Friday, May. 31, 2024

Werth Antes Up To Win Rolex FEI World Cup Dressage Final

Isabell Werth traveled to Las Vegas, Nev., hoping to do  something special in the Rolex FEI World Cup Dressage Final,  April 19-21. Two years ago she’d arrived  at the same competition with her 19-year-old partner Antony, only to have him fail the veterinary inspection. This time she wasn’t leaving empty-handed.
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Isabell Werth traveled to Las Vegas, Nev., hoping to do  something special in the Rolex FEI World Cup Dressage Final,  April 19-21. Two years ago she’d arrived  at the same competition with her 19-year-old partner Antony, only to have him fail the veterinary inspection. This time she wasn’t leaving empty-handed.

Riding the impressive Warum Nicht FRH, Germany’s Werth led from the start of the competition and finished on a high of 84.25 percent over Imke Schellekens-Bartels of the Netherlands on Sunrise (77.95%) and U.S. rider Steffen Peters on Floriano (77.80%) in the freestyle final.

She won the biggest prize for dressage yet, $109,906 of a $300,000 cash total.

“I was hoping that I could show him in the way I showed him today,” said Werth. “I had such a great feeling, and I didn’t realize any mistakes. Today it was our competition and our day.”

This victory has been building a long time for Werth. She was supposed to take Warum Nicht to the FEI World Equestrian Games (Germany) last August, but a minor injury led her to substitute Satchmo, and they went on to win the individual gold medal in the Grand Prix Special.

Warum Nicht, an enormous, 11-year-old Hanoverian gelding by Weltmeyer, looks like and has often been compared with Gigolo, Werth’s famed Olympic gold-medal winning mount.

“Normally, I don’t like the comparison to Gigolo because they’re very big footsteps to fill,” said Werth. “But everybody can see he looks similar to Gigolo. The whole horse, the long lines—he’s a big horse, the same type as Gigolo. I think it’s a bit the same story. For three to four years we improved him a lot and built him up. We’ll see what he can go on to do.”

Werth took the runner-up position last year at the Final in Amsterdam (the Netherlands) to Anky van Grunsven and Salinero.

“Isabell’s horse is magnificent,” said FEI O-rated judge Cara Witham, who judged at M in the Grand Prix test. “Even when he makes mistakes or gets a little tense, he’s still a truly supple horse, completely loose and supple. If you’re down on our level, you can see that she just has to do a small half-halt or a tiny loosening in the flexion and the horse is completely loose and back to her. There’s not a big fight. There’s no hanging or pulling.”

Tension was something almost all of the riders had to battle in the Grand Prix ride. The Thomas & Mack Arena is tough for the horses because a standard dressage arena barely fits into the ring, and the audience is right on top of the horses. Although every rider had the opportunity to school in the ring, and 10,000 fans attended that schooling session, the horses still weren’t prepared for the intense, electric atmosphere during the competition.

Enthusiastic sold-out crowds roared as each horse entered the arena, testing their obedience and trust in their riders. Werth had to work hard that first day to keep “Hannes” with her.

“I don’t think there was anyone, except for Steffen, who was fault-free [during the Grand Prix],” said Witham. “Even Isabell had her difficulties. She handled them brilliantly. He’s a brilliant horse. What kept her up at the top in spite of her difficulties is that she can pull 9s when he’s on. So you go up and down the scale a little bit, but it averages out quite high.”

Werth said her Grand Prix ride started well, but trouble arose when Hannes spotted a camera during his piaffe. “From that moment on I had to try to get him more concentrated,” she said. “He was looking around and didn’t have the same concentration as before. That was the reason for the mistake in the one- and two-tempis.”

But Werth wasn’t upset with her horse. “You know when you come to Las Vegas that it’s close and it’s difficult,” she said. “But it’s such an enthusiastic and emotional crowd. It’s great when you see and feel so much  emotion and so much positive support for dressage.”

Risking It All In The Freestyle

Fortunately, that first experience in the ring served as a good warm-up for all of the horses, and everyone appeared much improved in their freestyles. The Grand Prix doesn’t count in the final placings—it merely determines who will make the cut for the Final and the order of go.

“You want to get a feeling for the competition and for the horse, and how he’s doing in the test,” said Werth. “Then you can decide what you can do in the freestyle. It’s a bit more than a warm-up, but it doesn’t count. On Saturday, for sure, you have to take risks. The music is made for a powerful ride. If you’re not taking the risk, you’re wrong with your music. There’s no choice but to go forward.”

