Thursday, May. 23, 2024

From Palm Beach To The World Cup Final

Our columnist reflects on the Palm Beach Dressage Derby, a long-standing institution in the dressage world, and the two riders who qualified there for the FEI World Cup Dressage Final.

There are a number of outstanding dressage shows offered in this country, but few have the history and tradition of Florida’s Palm Beach Dressage Derby (March 21, p. 32), which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year.

Time really flies when you have as much fun as we all have had at this show over the years!
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Our columnist reflects on the Palm Beach Dressage Derby, a long-standing institution in the dressage world, and the two riders who qualified there for the FEI World Cup Dressage Final.

There are a number of outstanding dressage shows offered in this country, but few have the history and tradition of Florida’s Palm Beach Dressage Derby (March 21, p. 32), which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year.

Time really flies when you have as much fun as we all have had at this show over the years!

I well remember the first Derby, hosted by the Pferdekaempers and held on their Hanover Horse Farm at White Fences. Gisela and Howald, owners of Hanover Horse Farm, had a vision: they wanted dressage to become a strong discipline in the equestrian world of America, where 25 years ago many people hadn’t a clue what the word meant.

So, they hired European judges and modeled the show after the shows they knew from Germany, their native country.

At the time, the infrastructure of White Fences wasn’t complete, and the entrance to the community was from Deer Run. We arrived at midnight due to trouble with the van and almost ended up in the Lion County Safari because of few signs and lights. When we finally found the proper entrance, the ride became a spooky adventure of winding our way between the trees by the sole light of the silvery moon, and we almost gave up before we finally saw the tents and rings.

The show, however, was a hit from the start. I met and had my first of many friendly arguments with Klaus Fraessdorf, the manager of the show, who started his long career in style.

By 1999, the show had outgrown the original facility and worn out many of the original fire souls. It threatened to die out, but to the rescue came some of the people who had been long supporters of the Derby and wanted the tradition to stay alive.

Mary Anne McPhail was the leader, who, together with her husband Walter, has forever been a major supporter of dressage in every way. Evelyn O’Sullivan immediately signed up as right-hand woman, and somehow they roped Walter into dedicating 50 acres next to their High Meadows Farm to construct a state-of-the-art show ground.

Once Walter was on board, he had four competition arenas and two practice rings built in record time. For the first show, the office was in a trailer, and that worked until the inspectors from the county arrived and insisted that the trailer be tied down to the ground, which put a heavy kink in the show schedule.

Scram!

To solve that problem, Walter immediately put up a substantial building for office use, but when the next show rolled around, he hadn’t had time to acquire a certificate of occupancy. The entire office crew was hard at work the day before the show when Walter blew in and told them all to scram, since the inspector from the county was driving down the road.

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So, the show committee looked busy pulling weeds and raking rings while Walter took care of business. There’s only one thing missing to complete the picture, and I have indicated this to Walter many times: At the entrance, or in the back by the canal, how about a nice little “Walliday Inn?” So far, Walter only laughs, but I know he’s thinking.

Mary Anne and Evelyn have been the kingpins in this enterprise since it moved to its new location, and every year the show gets better. From a competitor’s point of view, it’s obvious that the comfort of the horses is looked after with an eagle’s eye, the judges are hand picked, the footing is groomed to perfection and the office personnel is on the ball.

I credit these occurrences to the fact that Mary Anne competed for many years and understands the concerns of the riders and horse owners. To be a judge at the Derby means non-stop pampering with great scribes, wonderful accommodations and that special dinner hosted by Janne and Stan Rumbaugh at the Everglades Club.

Again, Mary Anne was a judge for many years and knows what makes a judge look forward to return to a show. But most of all, it’s the quality of the competitors that makes the Derby such an exciting event to attend. The very best gather there to test their horses and themselves, which makes it, as they say in the Fédération Equestre Internationale reports “good sport,” meaning tough competition.

At the Derby this year, I asked Evelyn and Mary Anne for their worst and best memories of running the show. They both said their worst moment was when the “Loxahatchee breeze” lifted the VIP tent off its poles and the top of it headed toward Tuni Full’s horse, who had just entered the main ring.

Luckily, the horse didn’t lose its mind, in spite of the fact that three men were dangling in the air holding the tent down during his performance. When it comes to the best memory, they also agreed that this year’s show had it over the others because of the special tribute to past Olympians that took place during the lunch break on Saturday, March 1.

