All that glitters is not gold would be a fitting description for the Grand Prix Kur to Music Finals on Friday evening 1 Ocotber 2010 at the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Kentucky. Despite sky high scores and an unrestrained crowd of 25,000 spectators filling up the Kentucky Horse Park main stadium for the "greatest night in dressage history in the U.S.A.", the top three rides were not the best in the gold, silver or bronze medallist's career.
Tiny mistakes and miscommunications affected the harmony of their performance even though the judges were benevolent and willing to give top marks to make the evening a magical night to remember.
Aboard Cees Visser's 9-year old Dutch warmblood stallion Totilas (by Gribaldi x Glendale) Dutch Edward Gal completed his hat trick by winning their third consecutive gold medal at the 2010 World Equestrian Games. Riding to his usual dramatic and pompous music with its very low degree of technical difficult and which is never synchronous to the footfall of the horse though defined as requisite by the FEI, Edward Gal and his black beauty succeeded in mesmerizing the judges and crowds one more time.
Their freestyle started with a stately halt and salute followed by a passage which soon stalled into a halt in the transition to piaffe. Gal corrected his horse swiftly but the first piaffe was glitchy. The horse broke into canter at the end of the first trot extension. In general the first two extensions were far better than all the previous ones Totilas had shown at the WEG. Finally there was some overtrack even though the flashy frontleg still makes the movement look grotesque (especially the third extension had a front leg up to his ears and no lengthening of the frame whatsoever). The extended walk on this horse is always good with nice overstep and sufficient relaxation. Totilas slightly bopped his head though.
Totilas' canter work has its highlights and low points, but the judges seemed constricted in their range of points no matter what and virtually continued to give only 9s and 10s despite imperfections. The first uphill extended canter was amazing, the second behind the vertical but impressive. The pirouettes were brilliant. Totilas is such a star at doing them on the spot with much lift in front. The tempi changes, however, are simply not good despite all that frontleg expression. The horse is totally overbent with his chin on the chest, swings the hindquarters in the two's and in the ones lacks ground cover and hardly jumps through with his left hind leg. The final piaffe at G was outstanding with good sit and activity and Gal concluded his ride with an excellent last passage and halt.
Despite the scintillating atmosphere and the bobbles at the beginning of the ride Gal was able to keep good control over his horse which appeared more rideable than in the Grand Prix. The combination posted a score of 91,800%, more than plenty to sweep all competition off the board.
"He was a bit impressed by the surroundings," said Gal at the press conference. "We all had to deal with it." Edward Gal is the second Dutch rider ever to win individual gold at the World Championships. Only Anky van Grunsven preceded him in 1994 and 2006. "I knew I could do it, but I felt a lot of pressure because everyone expects it," Gal admitted about achieving this hat trick. "It's fantastic to come here and win all three tests." Judge at C, Linda Zang, commented that "Totilas has so much power but at the same time is easy and seems very light. He's amazing."
Since the past few years Gal parted with trainers Anky van Grunsven and Sjef Janssen and has exclusively been working with his life partner Hans Peter Minderhoud and business partner Nicole Werner. "When you get older you want to do your own thing," he said. "You have to be good to the horse and have fun."
Bechtolsheimer and Mistral Hojris on Silver Wings
British Laura Bechtolsheimer produced a hat trick in her own right: triple silver at the 2010 World Equestrian Games. Aboard her parents Wilfried and Ursula Bechtolsheimer's 15-year old Danish gelding Mistral Hojris, Laura rode to music by The Shadows custom made to the movement mechanism of her horse.
The combination started with strong trot extensions to the music, but then there was a slight hesitation in the piaffe. The extended walk could have had more overtrack as the horse did not come to total relaxation. Laura infused a nice choreographical element in her walk section as she started with an extended walk on the diagonal, made a 45° turn on the haunches on the centerline and then did collected walk on the other diagonal. The canter half passes were nice but the change in between was short behind. There was a small misstep in the two tempi's but the extended canter was superb as well as the one tempi's. At the end Laura lost the impulsion in the piaffe and her horse came to an unscripted halt.
