Germany's Jessica von Bredow-Werndl took over the baton from double Olympic champion Charlotte Dujardin and became the new dressage Olympic Champion in a sensational individual medal final at the Baji Koen equestrian centre on Wednesday 28 July 2021.
Set in ideal conditions with comfortable summer temperatures of 28 C°, a nice breeze, and a lightning storm providing a light show far away in the background, the excitement and electricity in the stadium was palpable, even though a rather small crowd instead of a full house of crazy dressage enthusiasts filled the seats. Some of the eventing riders used the preparation time at Baji Koen to cross disciplines and watch the Olympic dressage finale.
Von Bredow-Werndl and the 14-year old Trakehner mare Dalera BB rode on the wave of success and produced three winning rides at the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo. They won the Grand Prix qualifier for the team and individual medal finals, anchored Team Germany to gold in the Grand Prix Special, and made a clean sweep in the Kur to Music finals for individual gold and eternal glory as a sports athlete.
The silver went to Germany's Isabell Werth, who has been pursuing a second individual Olympic gold for the past two decades. After claiming the title with Gigolo at the 1996 Atlanta Games, Werth has got individual silver on four other occasions on no less than three different horses (Gigolo, Satchmo, Weihegold). Today she added her fifth individual silver to six team gold medals.
Britain's Charlotte Dujardin proved that she is no one-hit wonder and can be back at the highest echelon of the sport with another horse. Not Mount St. John Freestyle succeeded Valegro as her Olympic carrier, but her own young rising star Gio worked his heart out and turned Dujardin into a British sports legend. She is now the most decorated British Olympic female athlete in history, beating five-time Olympic medalist Katherine Grainger (rowing).
The Kur to Music is always a special conclusion of an intercontinental championship and at the Olympics it is even more unique given that the event only takes place every four years and the global interest is unparalleled with journalists and photographers from all major press agencies, instead of just the sport specific media.
Jessica von Bredow-Werndl was the hot favourite for gold and she certainly delivered. Aboard Beatrice Burchler-Keller's 14-year old Trakehner mare Dalera BB (by Easy Game x Handryk), Jessica rode her highly celebrated Lala Land freestyle which fits the pair like a glove. Although neither the halt at entry nor the end halt were immobile, the piaffe passage was effortless with a rhythm like clockwork. The collected walk was lateral, but the extended good. One right double pirouette needed to sit more, there was a small blip coming out of a left double pirouette, but the extended canters and one tempi changes were fantastic and overall the kur was smooth sailing, representing a combination in perfect unison. Maybe in Rotterdam at the 2019 Europeans the combination hit the musical notes more precisely, but here in Tokyo it was a magical freestyle that earned them a 91.732% end score for the gold medal.
As 14th starter in a field of 18, it was a nail-biting wait till the end of the class to know if Jessica was going to become the next Olympic champion.
"I was so nervous when Isabell rode. I saw her performance and it was just amazing," said Jessica who was very emotional leaving the arena after her test. "When I heard the shouting, I just had to cry. It was the moment I realised that it could happen tonight, Dalera could become an Olympic champion. I had to cry in front of all the journalists."
Jessica was rather speechless at the press conference, not yet fully realising the magnitude of her achievement, but in full praise of her horse. "Dalera was 100% with me, trying her heart out," she said. "She was listening to my aids, I had to be careful that I didn’t do too much or too little. Her antennas were on."
Werndl realised that Olympic gold was within her reach two years ago at the 2019 European Championships, where she won kur bronze. "Around the time of the Europeans in Rotterdam. In the freestyle she started to show what is possible and then I started to believe the Olympic dream can come true," said Jessica.
Fifth Silver for Werth, Final Freestyle for Bella Rose
For Isabell Werth the plan was set that the 17-year old Westfalian mare Bella Rose (by Belissimo M x Cacir AA) would be her ticket to her long coveted second individual gold medal, but it became a fifth silver instead.
