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October 4, 2013

Valegro Brings His A-Game To European Championships

Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro proved once again they’re the best in the world by winning all three tests at the Blue Hors FEI European Dressage Championships. LewisHardingImages photo.

The reigning Olympic champion earns two more gold medals but has to settle for bronze behind Germany and the Netherlands in the team competition.

 When it comes to Valegro, Charlotte Dujardin has kept her cards close to her chest. After they took home team and individual gold for Great Britain at the Olympic Games in London last summer, rumors flew that the horse would be sold.

Dujardin, 28, didn’t bring him out again for months, saying he deserved a vacation. They did ride at home at the London Olympia CDI-W in December, but then it was another six months before the 11-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Negro—Maifleur, Gerschwin) showed up on the interna­tional scene again.

Dujardin only contested two CDIs, Rotterdam (the Netherlands) in June and Hickstead (England) in August before heading to Herning, Denmark, for the Blue Hors FEI European Dressage Championships, Aug. 21-25.

And Hickstead, her last competi­tion before the Europeans, didn’t go according to plan when Valegro scored 81.66 percent in the Grand Prix, good enough to win but their lowest score in that test in a year.

But they put all that behind them to score 85.94 percent in the Grand Prix, beating their own world record of 84.47 percent from Olympia.

“Carl [Hester] murdered me after [Hickstead] and told me I needed to sharpen up!” said Dujardin of her coach and teammate. “I knew today that if I didn’t I’d be murdered again when I came out of the ring, but Valegro is an amazing horse. He gives me more and more confidence every time.”

Her brilliant score wasn’t enough to give Great Britain another team gold medal—they had to settle for bronze behind Germany and Denmark, due in part to the fact that Laura Tomlinson had to withdraw her Olympic team gold and individual bronze-medal partner Mistral Hojris before the competition due to an injury.

But Valegro’s strong Grand Prix finish set the standard for the rest of the week, and he earned two more individual gold medals, relegating Germany’s Helen Langehanenberg to double silver with her Reem Acra FEI World Cup Dressage Final winner Damon Hill NRW ahead of the Netherlands’ Adelinde Cornelissen with Jerich Parzival.

Asked if there is a limit to the scores she can achieve with “Blueberry,” Dujardin replied, “No, there’s no limit, I’m going to keep going. There’s 100 percent out there somewhere, and we are going to find it!”

A Comedy Of Errors

She’ll have to start though by remem­bering her test. In a very odd turn of events, all three medalists forgot where they were going in the Grand Prix Special, which may have something to do with the fact that the European Championships used the old Special instead of the shortened Olympic version everyone rode last year.

Sweden’s Patrik Kittel began the trend when he forgot his two-tempis with Toy Story.

Langehanenberg was second to go of the final group and looked good until, at the end of the test when she should have been en route to A for her march up the centerline, she veered across the diagonal instead, only to be halted by the judge’s bell. She punched the air in frustration before re-grouping and getting back on line.

“That was the worst thing that could happen, and I am really angry at myself about it,” she said. “It should not have happened, but I am only human. On the other hand I am very proud of ‘Dami,’ who did a great job!”

Then Dujardin, next in the ring, went into her two-tempis when she should’ve started the canter half-pass.

“When I was coming down to the warm-up I met Patrick Kittel, and I asked him how did it go, and he said, ‘I went wrong!’ and I said, ‘Oh no!’ said Dujardin. “Then I heard that Helen had gone wrong too, and I went ‘Oh no!’ I wasn’t thinking of that at all when I went into the arena, but coming into the corner I went into canter, and I thought ‘Oh God!’ I looked across, and I saw Andrew [Gardner, the judge at B].

“It was quite difficult to pull myself together; there was so much noise,” Dujardin admitted. “There was much more to do, so I knew I had to get into it again, and that there was no room for error. I knew I was in trouble with Carl, but Valegro was great. It was a case of pat the horse, sack the rider!”

Cornelissen was last to go of the three medalists, and she made the exact same mistake as Dujardin. “I thought, to be sporting, I would do the same,” she joked.

