It began with a wild sand storm that put the barns on lock down, and ended with a drop of blood that could have started a firestorm.
Tuesday: Arrival Day
As we crossed the Nevada state line on our trek to the Reem Acra Dressage World Cup in Las Vegas, we were pushed by a tailwind that had our SUV flying. A broad reach, we would call it on the ocean. But as we approached The Strip, the wind shifted, the air turned brown with dust, and sand began pinging against the side of the car. Palm trees were bowed, objects were flying across I-15, and traffic slowed as it became increasingly difficult to steer a straight line. We arrived at our hotel, a bit abraded but without incident.
We’d been planning to meet up with friends for dinner. Flights were delayed. Having in the past been on small planes descending so crab-wise that I could see the runway out the passenger window, I can only imagine what it was like to make that sort of approach in a 737… which was the story that fellow photographer Mary Cornelius relayed to us when we caught up with her, all of us slightly disheveled but otherwise no worse for wear. Other flights, however, had been delayed or diverted to other airports, so the three of us had a casual dinner at the MGM and called it an early night.
Wednesday: Warm Up Day
Reunion day at the media center. Photographers and journalists from all over the world, most of whom we haven’t seen since the last championships event. Lots of checking in about the kids, the dogs, the horses, and now, as we get older, the grand kids. Axel trotted off to do a check on the equipment he’d be using for the headset commentary, and we photo types headed down to the “pits” to watch the warm up sessions.
Pairs of horses were assigned time slots to work in the now “dressed” arena: some came in pairs, others split the time between them. Some did little more than relaxed cruising on long reins, others showed off a bit for the amazingly large crowd. Some horses calmly looked around, assessed their surroundings and got to work, while we could practically feel the hearts of others pounding at the sight of the canyon-like arena.
After the World Cup competitors were done (and most of the foreign photographers vanished) we were treated to the practice rounds of the exhibition riders who would do pas de deux and quadrille on Friday.
Thursday: Grand Prix Day
Elvis in the building. A quarter horse, an American flag and a spotlight. And eighteen of the best horses in the world.
The draw for positions was done in two sets of nine, according to FEI World Ranking standings, which means that the top ranking horses are all in the second set. But there were stand outs in the first flight as well: Inessa Merkulova from Russia and Mister X, a typey Trakhener; Fabienne Lutkemeier, who we saw win the Dressage Derby at Hamburg two years ago; Morgan Barbancon Mestre riding Painted Black, a horse that Anky campaigned and who obviously enjoys his job because he does it so well at the age of 18; Laura Graves and Verdades, at the other end of the age and experience curve, who were facing a massive indoor crowd for the first time.
The second set was full of stars. The elegant Romeo Star and Elena Sidneva. The equally elegant and very tall My Lady, with Mikala Gundersen, who we in the US claim as ours because she lives in Wellington, even though she rides for Denmark (and because we like her a lot!). Experienced and feisty Mariett, who has been the queen of freestyles all winter in Wellington with our other adopted and adored Dane, Lars Petersen. Steffen Peters and his piaffe machine Legolas. Hans Peter Minderhoud, with Glock’s Flirt, whose fluid, scopey half passes amaze. Isabell Werth, with the spooky but talented El Santo NRW. Glock’s Undercover isn’t Totilas, but he and Edward Gal sure are fun to watch, especially in the canter work. Jessica von Bredlow-Werndl, who we met years ago in New Zealand, when she was part of an exchange team of riders who rode a draw-your-horse derby. She’s a lovely rider with a picture-perfect position, and I remember those New Zealand horses were quite impressed with her – as were we.
And of course Valegro. The internet is filled with his praises, and because this is the first time I’d seen him in person, I get to add mine.
He doesn’t have the stallion charisma of Totilas, nor the razor edge of genius and madness of some of our fiery stars of the past. He is, quite simply, the total package, an extraordinary athlete with utterly correct and fluid movement in all three gaits, suppleness that has been cultivated equally in all directions, a marvelous mind, and a complete and delightful relationship with Charlotte. Watching his flying changes made the entire trip worthwhile.