Riding Bella Rose's tailored freestyle based on 19th century opera music (Puccini's O Mio Babbino Caro", Verdi, Rigoletto, and Beethoven's Ode to Joy), Werth had her chestnut mare on best form of the week. Fluent half passes, bouncy passage, piaffes on the spot, uphill two tempi changes. Only the extended walk she was a bit stiff in the back and unclear in the rhythm, same with the collected walk in which she ambled. Werth was on a warrior path and riding the maximum out of her horse. It could have been a bit more natural going as she was working hard in the saddle, but Bella Rose had her ears pricked and following her rider's lead. A right pirouette was a bit flat, but the clever ending with the piaffe pirouette to flute tones strikes a chord with judges and spectators. It's Werth's continuous smart riding and clever musical choices (in agreement with her freestyle arranger) that she continues to be one of the world's best freestyle riders. The score was 89.657% and silver she got.
Although she must have had the taste of gold in her mouth, Werth seemed readily content to be on the podium for silver.
"I’ve not always been the number 1. It’s up and downs all the time," said Isabell looking back on her Olympic career which started in Barcelona 1992. "I am really happy today, Bella felt fantastic. When you come out and have the feeling you showed what you wanted, then I’m really satisfied. To go on the last line after two weeks here, with this mare presentng herself in that way. I felt it couldn’t be much better. It was just a great feeling."
Werth always shows great sportsmanship in public and knows the cracking of the whip athletes have to endure.
"The little crowd started to clap on the last line. That’s the sport. There are not 10 winners.. there is one winner, and then the silver and the bronze. I can live with this. It’s the sport," she repeated. "It's what I really enjoy, I’m patient. Sometimes you have the last points to win and sometimes you have not."
Werth confirmed to the German press in the mixed zone that this was Bella Rose's final freestyle and that she will be retired from sport. A special retirement ceremony will be held at a later date, but a new career awaits Bella Rose at home in Rheinberg: broodmare.
Dujardin Writes History
As penultimate rider to go, British double Olympic champion Charlotte Dujardin knew that the score to beat were 91.732% and 89.657%. Danish Cathrine Dufour was provisionally standing third with 87.507% so any score above the latter would give her an individual medal.
For Dujardin the scenario in Tokyo very much played out like that of the 2018 World Equestrian Games in Tryon, only that the Olympics are vastly more important. She arrives at the show ground with a young Grand Prix, just one spring and summer of international Grand Prix under its belt and scores bronze. In 2018 she did so with Mount St. John Freestyle and in 2021 she opted to take her own and Renai Hart's 10-year old Dutch warmblood Gio (by Apache x Tango) and also scored bronze.
Dujardin cleverly plays on the emotions of the home crowd. For the London Games she rode to very patriotic British music, for Tokyo she has Tom Hunt arrange a Japanese sounding freestyle with flutes and xylophones. While the music did not really touch the soul and got glued to memory, her thrilling ride on the amiable Gio did. The little chestnut pulled off his best performance of the week with outstanding passage work and straight tempi changes on curved lines. The piaffes were on the spot, but the horse leans on the forehand while swinging the hindlegs out from under the body, the collected walk was very short, and some pirouettes needed more taking weight behind, but the ride was full of energy and forward motion and the horse was working so hard for his rider, while staying steady in the contact and not to tight in the throat latch. It was strong riding for Dujardin who proved she is not the one-hit wonder like so many other riders who end up on the podium by the grace of their phenomenal horse. Charlotte posted 88.543%.
With her bronze medal, Dujardin wrote history for Great Britain as the most successful female athlete ever.
"I can’t quite believe that I have this many medals," she said. "Today I was level with Katherine Grainger and that was a surreal and proud moment. To have bested that is absolutely incredible. I’m overwhelmed with the fact that I have achieved that."
Charlotte rode to brand new music and jumped into the deep end.
"That music was only finished three days ago. It's the first time I have ridden to it. Pumpkin has only done one other freestyle in his life. For him to go out there, 10 years old, as little experience as he has. This is an incredible moment for me. I knew I was not going down without a fight. I filled the floorpan, he’s a real trier and I knew he could cope with it. It was the blind with the blind. We both went out there and did it."
Charlotte is already eyeing the Paris Olympics in three years and has succession lined up, even though Gio is just at the start of his career.
"My journey with Valegro was a life changing experience. To find another one is hardly impossible," she reminisced. "I have a stable full of horses, young horses, that I’m training. I’m always looking to train them up. I have them coming up and Pumpkin and Freestyle. It’s a great string to have."