Laura's kur was a solid performance but lacked a bit of the perfection and precision we are used of her in the more technical tests like the Grand Prix and Special. Nonetheless the quality and power of her horse as well as the correctness of her training contributed to her fairly high score of 85.350%
"I'm really happy with his performance. My horse finds the freestyle a little difficult to deal with," Laura confessed at the press conference. "There was a little mistake in the two tempi's and in the piaffe, but he showed his true colours as if he said "oops, sorry mummy" and carried on."
Bechtolsheimer's is ecstatic with her historic achievements for Great Britain. "We’ve performed above all expectations here," she said. "Each day I’ve built on my performance and tried hard not to let anything phase me. I need to go home and digest all of what’s happened here. Competing at these Championships is the pinnacle of the sport and I’ve come here and really made it happen – I’m just gobsmacked!”
Beta Bronze for Steffen Peters
Home favourite Steffen Peters picked up his second bronze medal at the 2010 World Equestrian Games. Aboard Akiko Yamazaki's 12-year old Dutch warmblood gelding Ravel (by Contango x Democraat), Steffen rode his 2009 World Cup Finals winning freestyle to music based on tunes by Coldplay and Guns 'n Roses. His kur unfortunately sounded a bit less refined and delicate through the Kentucky Horse Park loudspeakers compared with the Aachen soundsystem. The music of many other riders also had an irritant delay, hearing it on one side of the ring first and then an echo on the opposite side of the stadium. Fortunately for Steffen this was not so much the case with his music.
The combination entered in an extended trot, which should have had more ground cover. He then did some nice, regular piaffe and passage work on voltes. The first change of the two tempi's was short behind and one change of the one tempi's on the curved line was a double beat. Ravel always stayed nice and soft in the hand but the horse could have been more closed and engaged from behind. All the tiny hiccups in their freestyle were due to the hindquarters insufficiently carrying weigth. The double pirouettes were almost all a bit too large. In the collection from extended trot to passage the horse once again made a double beat and in several piaffe movements the horse lost impulsion or rhythm. These mistakes were small imperfections but it meddled with an overall harmonies view. Some of the piaffe went really well as Ravel has a nice sit and especially the trot half passes were beautiful as well as the final passage half passes.
They scored 84.900% and got their second bronze after an earlier third place in the Grand Prix Special. "There hasn't been a medal in the U.S.A for over 70 years and that (GPS medal) was the icing on the cake," Peters explained. "Today we sprinkled more medal on top of it and it has become an amazing cake."
At the prize giving ceremony, Peters wore a helmet with the American colours as a statement for safe riding and in honour of Peters' 2008 Olympic team mate Courtney King-Dye, who sustained a severe head trauma after a fall off her horse in the spring of 2010. "I emailed to Courtney today that I would dedicate the ride to her. This has been one of the hardest things I had to see in my life so I did it in honour of her," said Peters.
Peters also commented on his choice for the freestyle. "The choreography is more difficult since Las Vegas. We changed a few things around, even tried different music," he said. "But it's like an old movie. The sequals are never better so we stuck to the old version."
Imke Schellekens-Bartels and Sunrise, Fourth Place Finishers
Dutch Imke Schellekens-Bartels and the Smarius family's 16-year old Hanoverian mare Sunrise (by Singular Joter x Werther) were the fourth place finishers in the freestyle. Their score of 82.100% was well earned. After the test some people believed she should have been third, while others were more rooting for the fifth placed pair to be in the medals.
Schellekens-Bartels rides to some of the best freestyle music in the world as it is synchronous with her horse's gaits. The powerful piano play of Wibi Soerjadi supports the dark bay mare's elegant light-footedness. The halt upon entry was not immobile. The trot half passes were lovely but the mare swooshed her tail constantly. The first trot extensions did not have sufficient lengthening of the gait nor frame, the second had two hooves overtrack. The collected walk could have been more relaxed, the extended walk was not enough in overstep and the mare curled her neck instead of stretching it. Schellekens rode beautiful canter half passes and Sunrise showed total obedience to the aids of her rider. There was a slight loss of the 3-beat rhyhtm in the first canter extension, the second was delightful. Both the one and two tempi changes were nice and precise. In the final transition to passage the mare lost steam and stalled. The final movements were piaffes and passages. The first piaffe was mediocre in expression, the second was good. The mare lacked engagement in the passage, but stayed regular nonetheless. Imke executed a beautiful, elegant and controlled ride and there was little objection to the 82.100% score they got.
