The AGDF hosted more than 2,000 fans yesterday evening, when it was standing room only, with packed bleachers facing a packed VIP tent, and more filled bleachers at one end of the ring for good measure.
Everyone was ready for the 5-star freestyle at the biggest international dressage show ever in the Western Hemisphere. The class provided a little drama, but lots of glitz, as riders from six countries showed what they could do to a wide range of music. There was something for everyone, whether you preferred show tunes or video games. Give me a minute; I'll get there and explain that last one.
But you might wonder why I said only "a little drama." It's because Lars Petersen, a Florida-based Dane, and his mount, the 17-year-old Marriett, have been on such a roll here that it seemed almost pre-ordained he would win.
And win he did, for the third time in a row this season, with a score of 79.175 percent that earned him a $35,000 prize.
Marriett loves the atmosphere, with the crowd close around the arena. She was swinging along to a freestyle composed of video game themes like a horse half her age (Adequan's Allyn Mann swears it's because Lars has gotten prizes of Adequan with his previous wins.)
Lars loves bubbly soundtracks for his freestyles. This one was less blatant, however, than the freestyle he did to circus music a few years ago. Its squeals and whistles were really over the top. And then there was a previous classic performed to cartoon music.
"I always like fun music, and I like to find music I haven't heard other people ride to," Lars noted.
Marriett had a long recuperative rest a few years back after she tore off a good part of one hoof, and there was a real question about her future. But she bounced back for co-owners Lars and Marcia Pepper.
It was obvious Lars' biggest freestyle competition would be Steffen Peters, here from the West Coast, with his Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games mount, Legolas, but it wasn't even close.
The electric stadium atmosphere created a lot of tension in Legolas during the 5-star Grand Prix on Thursday, when Lars was also the winner. The performance in that class wasn't up to Legolas' usual standard; one judge even had him placed 13th!
"He's still a teenager, and once in awhile his energy goes a little wild," explained Steffen, noting his job is to keep the tension under control.
"This is a good experience for him. If we qualify for the World Cup (finals), that arena will be more difficult."
Legolas was much more with it last night, but he still fell short with 76.200 percent to be the runner-up.
Third place went to Lars' fellow Dane and sometimes teammate, Mikala Munter Gundersen with the lovely My Lady (75.750). Her music is nice and lively; "All That Jazz" from the show "Chicago" is a highlight that goes perfectly with My Lady's energy, which increased throughout her freestyle.
Chatting with Mikala afterwards, I was interested to learn that My Lady wasn't always a fan of the arena here. She was scared to death of it initially, Mikala said, so she and the mare's owner, Janne Rumbough, would lead her over for acclimation and feed her sugar from the VIP tent. As you might expect, My Lady now looks forward to her outings in that arena.
Janne is a really great person. Also a native of Denmark, she has been a dressage fixture in this area for decades, and at the age of 71, she's still an active competitor. I was impressed by her fifth-place 3-star freestyle on Junior, her distinctive gray PRE. It was done artfully to tunes from "Mary Poppins", including a Julie Andrews vocal, "A Spoonful of Sugar." How appropriate.
The winner of the 3-star freestyle, held in the afternoon, went to Germany's Christoph Koschel aboard the powerful Rostropowitsch NRW, who earned 75.100 percent. Obviously in fine form now, the horse was sidelined after his arrival here because of a spider bite on his hip. Welcome to Florida.
Of course, a lot of the talk around the showgrounds was about the Reem Acra World Cup finals in Las Vegas during April. Who will be going is still up in the air. Last night's competition was not a CDI-W, that is, a World Cup qualifier, but Lars is leading the North American League and seems likely to have a ticket. Maybe. The problem is that he's European, and which involves a set of complicated qualifying rules that give me, and everyone else, a headache. I won't bore you with details. Lars was supposed to be in last year's finals, but an abcess meant he had to withdraw Marriett, so he's even more eager to give it another try.
Steffen has yet to do his CDI-Ws, but it's a good guess he'll wind up in Vegas. We talked about what having the World Cup finals there means to him. The answer: a lot. Don't forget he was the 2009 winner on Ravel. Watch this video to see what he had to say.
