Steffen Peters’ motto these days is “living the dream” as he checks off one goal after another on any world-class dressage rider’s bucket list.
First it was the win at the Rolex FEI World Cup Final in 2009, followed closely by a clean sweep of the Grand Prix tests at the World Equestrian Festival in Aachen, Germany. Then it was two individual bronze medals at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in 2010 in Kentucky.
And on March 11, he accomplished another goal: winning the Grand Prix freestyle at the World Dressage Masters in West Palm Beach, Fla., on a score of 84.55 percent.
The world’s richest dressage series began in 2008, offering almost $140,000 in prize money at every competition. Peters, San Diego, Calif., has competed in all three of the Florida editions. He’s even won the Grand Prix test on the first day every time out. But somehow it all came apart just a little bit in the big money freestyle class, where more than $83,000 was up for grabs.
In 2009, Peters finished third behind the Netherlands’ dressage superstar Anky van Grunsven aboard Painted Black and her fellow Dutch rider Hans Peter Minder-houd on Exquis Escapado. In 2010, he placed second to van Grunsven on Salinero.
“Maybe there is some truth to three’s a charm,” said Peters. “The first two were pretty close—well, the very first one wasn’t so close. I didn’t ride very well in that freestyle. Last year was very close between Salinero and Ravel. I’m very happy that it actually happened tonight.”
The result did seem a bit preordained, as there are only a couple of horse- and-rider combinations in the world that have beaten Peters on the 13-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Contango—Hautain, Democraat), and they weren’t in attendance.
No one was surprised when Peters, 46, once again led after the Grand Prix class on 80.87 percent, his highest CDI score to date. Next closest was WEG teammate Tina Konyot on Calecto V (72.21%) and Sweden’s Tinne Vilhelm-son-Silfven with Favourit (71.34%).
“Steffen, I wish I had a 12 to give to you. Wonderful!” exclaimed Cara Whit-ham, who judged at C during the Grand Prix test.
“It was just an amazing ride. I think from now on, it will be the ride I compare other rides to,” said Peters. “Every-thing felt really easy. He was so supple, perfectly in front of me. I was able to ride the piaffe a little bit more in place.”
But horses are unpredictable, and a sold-out crowd of more than 1,200 spectators in the covered arena—decorated to the rafters with a Provence, France, theme—at the Jim Brandon Center certainly made for an electric indoor-type atmosphere.
Ravel was last of the eight compe-titors to enter the arena, and for a moment it almost looked like disaster might strike again as he jumped enthusiastically into his first canter transition from passage.
“Ravel was very, very excited tonight. We could see that in the first transition from the passage to the canter—he overreacted a little bit, and he did the same on the centerline for the one-tempis—he got a little bit croup high,” admitted Peters. “But he’s such a good guy that even though he was excited, he still made it happen for me.”
These small mistakes were minor blips in a freestyle that showcased a Grand Prix horse who has grown completely confident in himself without losing his competitive edge.
“Coach Anne Gribbons has been asking me [about Ravel], because she hadn’t seen him since the World Games,” said Peters. “I was so excited to tell her how he is, but I said, ‘You’ve got to see it for yourself. It’s really better. Words only mean so much.’ Anne has been working with me since we got here last week on Thursday. And it was also her impression that he was looking even better since the World Equestrian Games. I’m glad the judges agreed.”
According to Peters, this is the last time he’ll ride to his popular rock ‘n roll music that pairs Coldplay with The Rolling Stones and Men Without Hats.
“I had to make a deal with Anne Gribbons, because she’s been on my case to change the music,” joked Peters. “From here on we’ll use the same choreography—we get good marks, it’s difficult enough and fair to the horse. But the music is getting a bit old, and it’s time to change.”
Vilhelmson-Silfven and Konyot switched places from their Grand Prix finish to place behind Peters on 77.97 percent and 76.77 percent respectively.
“I really had fun riding in there today. The atmosphere was great,” said Vilhelmson-Silfven. “It was a super place to compete; you just had to ride well in there. Favourit was coping with it very well. I was pleased with the ride overall.”
“I don’t mind trading places with my friend Tinne,” said Konyot. “It was a fantastic evening. I was very happy with Calecto. I believe that was my highest freestyle score so far. We’re gradually trying to creep up the ladder. I’m trying to catch my friend [Peters], but I’ve got a long way to go. I’m going to keep trying.”
It Almost Didn’t Happen
It turned out that the biggest obstacle Peters had to overcome in claiming his prize had little to do with riding. The competition was originally scheduled to take place on Feb. 3-5 at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Wellington, where it’s been held the previous two years. But when big names from Europe failed to commit, Equestrian Sport Productions officials decided to cancel in late November.
But Peters and Ravel’s owner, Akiko Yamazaki, are strong proponents of the WDM, and they weren’t ready to let the show disappear without a fight.
