My pre-teen boys sighed in semi-disgust as I headed out to cover two weekends of “horse dancing.” They weren’t impressed with my reason for missing their baseball games: “It’s the Olympic Selection Trials for dressage!” They didn’t care.
Once I got to the show grounds, however, I was among like-minded dressage enthusiasts and we were in for a treat. Five days of national competition capped by brilliant performances from Steffen Peters, Debbie McDonald and up and comer Courtney King-Dye, our newly crowned dressage squad for this month’s Olympic Games in Hong Kong. My boys may never come to love the sport, but the pizzazz with which it was presented at the Collecting Gaits Farm/USEF Dressage Festival of Champions could make lifelong fans of those with previously just a bit of interest in the sport.
Lion dancers from the Hong Kong tourism board kicked things off, and veteran announcer Brian O’Connor did his trademark masterful job of informing and entertaining the crowd along the way. Those who purchased the Dressage With The Experts headsets enjoyed commentary from judges Janet Foy and Hilda Gurney that enriched the experience, even for those of us who think we know what we’re looking at.
Spread over two weekends, June 20-21 and 27-29, and staged at the lovely Oaks Blenheim Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park in San Juan Capistrano, the Festival was highlighted by the battle, among America’s top 12, for an Olympic berth. Coming in as the two-time winner of the Festival’s national Grand Prix championship, and undefeated with the 10-year-old Ravel, Steffen Peters was a safe bet for success. But he exceeded even his own expectations with magical performances that put the pair in the lead from day-one’s Grand Prix through day-four’s Freestyle finish.
Gotta Get ‘70s
Judge Janet Foy said at the outset that our American team would need three horses that could be counted on to score in the 70s if we were to have any hope of medaling at the Games. Marks earned by riders in Holland and Germany indicated that those dressage juggernaut nations were likely candidates for gold and silver. The battle for bronze will be intense, Foy said. By Sunday’s closing Freestyle, the American team had three horses, Ravel, Brentina and King-Dye’s Harmony’s Mythilus whose scores never dipped below 70 throughout the Trials. Peters and Ravel earned a collective average of 75.863; McDonald and Brentina, 73.627; and King-Dye and Mythilus, 73.333. Not too shabby! On top of that, King-Dye’s second horse, the veteran Dutch stallion Idocus, and Peters’ second horse, Lombardi II, finished fourth and fifth overall, both with scores in the 70s.
The fact that two of the top three riders had second horses finishing in the fourth and fifth slots caused a little confusion over how the reserve rider spot would be handled. In past Olympics, the dressage squad consisted of four pairs with the luxury of dropping the lowest mark. It’s now a three-pair team and every ride counts. Selection procedures allow a fourth pair to prepare and travel with the squad to Hong Kong as an alternate. This position is usually allotted to the fourth place Trials finisher, but with that rung and the next occupied by King-Dye and Peters’ second steeds, there was no clear answer about the alternate until two days after the competition closed.
Happily, the spot goes to California’s Leslie Morse and Kingston, who finished sixth in the Trials with a 68.551 cumulative average. In all, the USET has “nominated” a team of seven horses and five riders, a list that encompasses the top seven Trials finishers, including Michael Barisone and Neruda. On July 10, they all were to fly to Aachen, Germany, where the horses will do quarantine, and on July 15, the final four were to be officially named to the International Olympic Committee.
Changing Of The Guard
Very often in this decade, Peters has been number two on the podium to his frequent teammate and longtime friend Debbie McDonald and her mare Brentina, the ultimate “dressage queens” in the best sense of the phrase. As was clear when they won the Del Mar qualifier, the mare’s team has brought Brentina back from a late 2007 injury in better-than-ever form. It was hot, hot, hot on the Trials’ first weekend, but Brentina, if anything, was a little too peppy. McDonald attributed a few baubles in the first Grand Prix to the mare having more energy than she had anticipated in the oppressive weather.
As usual, McDonald and Brentina were the epitome of harmony throughout the Trials, even and especially in their highly difficult, trademark Freestyle, which opens with two-tempi lead changes on a 20-meter circle. Commentating that weekend, judge Hilda Gurney noted that, although the Hanoverian mare looks big, she is only 16.2 hands. It’s McDonald’s petite frame that creates the out-size impression. “It just goes to prove that you don’t have to be big and strong to succeed in this sport,” observed Gurney, a 1976 Olympic bronze medalist herself.