Sixteen Olympic participants, several of them medalists, were assembled in the main arena to receive flowers and adoration from the audience. They were: Dorothy Morkis, Robert Dover, Michelle Gibson, Lisa Wilcox, Bent Jensen, Lars Petersen, Cesar Parra, Ashley Holzer, Lendon Gray, Michael Poulin, Jessica Ransehousen, Carol Lavell, Linda Zang, Klaus Balkenhol, Karen O’Connor and Mason Phelps. Quite a lineup!

Although I have many best memories of the Palm Beach Derby, I also have one nightmare scenario. When I was judging several years ago, I misunderstood the departure time from the hotel in the morning. When I arrived in the lobby and not a single colleague was in sight, my blood ran cold.

I called Evelyn, who said, “Take a cab.” But no cabs were available. In the 11th hour a taxi arrived to deliver a guest, and I jumped into it before the driver could stop me. The car doors rattled and the tires cried as we flew to the show. The cabby really got into it, and those speed bumps down the last long stretch of road made me happy I’d not had time for breakfast. The only reason I wasn’t late was that the first horse had scratched. I slid into my box at B as the bell rang, and only Evelyn and I knew it had been empty.

Hindsight

This year’s show was the clincher for determining the U.S. representatives for the FEI World Cup Finals in the Netherlands (p. 8). From the Derby, Courtney King-Dye and Jane Hannigan proceeded almost immediately to the Finals.

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Courtney has competed internationally before, but for Jane it was her first European venture. Nothing like starting off in front of a full house of 11,000 spectators competing against the very best in the world!
This experience has to stand Jane, and us, in good stead as a preparation for the Olympic lineup. Jane did a most creditable job in the Grand Prix, finishing 13th behind a group of seasoned Europeans. In the freestyle, Jane had difficulty staying with her music because she’d made some last-minute adjustments to the choreography in order to increase the degree of difficulty.

Although her 14-year-old, black gelding Maksymilian stayed on track technically, the overall impression wasn’t in sync. In the end, Jane and Maksymilian finished a respectable 12th, and the pair received a lot of positive attention from the audience as well as the media. With any luck, I hope we can keep Jane and her horse over there for a couple more shows just to imprint their image on the European cornea.

Our young heroine Courtney King-Dye, on the 18-year-old (and still in super shape) Idocus, started out with a promising seventh in the Grand Prix, and expectations were high, since they have an inspiring freestyle.

Well, a triple pirouette caused by an attempt to correct the horse’s balance, and then disorientation, pulled the rug out from under them.

The placing of the right pirouette in their program has been up for discussion before, and although Courtney knew there was a risk, she didn’t change the choreography to eliminate the possibility of going beyond the degree of difficulty allowed. She paid dearly by finishing last.

So, hindsight being 20/20, each of our riders should have made the opposite decision about their programs. However, as Robert Dover used to advise us: “If you’re going to make a mistake, look good while you make it!” Both Courtney and Jane pulled that part off, and they’ll be back to perform with perfection.
So, Anky van Grunsven won her ninth World Cup Finals, and I wonder where she parks all the cars she’s won. Having seen and judged her in action, all I can say is that she’s magic with music, and there seemed to be no argument whatsoever about her supremacy.

With experience, Salinero is slowly chilling out, and he now appears less tense and overzealous, which goes well with the soft piano tunes.

Isabell Werth, of course, was right on Anky’s heels, but I must say that for dancing, I’d rather have the Salinero type for a partner than the enormous-moving Warum Nicht FRH. It’s only thanks to Isabell’s engineering skills as a rider that this horse can fit to any music.

A somewhat more adjustable model horse is preferable in freestyles, and Kyra Kyrklund, who is another expert at riding freestyles, has such a horse in Max. Already last year, I thought she had it over everyone except Isabell, who won in Las Vegas. This year, she placed third, and with two legends out in front, it doesn’t get much better. 

Anne Gribbons



Anne Gribbons moved to the United States from Sweden in 1972 and has trained more than a dozen horses to Grand Prix. She rode on the 1986 World Championships dressage team and earned a team silver medal at the 1995 Pan American Games. An O-rated dressage judge, based in Chuluota, Fla., Gribbons serves as co-vice chairman of the U.S. Equestrian Federation Dressage Committee. She started contributing to Between Rounds in 1995.

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