“WDM allows our riders and audiences to experience world class dressage on our home soil,” said Yamazaki. “It
is the only show that has been able to attract the participation of the very top European riders, and I understand they have enjoyed coming to Florida. It would have been a real shame to lose this show and the opportunity for our riders and audiences to experience the latest in world-class dressage first-hand.”
Cue a number of people stepping in to make it happen, and by mid-January it was back on. Noreen O’Sullivan and John Flanagan, who own Wellington Classic Dressage and run a number of Florida dressage shows, agreed to host the show at the Jim Brandon Center.
The International Polo Club Palm Beach offered up a presenting sponsorship, and Yamazaki also agreed to come on as an additional sponsor.
Then the footing at the Jim Brandon Center received a complete upgrade courtesy of Premier Equestrian and GGT Footing.
“The footing is not just good, it’s perfect,” said Peters.
“This is a competition that’s so worth-while having here in the U.S. That’s the main reason why we’ve done a job like this in such a short time,” said John van de Laar, Managing Director of WDM. “It’s very important for us to stay here in the U.S. If we can do this in this short window of time, you can imagine what we can do if we have a little bit more time. Next year we will even have a better competition.”
“In such a short time we’ve been able to get an absolutely superb competition in place,” agreed Antonia Ax:son Johnson, chairman and owner of the Axel Johnson Group, which is the presenting sponsor of the entire WDM series. “There really is a tremendous buzz in Wellington about, ‘What is dressage? We have to learn more.’ I think this is really what WDM has been able to achieve during these few weeks.”
However, van de Laar wouldn’t commit to a location for next year’s Florida WDM. “We will have a big discussion about the location,” he said. “At first people had a negative image about the [Jim Brandon Center]. I can’t imagine why. Everybody is very happy with the footing here. The permanent stabling is very nice for the horses, and you don’t have that everywhere at every show. There’s a lot speaking for it. But maybe there are some other locations we have to look into.”
A Florida Convert
One of the riders who was very happy with his experience at the Jim Brandon Center was Michal Rapcewicz. He won the Grand Prix Special aboard Randon (69.77%) over Pierre St. Jacques on Lucky Tiger (69.41%) and Shawna Hard-ing on Come On III (68.95%).
“West Palm Beach is like a small paradise for horses. It’s amazing!” said the Polish rider. “I had a holiday here, and I won a big competition. My birthday was yesterday, [March 10], and everybody sang me happy birthday. It’s a big dream, and seriously I don’t want to wake up. Monday, I should go back, but maybe I’ll stay. I’m really happy.”
Rapcewicz finished 10th in the Grand Prix (68.17%), which qualified him for the Grand Prix Special. Only the top eight riders from the Grand Prix got to compete in the freestyle.
But he said his Polish Warmblood gelding (Czuwaj SP—Rafa SP, Fanimo KWPN) gave him a much better feeling in the Special.
“I’m really proud for my horse. He really enjoyed all the exercises,” he said.
The 29-year-old has broken many records for his country. He and Randon competed in the 2008 Olympic Games, the 2010 WEG and three World Cup Finals.
The 14-year-old gelding came to Rapcewicz seven years ago as a failed event horse.
“He was not so successful, because no one could halt him on cross-country. He would go really fast, and everyone was afraid of him,” explained Rapcewicz. Then Randon had a dressage career with a junior, but that didn’t go well either.
“She wasn’t experienced enough, and he was a really hot horse. She was doing the junior tests with him, but most of the time she’d fall off in the arena,” said Rapcewicz. “He wasn’t mean, but he was so fresh. If he wanted to do an extension, he’d just do it, and she couldn’t sit on him because she’d lose her balance, and he’d lose her.”
A friend of Rapcewicz owned Randon, but he’d gotten injured in an accident, so he asked if Rapcewicz would take over the ride and try to sell the horse.
“Just two weeks before my horse had died, my best Grand Prix international stallion that I’d ever had,” said Rapce-wicz.
“I wanted to get out of dressage. I was studying law, and I decided it would be better to become a lawyer. There are too many problems with horses. I really freaked out when my horse died. I was 22, and it was a really hard thing. Then Randon came in for training, and I just thought I’d do it for the money. I rode him, and after two weeks, I called my friend, and said, ‘OK, I’ll buy him.’ It was like my old horse had been reincarnated in the body of this horse.”
Rapcewicz took his time with Randon, training him out on the trails in the forest instead of in an arena.
“He’d become a little bit stressed when he saw white fences. He could be quite spooky. All the Grand Prix exercises he learned first in the forest, passage, piaffe, whatever,” he said.
Rapcewicz keeps his horses in Bel-gium, as he said it was too complicated for them to travel the long distances from Poland to show. This was his first time coming to Florida for the WDM, because previously he’s chosen to go to the World Cup Final instead. But the atmosphere and hospitality of Florida completely won him over.
“Now I hope somebody will invite me here, and I’ll live in Palm Beach,” he said. “It’s such a wonderful place. This is the place where I really want to live! This is my first time here, and I hope not my last time.”