The dressage riders enjoyed their first opportunity to school their horses in the main ring of the AccorHotels Arena for the FEI World Cup Dressage Final, after the show jumpers had two chances over the previous days.
All 18 horses passed the jog, and riders schooled in groups of six, with the two U.S. riders, Laura Graves on Verdades and Shelly Francis on Danilo, taking to the ring in the final group.
“They’re terrific,” said U.S. Chef d’Equipe Robert Dover. “Laura has already proven that she can beat the No. 1 in the world [Isabell Werth and Weihegold OLD] and did at Aachen [Germany], so now truly it’s up to who has the best, clean and most expressive ride.
“Shelly is doing a beautiful job as well,” he continued. “She’s really excited to be here. I love it because Shelly’s been reserve on our team the last couple of teams, and it makes me happy that she’s here actually getting to represent. And it’s her first World Cup Final, out of all these years, so it’s terrific, and we’re really thrilled and excited and can’t wait to get going!”
Graves enters the competition ranked No. 5 in the world, and after a second-placed finish in the 2017 finals she’s eager to take home the title. Her 16-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding is notoriously spooky, but Graves felt he settled into the arena well.
“I’m super excited; he has never felt better,” said Graves. “I feel like he schooled so well in there and was relaxed. It’s awesome to have a World Cup where you have enough space to go around the perimeter of the arena.
“He’s super happy here; he’s been waiting to get in there all week,” she continued. “We got here Monday, and he kept seeing the jumpers come down this grass path, and he kept tugging and trying to go in, and yesterday they let us in the warm-up [paddock], but we weren’t allowed in the stadium, so he just kept kind of peeking into the tunnel and wanting to go. Today he was glad to be [in there]; he was looking for what’s on the other side.”
Graves focused on running through each of the movements, making sure “Diddy” remained accurate and on the aids, and they’re feeling confident heading into the Grand Prix tomorrow, on April 13.
“We’re super excited,” said Graves’ coach Debbie McDonald. “I think he’s ready to go, and Laura’s ready to go, so I think we’re in a good place. Just trying to keep schooling everything to be a little more accurate and always making it a little better, nothing special, just really trying to perfect it.
“We’re trying to get him really comfortable in there because first time in he can be a little hot and spooky, but he was actually quite lovely in there today,” McDonald continued. “I’m hoping that will be the case tomorrow for her because it was really nice to see him in there today.”
Francis is riding Danilo in her first appearance in the World Cup Final. Her other Grand Prix mount Doktor has been at the level for several years, but Francis didn’t feel he had the right temperament to compete in an indoor venue successfully.
Francis spent the first part of her session doing lateral work at the walk before slowly picking the gelding up in the trot work.
“He felt nicely lively, and [there were] really little moments where I had to get him through the right rein a little, but he felt really super; most of the time he felt really good,” said Francis. “It’s learning to use his eager, little bit of hot energy toward working, which is still a little touchy, but it’s always getting better and better, so we hope it stays better at this show.
“It just feels awesome,” she continued. “I’m excited; I think my horse is too. It’s just really exciting to me. It’s lovely [in the arena]; there’s lots of space, and it’s nice that we can go around the outside of the ring instead of having it so small that you have to enter from inside. The audience is just far enough way that they’re not on top of you.”
Francis drew the seventh spot in the order for tomorrow’s Grand Prix and will start at 4:24 p.m. local time (that’s 10:34 a.m. EDT). Graves rides in the 15th slot at 5:51 p.m. local time (11:51 a.m. EDT) with defending champions Werth and Weihegold shortly after at 6:08 p.m. local time (12:09 p.m. EDT).