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June 14, 2014

Peters Repeats But New Star Emerges At U.S. Dressage Festival Of Champions

Just 26, Laura Graves placed in between two Olympic veterans in the Grand Prix Special, finishing second behind Steffen Peters on her mount Verdades, a horse she bought as a weanling and has brought along to the Grand Prix division.

Gladstone, N.J.—June 14

When Steffen Peters got on the plane from his home base in San Diego and headed to New Jersey for the U.S. Dressage Festival Of Champions, he knew he’d have tough competition in The Dutta Corp/USEF Grand Prix Dressage National Championship and Selection Trial for the U.S. Dressage Team Short List for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

All three of his 2012 Olympic teammates were nipping at his heels—Jan Ebeling, Tina Konyot and Adrienne Lyle—but he didn’t count on 26-year-old Laura Graves entering the mix.

Just 26 and in her first year of Grand Prix with Verdades, Graves made quite the impression when she piaffed into second place in today’s Grand Prix Special, scoring 74.59 percent, just a point behind Peters on his current superstar, Legolas, and coming out ahead of Ebeling with his Olympic mare Rafalca (74.29%).

“Hey, being beaten by someone like her is absolutely wonderful,” said Ebeling. “I mean that’s what we’ve always said we want: more younger riders coming up. Finally it’s happening. It’s really exciting. Good horses, good background, good training, this is what our sport needs in America.

“So I’m thrilled. I’m a little bit mad, but I’m pretty thrilled,” he continued with a laugh.

Originally from Vermont, Graves moved to Florida when she was 20 to work with FEI five-star judge Anne Gribbons. She picked out “Diddy” as a weanling in the Netherlands. The Dutch Warmblood (Florett AS—Liwilarda, Goya) is now 12.

“I did not watch one ride from our class,” said Graves, who now works with Debbie McDonald and runs her own training business in Geneva, Fla. “I think it just feeds my nerves. I just kept to myself, and I stayed in my stall. I made sure I knew the test because it’s a long one, and I’ve only ridden it two times before, so even if other things go wrong I know I can stay on course if I know my test. I warmed up really quietly, and my horse was there with me. He’s getting much more comfortable in these tests, and it’s feeling easier.”

Graves competed at Gladstone in the Intermediaire I championship two years ago, but that experience didn’t go as well, and they finished toward the bottom of the pack.

“It’s hitting me in waves,” she said of her success in the Grand Prix championship—she also finished tied for fourth in the Grand Prix test. “I have times where I don’t feel like it’s as important as it is, and things are really mellow, and then I’ll get a wave of butterflies that’s like, ‘Wow this is huge.’ ”

While Peters was full of praise for Graves, he was a bit puzzled over mistakes in his own Grand Prix test, including a break to canter out of passage instead of extended trot.

“There were highlights in the test that made up for the little mistakes,” he said. “It certainly wasn’t a bad test, but it still was not what I wanted to take from here to Europe.

“It’s quite uncharacteristic of him,” he continued. “He had a lot of energy, and that certainly could be part of it, but this is a mistake that hasn’t happened to us before.”

Peters said the 12-year-old Westphalian (Laomedon—Furstin, Florestan II) started the season strong and has had great freestyles, but he’s struggled with mistakes in his Grand Prix tests. However, he was confident that he’d get it straightened out with the help of his training team: coach Jo Hinnemann, U.S. Chef d’Equipe Robert Dover, and his wife, Shannon.

“He feels more powerful,” mused Steffen. “He’s always been a very energetic horse, and now that he’s even more muscled he just wants to go. Fitness is a good thing, but at the moment he feels quite strong and quite fit, so its something we have to consider too.”

He was also frustrated by a scary moment in the ring—at the end of his test when judge Anne Gribbons called him over after his final salute, and she and technical delegate Elisabeth Williams examined Legolas’ mouth for blood. They found nothing.

“I knew the mouth was perfectly foamy, and there was no other color in there,” said Peters. “I thought it might’ve been a better way to do it at the end of the test at the ring steward check."

However, Gribbons said Fédération Equestre Internationale rules specify that if a judge notices something in the ring—and Gary Rockwell thought he saw something—then the president of the ground jury for that test has to check it out.

Steffen said he feeds Legolas apples before his test, and it might have been a piece of red apple that Rockwell saw. “Thank God everything was fine, and it’s all good.”

His Intermediaire I test was also good, and his two mounts, Rosamunde and Apassionata, finished one-two again, just as they did in the Prix St. Georges.

Steffen had another full day, as his small tour horses were supposed to compete the day before, but severe thunderstorms postponed the class.

“I honestly thought it worked out beautifully because I like to take the horses for a walk on the day off, so that’s what both girls did,” he said. “I know ‘Rosie’ appreciated that being 7 years old. So she walked in the morning for 45 minutes and then the same again in the afternoon and came out quite fresh today.”

However “Pia” did take issue with the storm’s remains. She had a few good spooks at some of the puddles in the ring.

“Coming from Germany, she certainly should be used to it, but she looked a few times at the beginning,” Peters admitted. “But that’s the neat thing about her now: At first in January when she spooked it was always a big explosion, and now she looks at something—I can’t blame her for that; that’s only natural—but she is now so confident that she stays focused immediately afterwards. But yes, she was a bit on fire!”

Olivia LaGoy-Weltz placed third with Rassing’s Lonoir, the same ribbon she earned in the Prix St. Georges.

The Dutta Corp/USEF Grand Prix and Intermediaire I National Championships will conclude tomorrow with the freestyle tests.

Find full results on FoxVillage.com.

Read all the Chronicle's coverage from the U.S. Dressage Festival Of Champions.

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