Those that argue Imke shoud have got bronze could have a point as Steffen's score was fairly generous. However, others will agree that despite the correctness of the test, the failing engagement made this ride less brilliant than the freestyle they did at the 2010 World Cup Finals in Den Bosch, where they honestly should have finished second.
"I (almost) rode the test of my life," wrote Imke Schellekens. "I didn't make a mistakes and everything fitted again perfectly. I had to look at my mum when I left the ring to check how it had looked. I rode in such a way thay I didn't know what it would look like, but apparently it was good. I was very happy with my 82.1% score. I believe I only scored above 82% twice, so that was good."
Fuego Unleashes Fiesta Espagnola
The star of Spanish Juan Manuel Munoz Diaz and his Andalusian stallion Fuego XII has slowly been ascending at the 2010 World Equestrian Games as their scores increased with each test. On freestyle night it reached its zenith because the combination drove 25,000 people to an unprecedented delirium. Neither Andreas Helgstrand and Blue Hors Matine were able to induce such a state of frantic commotion at the 2006 WEG in Aachen, nor did people rave this much for Totilas at the Kentucky Horse Park that same evening. Munoz Diaz and Fuego captured the hearts of the crowd and were the public's favourites of the night.
Naturally the Spaniard's freestyle had to be made of Spanish music with a guitarist plucking Flamenco tunes from the strings. The crowd pleaser started his test in walk before halt. He took his horse from halt straight away into a hurried first piaffe. The crowds could not contain themselves and started clapping and cheering in the first extended trot on the inside track. The horse got slightly unsettled by the commotion but continued to show brilliant movements, such as the trot half pass right. The collected walk was tense and though the rider gave Fuego a comforting pat before the extended walk, it barely had any overtrack. The extended canter was beautifully uphill. The first double pirouette right was a bit big, the double pirouette left could have had more bending.
The horse did gorgeous two tempi's on the curved line and when Munoz Diaz rode one tempi's on the centerline with the reins in one hand, the spectators went beserk. During the final passage on the centerline, Juan Manual again took the reins in one hand and signalled to the people to clap. 25,000 spectators started to cheer and applaud even before the end of the ride. An ecstatic Munoz Diaz halted and saluted swinging his hat so hard up in the air that he horse got the scare of his life and took off. At that moment the audience had already gone ga ga and it took them almost 10 minutes to settle down before Totilas entered the ring.
It took the judges long to compute the score and when the 81.450% flashed on the board the audience started booing loudly in disagreement. Even though Munoz Diaz was definitely the golden boy on an artistic level with a high degree of difficulty (which many riders shun and don't get downscored for), technically the ride was not good enough to put him on the podium. The horse was often rushed, he was tense in walk and his regularity and fluidity were not as superior as in the Grand Prix and Special.
The World Equestrian Games are not Cavalia and only if Munoz Diaz matches the technical execution to his high artistic level he'll end up on the podium. Nonetheless Spanish chef d'equipe Bobby Fernandez de Bobadilla wondered, "shouldn't we consider what a performance does to a crowd? This is art and it touched the heart of so many people. This is important too."
Judging Wild at Heart
The judging of the freestyle at the 2010 World Equestrian Games seemed like it was done with reason combined with heart, passion and emotion. Though the final ranking of the combinations was in general not highly disputable, the major gap in points between the number one and other top contenders is farcical. No matter how amazing and unique Totilas is -- which he certainly is -- the 7% point difference with the second horse and 10% difference with the fifth horse are unrealistic.
If Totilas' messiah factor does not wear off soon, it will be hard to take the judging of top level dressage horses to the next level as wel. It is a unfair that high potential horses like Mistral Hojris, Ravel, Sunrise, Fuego, etc are left lagging behind in points while many of them show far better execution of several movements. Totilas is an exceptional horse, but he's a hero not an immortal and infallible god. Gal does an wonderful job riding this spectacular mount and earns his top notes, but so do many other riders.
The level of riding has increased tremendously since 2008. Shall we witness another quantum leap in two years time at the 2012 Olympic Games in London? We certainly wish so and hope the judging will string along.
Text and Photos © Astrid Appels for Eurodressage - No Reproduction Allowed
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