Friday, May. 31, 2024

Three Times A Charm At The Rolex FEI World Cup Final

Our columnist reflects on her third experience at the Final in Las Vegas.

“Three strikes and you’re in” was the ticket when it came to the 2009 Rolex FEI World Cup Dressage Final in Las Vegas, Nev. Since the initial World Cup competition in 2005, I’ve been part of the “crew” of officials as judge or Appeals Committee member, so I’ve been able to observe the proceedings from the inside each time.

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Our columnist reflects on her third experience at the Final in Las Vegas.

“Three strikes and you’re in” was the ticket when it came to the 2009 Rolex FEI World Cup Dressage Final in Las Vegas, Nev. Since the initial World Cup competition in 2005, I’ve been part of the “crew” of officials as judge or Appeals Committee member, so I’ve been able to observe the proceedings from the inside each time.

There’s a certain intensity about the World Cup Final that’s even more electric than during Olympic Games and World Equestrian Games. The indoor venue compacts the atmosphere and brings the audience closer to the horses and judges, and that makes the feeling of being there “up close and personal” more real. Also, instead of a large number of horses with varying competence, at the World Cup you have a select few among the best in the world competing.

It takes a while for horse show management to get in the groove in a new location, and this was true for the first World Cup for dressage in Las Vegas in 2005. At that time, it was a bit of a trial and error going on, but Glenda McElroy and her team—who were on the job for the third time—had it down to a science this year.

Everyone appeared to know exactly where to go, what to do, and how to make the magic happen. Even getting accredited was a breeze, and that’s usually a headache at big events.

The official program was amazingly abundant in information about all of the dressage riders and explanations of the various movements, as well as little anecdotes about some of the riders. If you can get your hands on one, I’m sure you’ll be amazed at the effort put out to inform about our sport.

Top Players

This World Cup had a fabulous lineup of strong combinations with the dueling duo Isabell Werth and Anky van Grunsven as part of the group.

Leading the troops of challengers was our own Steffen Peters, flanked by Adelinde Cornelissen on Parzival, Hans Peter Minderhoud on Nadine, Jan Brink on Briar and Ashley Holzer on Pop Art, all with top placings from the qualifiers in their leagues. Unfortunately, we lost four of the 15 horses by the freestyle, and one of them, Parzival, never competed at all due to an injury while schooling.

Thanks to instant communications—and the Chronicle’s comprehensive online coverage—you all know how it ended, and probably many of you followed the action blow by blow or read the competition analysis (May 1, p. 10).

However, as the saying goes, “you had to be there” to fully appreciate the Grand Prix performance of Ravel and Steffen.

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It was a study in suppleness, harmony and total focus of horse and rider on the job at hand. I was seated right behind C, and the zigzag half-passes at the canter were awesome. I consider that movement one of the toughest ones to really do well, and it often looks and feels like a struggle. Steffen and Ravel owned those half-passes. They were soft, balanced, symmetrical and looked so easy it made my toes curl with envy.

Overall, the whole test spelled dressage at its best, and the judges richly rewarded that impression by giving Ravel the lead by more than 3 percentage points.

At the press conference after the Grand Prix, Steffen was gracious and humble and appeared almost a little dazed by his big win. When the questions were over, he pointed to Isabell and Anky sitting on each side of him and assured the press that he was quite aware that both of those ladies would do all they could to change the outcome of things in the freestyle. And that they could.

Isabell was indeed in good form in the freestyle. Satchmo was less bothered by the clicking of the cameras, which he couldn’t hear over the music, and he was more “tuned in.” He sailed through the lateral work, and the transitions were right on. It was a clean and competent ride with a high degree of difficulty where all of the features worked out well.

The judges rewarded them with a high score of 84.50 percent, and we became worried.

Steffen’s ride, which was next, was without mistakes as well, but it was somewhat lacking in difficult design, and his music doesn’t lend itself to easy interpretation. All of this is a good thing and smart planning when you have a young horse that’s not quite ready to tackle too many complications, but when you’re up against horses with more experience, it can hurt you.

In addition, Ravel gave his all in the Grand Prix, and some of the sparkle had worn off. We knew it was an extremely good ride, but was it good enough? Since the Grand Prix score does not carry over, everything was depending on this one ride. The score came up a fraction over Isabell’s, at 84.95 percent, and the Americans exhaled.

Then came Anky and her elegant and elastic black stallion. She and her partner had a trot tour that was as seductive as the dancing that’s displayed in the streets of Buenos Aires. Every step was in beat with the music, every transition in sync with the phrasing.

By the time the walk started, it was obvious that Anky had the upper hand, and once again she showed that her ability to ride to and interpret the music is unequaled. We were on the edges of our seats when the canter began, but suddenly Painted Black decided to be a stallion in the spring and started to play with the connection and lean in the bridle.

No longer paying attention, he had a couple of mistakes in the two-tempi changes, and the canter work brought the score down enough for Steffen to stay on top. Big sigh of relief for the home crowd; life was good!

A Bittersweet Ending

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This year there were some additions to the Friday afternoon exhibitions, which truly enhanced the dressage experience for the audience.

There was a pas de deux “competition” featuring three Olympic riders and their partners in costume. Guenter Seidel, Debbie McDonald and Charlotte Bredahl-Baker each rode as one half of a team.

A lovely performance by Guenter and Elisabeth Ball, riding to the music of the “Phantom Of The Opera,” earned a standing ovation, and they emerged the clear winners. Elisabeth, looking dreamy dressed in a bridal gown, and a masked Guenter returned for an encore during the Saturday evening performance.

Young horses had a special showcase, and the four horses chosen were all of top quality. Even better, from an educational point of view, was that they were different in conformation, size and type of mechanics in their ways of moving. This situation made it obvious that a good horse comes in many different packages, and that we need to learn to recognize quality in its many variations.

Linda Zang, head of the Ground Jury, explained the purpose and proceedings of our U.S. Equestrian Federation Young Horse programs and pointed out what we look for when we judge those classes.

The Friday dressage program came to a bittersweet ending. Brentina, the mare belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Thomas, and ridden by Debbie McDonald, came to say farewell to us all.

Her retirement ceremony was done with great style and class. Having judged and followed this horse since she first came on to the dressage scene about 10 years ago, I was as choked up as everyone else. Because of Brentina’s recent bout of colic and surgery, she couldn’t perform her freestyle as planned, but that made seeing her there in the spotlight even more precious.

The World Cup isn’t scheduled to return to Las Vegas any time soon, since the jumpers have been directed elsewhere by the Fédération Equestre Internationale until 2015. The path of the dressage division is at this time undecided.

In any case, we’ve enjoyed the Las Vegas venue, and we will all remember the 2009 World Cup victory with joy. We always listen to the National Anthem at the opening of home games, so it was especially gratifying to hear it playing again at the closing awards ceremony with Ravel standing alert and confident, contemplating the American flag. 

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 a longstanding member of the USEF High Performance Committee. She started contributing to Between Rounds in 1995.

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