And all three did end up laughing about the mistakes. “I think it was fair sport today. We all went the wrong way,” said Langehanenberg.

After the wrong turns in the Special, the feeling in the air was that anything could happen in the freestyle. But the medalists were more or less clear from the start. Dujardin rode to the same London-inspired music from her Olympic Games program to earn 91.25 percent.

The softness of Valegro’s slow and deliberate piaffe, the power of the trot extensions, the athletic quality of the lateral movements and the wonderful passage kept the audience and judges enthralled. The precision with which she arrived on queue for each of the pirou­ettes, executed to the sound of the ringing of London’s Big Ben, was awe-inspiring. There was just one significant glitch.

“In the last pirouette I caught him with the spur, and it made him jump. Other than that it was brilliant!” said Dujardin. “I had a fantastic ride today. I felt so relaxed and had so much fun. I felt like Valegro was with me the whole way, and we danced through it.”

Dujardin had intended to create a new freestyle for the European Championships, but she changed her mind. “People at home were wondering why I wasn’t using the Olympic Games music,” she said. ”I only ever did it three times, and everyone loved it so much. I didn’t want to use it again because I felt it belonged to London 2012, but everyone likes it, including the judges, and it is technically difficult, so I thought I’d do it again.”

“Judging this level is fantastic,” said Leif Törnblad of Sweden. “Charlotte may not have broken the world record, but she did break mine. I have never given scores like this before.”

Two years ago Dujardin did her first European Championships, and while she won team gold, she and Blueberry were still very new to the level for the individual championships.

“I was a bit lost and not as confident as I am now,” she said. “To come back and get another gold is amazing.”

But it hasn’t been all parades and gold mailboxes since her Olympic medals. “After the Olympic Games it was very tough not knowing what was going to happen, and I’m so very grateful to still have the horse,” she said. “He’s like my best friend.”

What will Blueberry do now that he’s proved once again to be the best in the world? “He will do nothing,” said Hester, who co-owns the horse with Roly Luard. “He has nothing to prove. He is a horse for the championships. Maybe he will go to Olympia.”

But that doesn’t mean Dujardin will have nothing to compete. Hester announced he was giving her the ride on Uthopia, the 12-year-old Dutch Warmblood stallion (Metall—Odelia, Inspekteur) he rode to team medals in these championships as well as at the Olympic Games and the 2011 Europeans.

Hester thought Uthopia would be sold after the Olympics, but there is an ongoing legal issue about the owner­ship of the horse.

He doesn’t want to take part in international dressage in between the Olympics. He made an excep­tion for the team for the European Championships. “I won’t do it again,” he said.

Germany Is Back On Top

Two years ago Great Britain made headlines by winning the European Championships for the first time, but in Denmark, the team from Germany re-established that nation’s dominance, winning gold for the 22nd time at the Continental competition.

But the riders from the Netherlands and Great Britain made them work for it, with only 1.11 points separating gold, silver and bronze.

“It was amazing sport we saw today, absolutely fantastic,” said Germany’s team coach Klaus Roeser.

“The Germans were better today,” admitted Dutch coach Wim Ernes. “But we had two riders with over 80 percent, and we are very happy with our silver medals.”

“We still won a team medal with two new members in the team,” said Hester. “That’s really exciting for the future. Plus for me personally, I didn’t have a bronze medal before today so I am happy.”

Langehanenberg anchored her team, scoring 84.37 percent, the only rider on the German team to break 80. But Olympic teammate Kristina Sprehe on Desperados FRH (75.06%) and team veteran Isabell Werth on Don Johnson FRH (75.21%) put in strong tests as did final team member Fabienne Lütkemeier on D’Agostino 5 (73.23%).

“We were dreaming about the gold medal, and Helen did a really good job. I think she had the ride of her life,” said Werth. “I think we had the most exciting European Championships ever. And Germany showed Europe that we are back.”

“I did know that I had to get many points and that it wouldn’t be easy,” said Langehanenberg. “Dami really fought for us today.”