And she did go forward in the freestyle, riding in front of almost 12,000 cheering fans. The pair showed off their harmony to “Pomp And Circumstance” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” with expressive extended trots into passage half-passes, and extended canter into the pirouettes. They finished with one-handed passage on centerline.

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Dieter Shüle, president of the ground jury, said he gave Werth a 10 for her interpretation of the music. “Isabell’s performance was outstanding today,” he continued. “She was controlling the horse very well with a lot of impulsion. It was a freestyle you will not very often see.”

Werth said, “Today it was just easy. I didn’t expect he would be so relaxed and cool when I went in, because it was such a great atmosphere and fantastic crowd. I could start from the first second to take risks. From second to second I got a safer feeling. Today he was just brilliant. That was the horse I want to show. Today I really could ride whatever I wanted to ride.”

Schellekens-Bartels didn’t have such an easy time with her mare Sunrise, a 13-year-old, Hanoverian mare by Singular Joter. Before the Final she was tied with Werth in the World Cup points standings, but on the first day Sunrise was unusually tense, and they only managed fourth place in the Grand Prix.

“I was a little bit nervous,” admitted Schellekens-Bartels. “When I went in I saw all the audience and felt that Sunrise was a bit nervous. My thoughts were going a bit crazy, but I got them together, and it all
ended well.”

Witham agreed, “Sunrise—that’s a gorgeous, top-quality mare, but today just wasn’t her day for relaxation. Imke is a beautiful rider, and I thought she did an excellent job handling the little problems.”

And the reason for Sunrise’s tension became clear as the week went on. “She was already in season before the Grand Prix,” said Schellekens-Bartels. “[In the freestyle] she was really in season. I had a really difficult warm-up. The feeling when I went in was, ‘I’m going to give everything or nothing.’ I gave everything, and I was very pleased with the ride compared to the warm-up. I didn’t have a lot of mistakes. It was not the best form we ever had. She can do a lot better, but for today I was really happy.”

Schellekens-Bartels rode to a specially composed piano piece by famed Dutch pianist Wibi Soerjadi. It was their second time performing the new freestyle, and Soerjadi traveled to Las Vegas from the Netherlands to watch.

They entered the arena at the walk and opened their performance with extended trot. She included many difficult transitions, like extended trot into a piaffe pirouette and then extended canter into passage.

It was Schellekens-Bartels’ fourth World Cup Final, but her first time in Las Vegas. “I heard a lot of exciting news about two years ago,” she said. “For the Grand Prix it was a bit exciting to go in, and I was a little bit careful maybe. It was an immense crowd, and it was stimulating to give the best you have. It was really good to do the freestyle. It’s nice to have the music and the good sound. It was a lot of fun to do it in a city with an atmosphere like it is here.”

With Age Comes Experience

It was Steffen Peters’ second time in Las Vegas with Floriano, although it was their first World Cup Final together. He rode “Flori” two years ago in the invitational Grand Prix, so he knew that his horse could handle the atmosphere. Even so they had a little difficulty entering the ring for the Grand Prix.

“When I came down the tunnel from the warm-up arena, Floriano wasn’t that crazy about going back in there,” said Peters. “He turned around. It was a pirouette we didn’t ask for. I’ve been with him in that same situation, so I knew he would settle down pretty quickly when I got him in the ring. He was a little more pumped, but it didn’t make him more difficult to ride.”

The Westphalian by Florestan I proved that he has plenty left to give in both his Grand Prix and his freestyle. “I’m still extremely excited for a horse that’s 17 years old and still wants to put so much effort into it,” said Peters.

Riding to music by Supertramp, John Lennon and Fleetwood Mac, Peters and Floriano put in a carefully choreographed test that highlighted how quickly they can move between all-out extensions, pure collection and total relaxation.

The only blip in the freestyle happened at the end when Peters took a risk and tried to up the difficulty by performing a one-handed passage into piaffe before the final halt. But instead of piaffing, Flori halted.

“When you take that risk, mistakes can happen,” said Peters. “He anticipated the final halt. He knows exactly when he comes down centerline that he’s close to being done. It didn’t bother me whatsoever. He did so fantastically tonight, it’s OK.”

Peters said that Floriano felt very similar to how he had felt at the WEG last summer.

“It was a good amount of pressure, but it’s usually something that I benefit from,” he said. “When you’re expected to deliver, there’s a whole lot more to lose. I’ve been in situations before with other horses where I had nothing to lose and could really go for it. I felt like there was a lot more to lose tonight. Flori pulled it off again. It’s unbelievable how much he wants to do this.