Steffen also brought the sensational 8-year-old mare, Rosamunde, who made her Grand Prix debut in California earlier this season. This was the 2014 national small tour champion's first international grand prix, and she won the 3-star with 71.3 percent.
In the 3-star Grand Prix Special, she outdid herself, earning 73.745 percent to take the blue ribbon.
Rosamunde is a model of consistency, and her lovely disposition was on display when she stood quietly in the awards ceremony (though she did try to scoot a bit on the way out of the ring. Maybe she thought it was enough already.)
But Steffen can’t fault her.
“She’s never taken a wrong step; she’s never said no,” Steffen reported.
So Rosie is a shining star who just needs some more mileage.
Rosie is a shining star, though she still needs some mileage. She does catch on fast, though. While her first piaffe in the GP was rushed, she had it down pat when she piaffed the second time.
U.S. dressage coach Robert Dover was thrilled with her performance.
"It's just finishing the final stuff and then it's top of the world," he enthused.
Second was Tuny Page with Woodstock (70.420), who is really coming along. Tuny has spent a lot of time in Europe and works hard, which also is reflected in her performance with Alina, her more experienced mount.
Charlotte Jorst, a native of Denmark who is an American citizen, was third in the 3-star on Kastel's Nintendo (70.360) another up-and-comer. Charlotte has some serious horseflesh. On Wednesday, her new horse, Akeem's Foldager (formerly ridden by Denmark's Andreas Helgstrand) will arrive in Florida. She's going to call the Danish horse "Kimmy" in the barn, and he'll be another prospect that can help bolster America's dressage line-up.
So you can see that Debbie McDonald, the USA's developing dressage coach, has a lot to work with. I caught up with her in the VIP tent to to talk about what she’s up to here.
Canada also is on the rise, with lots of good prospects even though its biggest star, Ashley Holzer, is biding her time with her promising mount, Barry. She won't commit to this summer's Pan American Games because she needs to see how he's coming along, and Ashley is never one to rush her horses.
I had a chat with Desi Dillingham, the former grande dame of British dressage, who helped in the effort to boost that program from zero to hero. She's on Canada's side now, and that country needs all the assistance it can get going into the Pan Ams. There's only one Olympic slot available at the Pan Ams, for the country that wins gold, which will be either Canada or the U.S. Desi and I talked about that.
The Small Tour was very popular; the Prix St. Georges had to be run over two days to accommodate 45 starters. Both the PSG and Intermediaire I went to Great Britain's Laura Bechtolsheimer Tomlinson on the adorable floppy-eared Unique. For this statuesque mare, Small Tour was only brief stop on the way to the Grand Prix, as Laura shoots for the European Championships and more important, the 2016 Olympics.
The PSG was her first class back since having baby Annalisa last year, and she has lost none of her polish. Laura rode Alf (Mistral Hojris) to many triumphs, including team gold and individual bronze at the London Olympics, but she's well on the way to having another star to replace her retired partner. Unique is set to start in Grand Prix here. There's plenty of time, this was only week 5 of 12!
Laura's first season in Florida is working out perfectly for her, because her husband, Mike, is a polo player who can participate in his sport under the palms, while she does hers.
Olivia Lagoy-Weltz was the top American with Rassing's Lonoir in both the PSG, where she was second, and the I-1, where she was third behind Laura and Canada's Diane Creech on Robbie W.
The long-legged Rassing's Lonoir (known as Lono to his friends) is quite a character. I love the way he whinnies during his tests. "Hello, hello, is anybody there?"
I think this guy is quite a prospect for bigger things, so I asked the always gracious Olivia about what's next for him. Watch this video to find out about her plans.
There is no doubt that the AGDF is the epicenter of dressage, and the best evidence was a parade of Olympians before the 5-star freestyle. It was impressive to see dozens who have participated in those Games from Germany, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, Britain, and of course, the U.S. and Canada, marching in front of the appreciative crowd.
Tonight and tomorrow, I'm going to focus on show jumping. I haven't had a chance to even think about it this week, because as you can see, dressage has been incredibly busy. But tomorrow, show jumping is coming to me at the dressage grounds, since it will be run over a derby-style course on the grass, rather than on all-weather footing in the International Arena at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center.