Dufour Fights Back
After a Grand Prix Special that did not go according to plan, Denmark's Catherine Dufour fought her way back up on the leaderboard and for a long time had a firm grasp on bronze until Dujardin pushed her off the podium.
Riding probably to the best (or second best considering Dalera) freestyle music of the show, Dufour premiered a brand new kur based on Les Miserables, arranged by Dressage & Music. "It's the first time I ever rode it," Dufour told Eurodressage. "I got the music this Sunday. So pretty much a big risk." But that risk definitely paid off! The music presented a story that built up towards a crescendo on the final centerline. This is music that inspires, that has a message, that viewers remember and will refer to, instead of this non-descript, "cute" background music that still many a rider brings to the Olympics.
Dufour and Bohemian showed very strong passage work that was off the ground and regular, the piaffe pirouettes had a good rhythm, the extended walk had good overtrack but the neck could have stretch more out forwards instead of going deep. The extended trots were still a bit stiff in the back despite the ground cover. Dufour rode a difficult combination of two tempi changes going into ones. In canter the horse regularly dropped in the poll though, but they finished with a super piaffe pirouette. They scored 87.507% for fourth place.
Schut-Kery and Sanceo Are Top Five
For American Sabine Schut-Kery the 2021 Olympics must have been a dream experience. Finishing third with a first 80+ score in the Grand Prix Special, spearheading the USA to team silver and out of nowhere having a shot at an individual medal in the freestyle finals. It must have been daunting and exciting at the same time to enter the arena today for the finale.
Riding to music from The Last Samurai with many drum tones, Schut-Kery began with a super piaffe turn that was rhythmical and sitting behind. The half pass right could have had more bending and the collected walk was rather slow, but the piaffe turn neat. The canter work was all very well ridden, correct, classical, light in the contact and easy-going, but maybe a little flat. The sparkle that was there in the GP Special, and the brilliant music that supported it, did not fully come through in the freestyle. They lost the canter stride before the left double pirouette, but the one and two tempi changes were sweet and accurate. Schut's freestyle music only became gripping at the final end with a superb piaffe-passage centerline. They were rewarded 84.300% which landed them fifth place.
Edward Gal and the 10-year old Hanoverian stallion Total US (by Totilas x Sir Donnerhall) became the highest scoring Dutch pair and finished sixth with 84.157%
Instead of honouring his fabulous young Grand Prix horse with personal freestyle, Edward pulled the drawer and grabbed Totilas' old music, which he premiered twelve years ago in 2009. The tunes are so recognizable and familiar, only the horse is very different. The great Totilas stood out with the ease and pleasure with which he did all the movements, a rider sitting remarkably still in the saddle and rather invisible with the aids (despite a curb contact). With young Total U.S. it's still a full body work out for Gal to navigate the great mover through the test.
The passages were spectacular with so much lift and air time, the piaffes were incorrect with hindlegs crossing. The extended trots have massive overtrack, but the horse consistently hollows the back and pushes the neck high. The entire ride is completely hand held as the horse has no self carriage and needs to be literally carried through the test, Gal holding the rein short and his hands high. When the reins are released for the extended walk he shakes his head. Total U.S. is such a good boy and gives his heart in every movement. The canter half passes are mega ground covering but not enough balanced. He changed behind in the canter extension, did a pirouette in a double beat, but the one tempi changes were big. There were a lot of great flashes in the ride and the horse has unlimited potential, but it would be so nice to see the horse more balanced and in natural self carriage without relying on the rider.
It was an eery experience to hear Totilas' music being used again for Total U.S. It makes one wonder if the original shouldn't be kept intact and in memory of a legendary horse, or is it ok for the next generation to borrow it? One could also see this as a poignant nod to the fact that Gal never got to ride the ultimate dressage competition, the Olympic Games, with his career defining and history making stallion.
The 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo were magnificent. The Baji Koen equestrian center was above all standards, the organisation and volunteers kind, friendly and hospitable and a great dressage Olympics took place in extraordinary circumstances. This is an event one will never forget!
Text and Photos © Astrid Appels - No Reproduction Allowed!!
Eurodressage Coverage of the 2021 Olympic Games