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“He’s still so fit, and so willing to do it, so sound and happy,” he continued. “I could see that there’s a chance for next year. He’ll be 18. Udon was also 18 at the Olympics. I know exactly what to do with an older horse to keep him going. We’ve got a great support team to keep Flori going. Maybe it’s going to last another year. Only Floriano can tell us.”

Appreciating The Audience

Only Debbie McDonald and Brentina have finished higher at a World Cup Final than Peters’ third-placed finish. Three other U.S. riders also finished with excellent results this year.

Courtney King and Idocus placed sixth (73.20%), and Catherine Haddad was right behind her in seventh (69.65%) with Maximus JSS. Both women were representing the United States for the first time in inter-
national competition. Leslie Morse and Tip Top 962 also competed in the Final and emerged in 10th (65.85%).

King’s challenging freestyle to music from The Wizard Of Oz and Fiddler On The Roof highlighted their tempi changes.  They performed the two-tempis on a figure eight into the one-tempis and then into a double pirouette before going into a half-pass zigzag and back into one-tempis and two-tempis on the circle.

One change was a little bit short for King’s liking, so she added a few more one-tempis on her final centerline, but those didn’t go perfectly either. “I made a last-minute decision to throw them in there, and I think he wasn’t expecting it, and I wasn’t completely prepared,” she said. “But everybody told me, coming into this, to just go for it, no holds barred. I wanted to go for broke, and that’s what I did. I tried to make up that little point and get a big point, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”

The judges didn’t seem to mind, though, awarding her 7s and 8s for her tempi changes.

“Idocus was absolutely awesome out there,” said King. “After weeks of hard work he absolutely rose to the occasion, and I think we both had fun out there. The audience made me feel so comfortable. They’re so happy when you do well, and so sad when you make a mistake. It made me feel like there was a big cushion to fall in if I made a mistake. It made me comfortable to take some chances.

“After the Grand Prix, I didn’t have the courage to look around at the end of the ride,” King added. “I usually just am bashful and look down. But today I looked up and around for the faces I knew. To see all those beaming, ecstatic faces was so wonderful.”

Haddad also enjoyed the exuberant audience. She’s lived in Germany for the past 13 years, and it had been a long time since she’d competed on American soil.

“It was a great, great thrill to ride in Las Vegas,” she said. “Max and I have heard a lot of applause over the years, but this is the first time we’ve heard American applause, and it was really nice.”

Haddad performed to music from the movie Gladiator. They began with a dramatic entrance to dialogue from the film, which the audience appreciated, and proceeded to show off Maximus’ talent and steadiness in a technically difficult freestyle.

They performed their tempi changes on a serpentine and did a one-handed passage zigzag on centerline before their final halt.

“I wasn’t happy with the score, but then again, I rarely am,” said Haddad. “I think the crowd loved it, but I don’t think the judges were very impressed. But it was definitely worth it. I’m ready to start qualifying all over again. What I found here is that this crowd gave a gift back with their enthusiasm. Prize money will be quickly spent, and ribbons and trophies will collect dust, but what’s unforgettable is the joy and appreciation that this audience showed for our work.”

Galopin de la Font Conquers Consolation Final

Galopin de la Font showed that Lusitanos can have a place in international dressage by putting in a breathtaking performance with Daniel Pinto of Portugal to win the B-Final of the Rolex FEI World Cup Final.

The 13-year-old, black stallion (by Espanto) danced to traditional bullfighting music and scored 71.65 percent. The crowd gasped when Pinto moved the reins into his left hand and galloped down centerline away from the judges straight into a one-handed pirouette.

Cara Witham, who judged at C, was impressed with his daring. “I think that Daniel made the best advantage of his horse’s strong points,” she said. “He had a lot of degrees of difficulty, very interesting choreography and the music was absolutely top for this horse.”

Pinto was touched by the crowd’s reaction to his horse. “It’s an honor for the breed,” he said. “It’s important for the World Cup to have an exotic horse.”

Pinto and his wife put together his medley of Spanish bullfighting music. “I put a lot of thought into the music,” he said. “I chose bullfighting music to prove dressage is like bullfighting on horseback and requires the horse to be disciplined and controlled. I hope that by using the music of the bullfight in my country where bullfighting on horseback is still a tradition, and a long-time tradition, I could attract people to come and see dressage from all over the world.”

Sara Lieser

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