As I walked behind the grandstand to get to my shooting position for the Freestyle, the sun was setting in a perfectly clear evening sky. The light was rich and lemony, and from where I stood it backlit and haloed what looked like an army streaming across the causeway that leads to the Stadium.
It was an astounding sight: 25,000 people marching toward dressage.
If the last set of the Special was perhaps the finest single hour of competitive dressage ever, the Freestyle was pure good entertainment. The music itself, played over the wonderful sound system in the WEG stadium, was a joy to listen to. Even the best freestyle music, if played over the caliber of speakers that we find at most shows, is just … music. But when played on a great system like this one, it really enhances the performances.
And amazing performances they were!
Isabel and “Hannes” really started the ball rolling by scoring an 80%. Remember just a few years ago, when an 80% would have won the gold? Then Laura Bechtolsheimer and “Alf” opened the last set with their phenomenal piaffe, passage and pirouettes for an 85.3% and the house was starting to rock.
It was Fuego that made the rafters shake. The horse just naturally endears himself to a crowd: first he wows them with a warm up pass of the most uphill, extravagant changes around the outside of the arena, and then stops and scratches his nose on his leg. How can you not be charmed? He’s got the whole sexy/boyish/rock star thing down, like a Spanish Elvis.
If ever a piece of music matched a horse, it is Fuego’s. He stamped out the piaffe and passage as if he was dancing to the flamenco on a parquet floor. Juan Munoz Diaz rode one tempis straight up the centerline one handed, and the crowd went a little crazy. When he came up centerline for the final time, again one handed, this time in passage, he gestured to the crowd to bring it up a notch … and boy, did they! By the time he halted (well, sort of halted) they were practically drowning out the music. Juan whipped his hat off in a wild salute, and Fuego nearly jumped out from under him as the crowd completely erupted.
For just a moment it must have been hard to be Totillas. He and Edward had to follow this frenzy, and the difference in styles was almost unsettling, going from Latin dance fever to Toto’s sublime majesty. But the crowd went with him. There were a couple of little bobbles: a break to the canter in the beginning trot work, an uneven step or two in the first piaffe. But the quality of Toto’s movement, his ability to expand and contract through the extensions and collections, his rhythmic, on-the-spot piaffes and pirouettes, the building drama of his music, even the fact that his walk was stellar in the middle of mayhem…. Yeah, they deserved their 91%.
To be sure, it was hard to be Ravel after that. I mean, how do you follow not just the one amazing horse, but all three of them? But Steffen did. He’s kept the same Coldplay/Safety Dance/Rolling Stones music, but added difficulty to the routine, with four double canter pirouettes, two piaffe half pirouettes, and a whole lot of tricky transitions. It was a great ride, good enough for another bronze medal, and there were flags waving everywhere in the stands.
The most overlooked ride of the night was Imke Schellekens-Bartels and Hunter Douglas Sunrise. Even most of us photographers couldn’t really shoot much of it, because in the short gap between Ravel and Sunrise we needed to shift into our awards position in order to get the medal ceremonies. From the side of the arena, sitting low so as not to block anyone’s view, we could barely see above the arena rails. But a certain “O” judge, who was watching the streaming video at home, said it was one of the nicest rides of the night.
And then 25,000 people streamed out into the night. When I left the press center at nearly midnight, there was still a sea of red taillights queuing up at the parking lot exits.