Think dressage can’t get a crowd riled up, whistling and clapping to the music? Then you weren’t at the Central Park Horse Show on Sept. 20, where some of the best riders in the world piaffed and passaged under the city lights in the $40,000 Central Park Dressage Challenge, presented by Axel Johnson AB.
Five-time Olympic gold medalist from Germany, Isabell Werth, showed why she’s the best in the business with a stunning ride aboard El Santo NW to a mixture of David Bowie songs that had the spectators dancing along in their seats as she rode to a score of 82.04 percent.
“We’ve just witnessed dressage to music at its very best,” said judge Stephen Clarke in comments to the crowd after her test, as the crowd applauded its agreement. “It really does deserve the applause.
“The technical side was unbelievable in parts,” added Clarke. “The risk the rider took—with full extensions, full collections, huge elastic steps in trot and canter half passes. There were some tiny mistakes in some of the changes, but Isabell was clever enough to repeat those [to increase her score]. The degree of difficulty, with one difficult movement to the next, and her interpretation of the music was absolutely brilliant. You can see absolutely why she is the world and Olympic champion and will be again soon.”
Werth was equally awed by the evening. “I have to thank in the name of all riders for this great idea for this event. In the beginning when I heard it, I couldn’t believe,” she said. “It’s a special event. If you go here through Central Park, and if you arrive in New York, you can’t imagine that you will compete here in this arena. It was a lot of fun and pleasure to be here.”
She was proud of her horse and their test: “You need a special horse also, who can deal with the atmosphere here. I’m really pleased with ‘Ernie.’ He did a great job. I did a really good freestyle.
“This was a special time here,” she added. “It was like holidays with my horse. We are happy to come back!” She and Hans Peter Minderhoud traveled from Europe with El Santo NRW and Glock’s Flirt on Sept. 13 and spent the week at the U.S. Equestrian Team headquarters at Gladstone, N.J.
“The really most impressive view is if you see the skyline,” added Werth. “If you’re in the ring and you look around, this is really unbelievable, especially when you come from Germany! It’s a completely different arena or event or atmosphere to a normal show. But of course it’s not Aachen, it’s not Wellington; it’s something special because you’re in the middle of New York.”
Dutch Olympian Minderhoud finished second to Werth aboard the striking Glock’s Flirt on a score of 78.83 percent.
“What a wonderful horse, with great power and expression,” said Clarke. “He has a huge ability in all of the exercises; he just maybe could have had a slightly higher degree of difficulty, his piaffe could be more established yet and the changes bit straighter. But his energy, expression and interpretation of the music was fantastic.”
While he’s competed all over the world, Minderhoud had never been to New York. “The arena is really amazing,” he said. “Of course in Europe we have some great venues, but the big difference is for our horses. They just saw the ring today. I think that’s really different than a normal show in Europe. They were really good and dealt with it really well. I think they are friends forever; they are really sticking together all the time.”
One Last Time
While Werth may have taken home the blue ribbon, Ravel and Steffen Peters could be called the evening’s real winners. They came to New York from California for a unique exhibition two years after Ravel’s retirement to show off the U.S. Olympian and World Cup winner who earned bronze medals at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
“It’s a little bittersweet tonight,” said Peters after Clarke declared that the performance had “almost brought us to tears.” “I’ve had a wonderful time with Ravel for so many years, and I owe a big thanks to [owners] Jerry [Yang] and Akiko [Yamazaki], and my wife Shannon.
“It’s really hard to put in words what Ravel really does for us,” he said. “To compete and to show him, in what I like to call the center of the world, is really special. Central Park is just amazing. What a special feeling tonight.”
A Special Farewell
Last to perform, Jan Ebeling, who, like Peters performed an exhibition and was not scored, presented 2012 Olympian Rafalca for one last ride before she was retired in a ceremony including owners Ann Romney, Amy Ebeling and Beth Meyer. A slideshow showed snapshots of her career, her connections, her travels and the memories she made as the public figure of U.S. dressage.
“This horse has given me so much,” said Ebeling. “We were hoping to do [the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games] this year; fitness and injury go hand in hand. There was a time where we had to decide it was pushing her too much, and I didn’t want to go that route. We felt we were not contributing positively to the team at that point. The decision was made to retire her, and what a place to retire a horse. This horse show is unbelievable. I’m speechless. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to retire my horse here. I’d like to also say thank you to my family, friends, and sponsors that have made this journey for me possible. I hope I come back with another horse. I was familiar with Central Park, but I never thought I would ever ride here!
He said he’d continue to ride the Oldenburg mare a little but plans to breed her soon by embryo transfer. “I would like to see her out of my window with a baby in my back pasture,” he said.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Mark Bellissimo, CEO of the Central Park Horse Show organizers, the International Equestrian Group, characterized the first edition of the show as a good foundation on which to build in years in the future.
“Our goal was to prove you could get this show done,” Bellissimo said. “So I think that in many ways, having some great athletes come here was icing on the cake so to speak. I think we can tweak it. We’re going to get some feedback from the riders and work those details out to see if we can put together something that’s a little more consistent with what their experiences are at other shows.”
Bellissimo indicated that he plans to apply for U.S. Equestrian Federation and Fédération Equestre Internationale approval for the dressage competition. At the show, the $210,000 Central Park Grand Prix, presented by Rolex, was the only licensed competition of the four days. “We had six weeks to plan this, so it was pretty much just put a competition on and hopefully bring an audience. We had a good crowd and they were engaged,” he continued.
Bellissimo has secured a seven-year lease on the Trump Rink, but each year will have to get approval from Central Park officials to produce the show.
$40,000 Central Park Dressage Challenge, presented by The Axel Johnson Group
Judge C: Stephen Clarke (GBR), Judge M: Katrina Wuest (GER), Judge B: Linda Zang (USA)
1. El Santo NRW, Isabell Werth (GER): 83.750%, 80.500%, 81.875%, 82.042%
2. Glock’s Flirt, Hans Peter Minderhoud (NED): 78.125%, 76.875%, 81.500%, 78.833%
3. Don Daiquiri, Karen Pavicic (CAN): 74.500%, 73.125%, 72.875%, 73.500%
4. Mane Stream Hotmail, Catherine Haddad Staller (USA): 73.250%, 74.375%, 70.000%, 72.542%
5. Denzello, Lisa Wilcox (USA): 73.625%, 72.125%, 70.375%, 72.042%
6. Dressed In Black, Ashley Holzer (CAN): 69.750%, 70.375%, 69.750%, 69.958%
7. Breaking Dawn, P.J. Rizvi (USA): 67.750%, 63.750%, 62.000%, 64.500%