McDonald’s post-test reactions grew progressively more emotional. Turns out the Trials were most likely Brentina’s last competitive performance for an American audience. Although she is still “quite sassy,” McDonald said plans were underway to retire the 17-year-old star at what will surely be a very special ceremony staged at next spring’s World Cup Dressage Final in Las Vegas. The venue there, the Thomas & Mack Arena, bears the name of Brentina’s owners, Peggy and Parry Thomas. Parry Thomas’ 87th birthday coincided with the Trials’ finale Freestyle. Toward the end of their fantastic test, highlighted by the appropriate Aretha Franklin tune, R-E-S-P-E-C-T, McDonald gestured for the crowd to clap along. “I know I probably shouldn’t do that,” she admitted sheepishly in a press conference later. “But I have a mare that loves it, so why not?” The sold-out crowd was quick to comply and, after the halt, McDonald was far from the only one crying happy/sad tears.
Many say that 31-year-old Courtney King-Dye represents the future of American dressage and if that’s true, we are in good hands. The tall, elegant equestrian mirrors the effortless-looking riding of her new teammates and her horses are spectacular. On paper, it seemed that King-Dye’s 18-year-old veteran partner and two-time World Cup mount Idocus was the stronger Olympic prospect, but it was Harmony’s Mythilus that earned the higher marks. Like Peters’ Ravel, Mythilus is relatively new to Grand Prix, but his inexperience is more than compensated for by gorgeous gaits, a fluid frame and seamless transitions.
King-Dye is a Michigan native, a protégé of two-time Olympian Lendon Gray and a North American Young Riders graduate. She spent the month before the Trials based at Steffen and Shannon Peters’ stable in Del Mar and said that making an Olympic team with him and McDonald was the culmination of 21 years of hard work and a tribute to the many people and horses who have been part of her support team all those years. She acknowledged that even the most talented and hard working equestrian could not fulfill Olympic dreams without the support of many.
In addition to Peters and McDonald, West Coasters did our region proud at the Trials. Morse proved that her powerful Dutch stallion Kingston is back in peak form after a long lay-up that left little time to return to full strength before the Trials. San Diego based international veteran Sue Blinks and the 14-year-old Dutch Warmblood Mark proved themselves a pair to be reckoned with in the very near future and finished overall eighth. Los Angeles-based Kristina Harrison-Naness and Rociero XV represented the stallion’s breed, P.R.E., very well with mostly solid tests that earned them 11th place. Gurney had this horse in her stable several years ago and described him as having the “best temperament in any horse I’ve ever had.” It was the first time a Spanish horse qualified for the American Selection Trials and a reflection of the breed’s growing acceptance in dressage.
The Trials’ other contenders were Florida-based international veteran Lisa Wilcox and the newcomer Naomi, and George Williams and his adorable, floppy-eared mare Rocher, who was not quite in top form. Debbie McDonald withdrew her second mount, the young Felix, after the first weekend’s competition because of a minor injury.
The Festival’s agenda of national championships gave spectators nice glimpses of who might be contesting the Trials in coming decades. Michelle Gibson and Don Angelo swept the National Intermediaire I Dressage Championship. The 2007 USEF National Developing Horse Dressage Champion for 7 to 9-year-olds, the 8-year-old Oldenburg stallion acted older than his age to earn a 76.400 in the Freestyle for a three-day score of 72.898.
Riding Mary Keenan’s Montango, Steffen Peters moved up from third to second in the Intermediaire I Championship thanks to an excellent Freestyle. Shawna Harding rode On III to fifth place in the Freestyle and third place overall with 70.545.
The Brentina Cup presented more emotional moments for the Brentina camp. The two-round competition is designed to help riders aged 20 to 25 transition to the senior Grand Prix level. Scores in the USEF Young Adult Test, now called the “Brentina test” and the FEI Young Rider Grand Prix test are weighed equally. The Cup stayed in the family when Adrienne Lyle and Wizard took top honors. Twenty-three-year old Lyle is Debbie McDonald’s assistant trainer at the Thomases’ River Grove Farm in Ketchum, ID.
The veteran team at Glenda McElroy’s Cornerstone Events managed the event beautifully. The Festival also hosted the national Junior and Young Rider dressage championships.
For full results, visit www.dressageontheroadtohongkong.com.