Editor’s note: At press time, we were still a month away from the start of the 2014 FEI Alltech World Equestrian Games (WEG). But award-winning equestrian photojournalist Nancy Jaffer gave Dressage Today her commentary and best predictions on which dressage horse-and-rider pairs would help their countries compete for a spot on the podiums. She also called upon her years of WEG knowledge to come up with some interesting WEG facts.
The 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France, seem ready to offer the highest-powered championship dressage freestyle competition ever held. Think of it: Great Britain’s Valegro, ridden by Charlotte Dujardin, who dominated the 2012 Olympics, facing off against a rejuvenated Totilas, the former Dutch mount, now German, ridden by Matthias Alexander Rath. The black stallion (aka Toto) is remembered for sweeping the gold medals at the 2010 WEG in Kentucky with Edward Gal in the saddle.
In their only other previous meeting, at Aachen in July, a rather rusty Valegro earned his worst score in three years in the Grand Prix, while Totilas triumphed. Dujardin and her supermount got it together in the Grand Prix Special while still finishing second to Toto. But their much-awaited freestyle encounter was put on hold until the WEG because Toto was excused from competing in the final test at Aachen by German officials so he could continue to revup his level of fitness for Normandy.
As the planet’s two most celebrated dressage horses go head-to-head for a global title in August, they will be in good company. Add to the mix Damon Hill NRW with Helen Langehanenberg from Germany, as well as Glock’s Undercover, ridden by Edward Gal. Dujardin is number one in the world, Langehanenberg number two and Gal is third in the June 30 FEI rankings.
Each horse-and-rider pair likely will have two chances at an individual world championship title since it is presented in both the special (for the top 30 horse-and-rider pairs from the Grand Prix) and the more dramatic freestyle (for the top 15), a finale for the discipline’s world championships that everyone will remember. But the big questions are: Can Dujardin, who holds all the world records in dressage, continue her magnificent run? And will it be good enough to triumph over Totilas at his best?
Here are the stories behind each of these major contenders:
Matthias Alexander Rath: Totilas, once hailed as a superhorse, went into eclipse a few years ago after he was purchased to represent Germany and Gal lost the ride. First, Rath couldn’t get the same results with the black stallion as Gal had enjoyed. Then Toto got hurt, and many doubted he’d be back in the ring. They figured he’d just do full-time stud duty.
But he did come back with the assistance of Sjef Jansen, the husband of Anky van Grunsven and former trainer of the Dutch team. Jansen helped Gal train Toto and appears to know the secret to the horse. Toto soared from 400th to 25th in the FEI rankings in the space of a month after six victories with Rath.
Helen Langehanenberg and Charlotte Dujardin:Langehanenberg had to settle for second behind Dujardin at the Reem Acra World Cup Finals this spring. Will WEG gold provide the finishing touch to a crown for Dujardin that already sparkles with the Olympic, World Cup and European Championships’ jewels? Although Dujardin sometimes seems superhuman, with a horse to match, anyone can make a mistake or, as was demonstrated in the Aachen Grand Prix, multiple mistakes. If so, and if Toto falters, at least one WEG individual title could be Langehanenberg’s on the day.
Edward Gal: How would Gal feel if he and Undercover were able to triumph over his old partner, Totilas? It’s interesting to contemplate, though Gal, always charming and tactful, certainly would handle it gracefully. No dances in the end zone here, but consider how difficult it would be for him to ride for major stakes against the horse who took him to the biggest triumphs of his career.
Adelinde Cornelissen:Another to watch, though she might not quite be in individual medal territory, is the Netherland’s Cornelissen with Jerich Parzival. Fourth in the world, Cornelissen has a score to settle. At the last WEG, her horse was barely into his Grand Prix test when a judge spotted blood on his mouth. That meant automatic elimination and the end of that WEG for Cornelissen, who demonstrated poise while dealing with a difficult situation.
The pair went on to many successes, from winning the World Cup Championship twice to taking individual silver at the London Olympics to a triumphant freestyle in Rotterdam this summer, where Cornelissen won it with a score of 83.225 percent. In the twilight of his career at age 17, Parzival, the former world number one, is still an athlete who commands great respect.
The Remaining Field
If these five don’t account for the majority of individual medals—three each in the special and the freestyle—there’s a host of worthy understudies, including fifth-ranked Tinne Vilhelmson-Silfven, of Sweden, with Don Auriello, a standout in Florida during the winter and at Aachen, and Germany’s much-decorated Isabell Werth with Bella Rose, who is on the rise. She had a giant leap of her own, going from 64th to eighth in the rankings.
Here is an example of Werth’s dedication: The night before the Aachen freestyle, she rehearsed her performance on her “B” horse, Don Johnson, to save Bella while ensuring she had the floor plan right. That paid off with third place for Bella Rose with a score of 85.150, behind the winning Valegro’s 87.900 and Damon Hill’s 86.025 runner-up effort.
