It gets very quiet in the back of the AccorHotels Arena when the top riders in the FEI World Cup Dressage Final are waiting to hear their scores, and perhaps no silence was quite so tense as when Laura Graves and Team USA waited to hear Isabell Werth’s score. Werth and Graves have stoked a friendly rivalry since Graves took second to Werth in last year’s World Cup Final in Omaha, Nebraska.
Graves has made no bones about her determination to battle it out with the defending World Cup champion and come out on top in Paris, but from the looks of things in the warm-up arena before Graves headed down centerline that was going to be an uphill battle. Diddy was electric in the paddock, skipping and bouncing around and looking rather tense as Graves asked him for different movements.
Eventually it was time to go to the arena, and even around the outside as they waited for the signal, “Diddy” appeared to be jumping out of his skin. While Graves’ supporters and fans collectively held their breath, Diddy cantered into the ring and laid down the best test of his life, an 81.41 percent.
“Once he goes into the 20′ by 60′, then he feels like, ‘This is my home.’ Going around the outside always feels like the first time!” Graves said with a laugh.
It was the best in the class by a margin of six percent, but Graves wasn’t ready to celebrate. Werth was yet to come. Graves didn’t get to watch Werth’s ride as she went shortly before her, so she waited with U.S. Chef d’Equipe Robert Dover, coach Debbie McDonald and U.S. owner Betsy Juliano in front of a TV by the warm-up for Werth’s score to flash up on the screen.
A little blip of white numbers cross a black screen, and the news was official—Graves didn’t just beat Werth, she walloped her. A whopping 3 percent and change separated Verdades from Weihegold OLD. Tense silence broke into grins and hugs all around, and Dover may have even shed a tear as he talked about what the win meant for Graves and Verdades.
“We’re over the absolute moon; I was trying not to cry; it’s incredibly amazing,” Dover said. “That was every single thing coming together with a great rider and horse that love each other; that’s what that was.”
“He was very nervous and hot, but he just trusts her,” said McDonald. “Everyone thinks he’s really calm, but he’s a very electric horse. That’s what makes him so brilliant. She gives him confidence, and he believes in her, and it’s just great to see it be rewarded.”
Watch Verdades’ test:
Graves’ work is far from over if she wants to walk away from Paris with the World Cup title, however. Werth made mistakes in her canter work in Friday’s Grand Prix, and she doesn’t plan on repeating them tomorrow in the freestyle where riders start on a clean slate.
“It was not planned that she would become so hot in the canter work, and it was a little bit surprising,” Werth said. She explained how the mare made a mistake in the changes and extended work when she was too on the muscle.
“It was not planned to have it like this, but we try tomorrow to make it as hard as possible for Laura,” Werth said with a grin at Graves. “Of course, I hope that we can perform without mistakes, and I will try all the risk I can and hope the horse will be focused better than today.”
Asked what it felt like to have this win under her belt going into the showdown for the World Cup tomorrow in the freestyles, Graves gave Werth a smirk before intoning, “Verrry scary,” an answer that drew laughs from the crowd and “Good answer!” from Werth. The two are jovial sparring partners on the ground, but you can bet it will be all business when they swing into the saddle tomorrow.
“You’re not going to see her go. ‘Poor me’ and not ride the hell out of tomorrow,” Dover said. “Laura’s going to have to do her very best like she did today, and then the chips are going to fall where they will fall.”
Shelly Francis and Danilo made up the other half of the two-man Team USA contingent at the World Cup in Paris. Despite a long and decorated career in the sport, it’s Francis’ first time at the Final. She and Danilo turned in a solid test, but a poorly timed bathroom break for Danilo brought their scores down, which was followed by an error of course. Francis went into a pirouette instead of the canter zigzag. They recovered well, and then Danilo seemed to tire on the final centerline.
“I was a little unhappy with myself for going off course,” Francis said. “But otherwise he felt really good. He could have piaffed a little better a couple times, but overall he was trying to be nice and fluid and rideable; he was a good boy.”
“The horse looked lovely; Shelly looked lovely. Unfortunately when you have that kind of an error it’s so expensive,” said Dover.
He commented on the loss of co-efficient boxes where a rider could bring a score back from individual errors with overall submission and impulsion.
“Now the mistakes or errors in the tests leave you exactly where you are,” Dover said. “And there were a few other little things [in her test] as well, but I will say this, the horse looks lovely, and Shelly has never looked more beautiful.”
Francis may not have had the day she was looking for, but she’ll shake it off tomorrow with a clean slate in the freestyle.
“I want to have a nice, stellar freestyle,” she said. He likes the freestyle; I love the freestyle, and my music is so different, and he really likes it. He’ll probably be perkier for that.”
The arrangement is similar to their normal freestyle routine, but with a little extra kick for the occasion.
“It’s just special to me and the horse; I don’t know if anyone else is going to like it,” Francis said with a laugh. “Some people go, ‘That’s the weirdest music we’ve ever heard. That’s not even music.’
“It’s a capella most of it, but there’s a little Beyoncé, a little this, a little that,” Francis continued. “I think it’s really cool!”
Francis and Danilo are first in the ring for the freestyle, which begins Saturday at 2 p.m local time, 8 a.m. Eastern time.