no such requests were made by the announcers, and in the freestyles the crowd often demonstrated its appreciation for a spectacular movement. Unfortunately for a number of the competitors, the noise disrupted the performance, sometimes leading to tension or even mistakes. Legolas’ music for his World Cup appearance, included a voice saying ‘Hey! I’m Legolas!’ in the entry. The crowd immediately responded with a great cheer, which had a detrimental effect on the opening passage and piaffe sequence in Peters’ freestyle.
Audience participation in dressage is a tricky issue. On the one hand, if one is trying to sell dressage as a spectator sport, allowing audiences to show appreciation during performances gives them the chance to engage with what they are watching. On the other hand, dressage tends to be a quiet, intensely focused discipline easily disturbed by noise. Not everyone agreed with the decision to allow the crowd to applaud during the rides.
Kari McClain is a USDF gold medalist and freestyle bar holder as well as a USDF ‘S’ judge, and as Lilo Fore’s e-scribe in Las Vegas, was responsible for entering the marks into a transmitter that enabled the scorers to produce almost instant results after each test. “I was disappointed the crowd was not asked to hold applause until after the final scored halt,” she says. “I felt it did affect the rides of many of the horses, which was unfair to the horses and riders who had come this far and worked so hard.”
McClain has been to several international championships where the crowd seemed happy to wait until after the final halt to show its appreciation. Oles says that she made a conscious decision to hold her applause until the end. As a rider, she sympathized with the riders who struggled at times to regain their horses’ focus in the ring.
Graves was one rider who had to contend with a crowd-reactive horse, but her attitude toward audience participation is forward-thinking. “I love that the audience gets excited and hope that it becomes more acceptable in the future,” she says. “I think it will be good for the sport. The more rules we make, the fewer people it appeals to. I just have to laugh when my horse gets excited and invite the opportunity to train him to such stimuli.”
North American riders in particular have few, if any, opportunities to expose their horses to the electric atmosphere of a venue such as that in the Thomas & Mack Center, where the audience is physically very near the ring. Fore believes that allowing the audience to get involved is important in the evolution of a more public-friendly sport. “There is a fine line, as we want our audience to be involved. We want them to be part of it and we want them to support this sport staying in the Olympics,” she says. “I fully understand that the riders want a quiet and calm audience, but nothing was done on purpose to harm anyone. The excitement ran away with a few, but appreciation was the cause.”
Fore believes the solution lies in creating venues that are as horse-friendly as possible and giving competitors access to the arena pre-competition. “I judged Neumunster in Germany,” she says. “The audience is unbelievable. They are all experts and when good movements are shown or unfortunate things happen, they let you know. That is the case at many European events. We want and need the audience.”
The Vegas Commitment
As dressage continues to develop a greater audience in the future, the participation of Las Vegas Events looks promising. The FEI has confirmed that it has received a bid from Las Vegas to host the 2018 World Cup Finals. “Las Vegas Events has also expressed an interest in holding the finals on a regular basis,” says Asmyr. Las Vegas provides a unique experience for spectators and participants alike. A compact city built around tourism makes it an ideal destination, with many flights into the airport, which is a stone’s throw from the Thomas & Mack Center. A proliferation of hotels, restaurants and entertainment options make Las Vegas an attractive destination for an event such as the World Cup Final. As for the atmosphere inside the arena, with 11,000 like-minded fans watching the world’s finest dressage athletes in close quarters, Oles says “It was like being at a party with a few thousand of my closest friends. I was on the edge of my seat for every ride.”
While the small size of the arena at the Thomas & Mack can present a challenge for some horses, the spectator experience is greatly enhanced by the nearness to the action. McClain sat e-scribing in the judge’s booth at F during the Grand Prix. In order to make space for the new judging positions at K and F, the organizers had to place them in what looked like little holes in the wall. “We could have reached out and literally touched the horses,” she says. “I loved being so close.”
As memorable and exciting as the 2015 World Cup Final in Las Vegas was, fans and future fans of dressage can look forward to the possibility that there will be more than one opportunity to witness a Las Vegas-style dressage show in the coming years.