With such determination on board, Germany should be a complete lock for the team gold. In addition to Langehanenberg, Rath and Werth, the team likely will include Kristina Sprehe and Desperados FRH, sixth in the world. If the Germans lose one top horse, which is always a possibility, they still have a formidable wall of excellence.
The other teams are not as deep and the loss of a star horse could cause a major shift in their fortunes. But all being well, the Dutch seem on course to be right behind the Germans. The British have a very good (though not sure) shot at the bronze, buoyed by Valegro’s astronomical scores (if he gets them) in Normandy, with an assist from the mastermind of his nation’s success in the discipline, Carl Hester. A veteran of the 1990 WEG, he’ll be aboard either Uthopia or Dances with Wolves.
For the places just below the podium, figure on the Danes, who likely will have half a team of American-based riders if Lars Petersen riding Mariett and Mikala Munter Gundersen and My Lady are called up. Sweden, boosted by Vilhelmson-Silfven, is another possibility, as is Spain, which earned third place in the Grand Prix at Aachen.
The U.S. squad, meanwhile, has a shot at sixth, or perhaps fifth, if things go well. The team, except for its pillar, Steffen Peters on national champion Legolas, and Laura Graves with Verdades—who drew the admiration of the Europeans with her Aachen performance on her first tour abroad—wasn’t named by press time.
Based on past performances and the outings at Fritzens, Austria, and Aachen, the numbers might suggest that 2012 Olympic veteran Calecto V, piloted by Tina Konyot, could fill the third spot. For the fourth berth, it might be Caroline Roffman, a newcomer at the international senior level with Her Highness O, or Adrienne Lyle, who rode Wizard as an individual at the Olympics.
But in the weeks before the WEG, things can change dramatically depending on the soundness of horses, the health of riders (Peters missed Aachen due to pneumonia, but was expected to be fit for the WEG), the preparedness of the combinations and other factors that can’t be anticipated.
The U.S. enjoys more depth than it has through much of the past, but even so, numbers don’t lie. There is no U.S. rider in the world’s top 25. The highest-ranked is Konyot, at number 29. Peters, who had a light competition schedule this year, dropped from 17th to 102nd.
Still, there’s the hope of an upset. “I think there’s always a chance, because we’ve seen it so many times in other sports, where series are played for seven games and the unexpected can happen,” Peters says. “Even if we clearly see the results from the European riders, it’s not going to stop us from training as if we can win a gold medal—not just a bronze medal, not just a silver. Everything is possible.”
WEG: Did You Know?
By Nancy Jaffer
Question: What country has won the most WEG dressage team gold medals?
Answer: Germany has won every WEG team gold since the beginning of those championships, with the exception of 2010, which went to the Netherlands, led by Edward Gal on Moorlands Totilas. That combination accounted for the individual gold medals in the special and freestyle as well.
Q: When did the U.S. first win a WEG team medal in dressage, and who was on the squad?
A: At the 1994 WEG, the team of Robert Dover (Devereaux), Kathleen Raine (Avontuur), Gary Rockwell (Suna) and Carol Lavell (Gifted) rode to the bronze.
Q: What was the USA’s best WEG team finish in dressage?
A: A silver medal in the 2002 WEG in Jerez, Spain
Q: By how much did Debbie McDonald and Brentina lose the individual bronze medal at the 2002 WEG?
A: By only 0.075 percent. The individual bronze went to Germany’s Ulla Salzgeber with Rusty.
Q: Who is the only U.S. rider to win individual medals at the WEG?
A: Steffen Peters (left), who took bronze with Ravel in both the special and freestyle at the 2010 WEG in Kentucky.
Q: What was the last WEG dressage team medal won by the U.S.?
A: It was a bronze at Aachen in 2006.
Q: Anky van Grunsven (opposite page) of the Netherlands was on every Dutch WEG dressage team from 1990–2006. How did she participate in the 2010 WEG?
A: As a member of the reining team.
Q: Who is Germany’s first female dressage coach?
A: Monica Theodorescu, a veteran of the German squad and individual bronze medalist at the first WEG, whose late father, Georg, once coached the U.S. team.
Q: Where was the last stand-alone World Dressage Championship held before the advent of the WEG?
A: The 1986 title competition was in Cedar Valley, Canada, just outside Toronto.
Q: Where were the 1994 and 1998 WEGs supposed to be held, and where were they actually staged?
A: The 1994 edition was supposed to be in Paris, but a change in government led the FEI to scramble, and the WEG wound up at The Hague in Holland. The 1998 WEG was set for Ireland, but financial problems led to a last-minute effort by Rome to recoup, which it did beautifully. (Rome narrowly lost a bid to host the first WEG, in 1990, which was held in Stockholm.)
Q: Where will the 2018 WEG be held?
A: Bromont, Quebec, Canada, scene of the 1976 Olympic equestrian competition.