The 13-year-old Westphalian stallion (Donnerhall—Romanze, Rubinstein I) divides his time between performing on the international dressage scene and breeding.

“We take him out of breeding 10-14 days before a competition and then there is more riding, and after competing there is less riding,” said Langehanenberg, 31. “We try to find the mix that doesn’t make him tired. He has the ability to completely relax.”

For the Dutch team, Edward Gal came away with the highest score, earning 81.76 percent aboard Glock’s Undercover. But he had to settle for fourth in the Grand Prix Special (79.47%) and the freestyle (84.91%) behind teammate Cornelissen. Hans Peter Minderhoud on Glock’s Romanov (71.35%) and Danielle Heijkoop with Kingsley Siro (70.22%)rounded out the team.

Cornelissen has had a difficult spring and summer. After placing second at the World Cup Final in Gothenburg, Sweden, last April, Parzival was diagnosed with a heart arrhythmia in June and had to undergo surgery. The question was would he come back and to what level?

“A couple of months ago I didn’t think we would be here,” admitted Cornelissen, 34.

After the Special, when a reporter asked her how it felt to get a medal again after his heart condition, Cornelissen burst into tears and couldn’t answer right away.

“I think he is an amazing horse,” she said of the 16-year-old Dutch Warmblood (Jazz—Fidora, Ulft). “I’m still building him up, and I have such a fantastic team around me—I owe these medals to them.”

The judges received some criticism for large differences in their scoring. For example there was a difference of 10 percent for Great Britain’s Michael Eilberg’s marks with Half Moon Delphi, ranging from 65.53 percent from Gustaf Svalling of Sweden at F to 75.63 percent from Judet of France at B.

“Don’t forget we have the [Judges Supervisory Panel],” said Frank Kemperman, chairman of the FEI Dressage Committee. “They can change the scores if they are wrong, but it is not their task to change the opinion of the judges.”

TIDBITS

It was the end of an era for the team from Denmark. PRINCESS NATHALIE ZU SAYN-WITTGENSTEIN retired DIGBY, the 16-year-old homebred Danish Warmblood gelding (Donnerhall—Oxenholm Pamina, Sando) whom she’s ridden in two Olympic Games, two World Equestrian Games, three European Championships and three World Cup Finals. Digby finished 11th in the Grand Prix Special (73.73%) and ninth in the freestyle (79.55%).

Digby got a standing ovation from the crowd as they waved him out of the arena for the last time. But before they left, zu Sayn-Wittgenstein said, “I’ll be back even though Digby won’t!” And her mother, Princess Benedikte of Denmark, who bred the gelding, was as tearful as everyone else.

When Sweden’s PATRIK KITTEL arrived in Herning, Denmark, on Monday morning, he intended to ride Olympic mount Watermill Scandic in the European Championships. But by that afternoon the 14-year-old Dutch Warmblood stallion (Solos Carex—Noraline, Amiral) had a small cut, which led to a swollen leg and a lameness that wouldn’t resolve in time for the competition. Kittel is stationed in Germany, so one of his grooms quickly put TOY STORY, a 13-year-old Swedish Warmblood gelding (Come Back II—Cessna, Concord), on the trailer.

The championship debut went well for Toy Story, who helped the Swedish team place fifth with his Grand Prix score of 73.28 percent. They did join the top 30 riders in the Grand Prix Special, but a rider error put them in 17th in that test (72.15%), just missing the freestyle cutoff.

It’s becoming more and more common to see dressage riders in helmets instead of top hats. Sweden’s Minna Telde wore a helmet, as did all of the British team, except Carl Hester. “I don’t wear a top hat because I had a really bad fall and fractured my skull,” said Charlotte Dujardin. “I was knocked out for about 10 minutes, and I would never take the risk again. I don’t feel safe in a top hat. I think it will become a rule.”

8,100 rubber pads and 1,700 cubic yards of sand covered the arena, which is the home arena for one of Denmark’s soccer teams.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. "Valegro Brings His A-Game To European Championships" ran in the Sept. 9, 2013 issue.

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