Friday: Exhibition Day
I think all my California rider friends got together and said, “Let’s put on a show! We’ll bring the horses, and put on costumes and have a party!”
First we were treated to Sabine Schut-Kery riding Sanceo, one of our rising stars, in an Intermediare Freestyle. He’s one of the prettiest horses on the circuit, too. Then Steffen rode the amazing young mare Rosamunde and casually rocked through Ravel’s old freestyle. It’s sometimes hard to remember that she’s only 8, and that it was her first time in a big indoor. But I think she and Steffen are madly in love with each other, and they really enjoy dancing together. And if there was a big noisy crowd and leftover fog in the air from the pre-show pyrotechnics, well, none of that really matters if you’re there to dance!
Then there were the Pas de Deux (Pas de Deuxs?) being “judged” by Linda Zang, Hans Christian Matthiesen and Stephen Clarke, who was having some fun doing his best Simon Cowell impersonation.
First up were David Blake on Ikaros and Shannon Peters on Weltino’s Magic, playing Batman and Poison Ivy. I think both David and Ikaros enjoyed playing the part of a superhero, and Shannon and Magic grooved the sassy villain.
Mette Rosencrantz and Anna Dahlberg played Cowboys and Indians with Marron and Rico. Fortunately Nevada is an open carry state, because their act included (prop) pistols, which meant Mette showing off her ability to ride one-handed. Marron even ad libbed with his own interpretation of “Hi Ho Silver!”
And finally Jan Ebeling and Charlotte Bredhal-Baker rocked to the Grease soundtrack with Darling and Chanel and brought the house down. Funny enough, I ran into Charlotte and hubby Joel after the festivities and didn’t recognize her because she was still in costume.
This being Las Vegas, the quadrille finale included scantily clad showgirls (Michele Reilly, Elizabeth Ball, Sarah Christy) and Elvis (Guenter Seidel). The outfits were eye catching (a number of people were lusting after the girls’ sparkly red riding boots. This is a dressage crowd, after all) and their ability to ride well with massive feathered headdresses and many, many sequins on very little clothing was quite impressive. Guenter was born to play Elvis, so I’ll be looking for him in any upcoming movie in which Elvis rides Grand Prix.
This is fun to say: I was in a stadium in the United States with 10,700 other people watching dressage.
It was loud, it was fun, people clapped, people cheered. Some horses stepped up their game, others seemed to be a little tuckered out from a week of Las Vegas partying. Several riders were not pleased that a bright spotlight was focused on the huge, shiny silver World Cup trophy, which had been placed in the “H” corner of the arena. Several horses were not pleased about it, too, and made their concerns known. El Santo was one of those, and I think if it wasn’t Isabell Werth riding, their test might have ended the moment he caught sight of it. As it was, he spent the first half of the test finding scary things to worry about in every corner, and Isabell had to work hard to both manage his fears and catch up with her music.
Valegro. It is not every day that a horse brings me to tears. It was the two tempis that did it, after a trot/passage/piaffe tour of exquisite balance and energy. And then the canter work started, and the twos just flowed out of the corner of the arena, up and up and forward and through and so straight that you could have pointed a laser down that horse’s path, and I had to remind myself to not stop shooting even if I had to wipe my eyes, and I realized that the whole bunch of us, who have between us shot several million photos of thousands of dressage horses, were all doing the same thing. I thought back to that day in June that I watched Secretariat’s Belmont, as they raced down the backstretch, each furlong faster than the one before it, thinking, this can’t last, and then the rest of the world vanished behind that big red horse as he raced into history, simply for the joy of being able to run fast, and of the profundity of realizing the magic of what I was witness to.
All through Valegro’s ride, I could hear Axel on the headphone commentary, waxing poetic about what he was seeing…. He, who has judged the best in the world for decades, had a catch in his voice too. Charlotte halted and saluted. The place went crazy. Valegro just looked up at the crowd and smiled.
It was hard to follow that. Edward and Glock’s Undercover, great ride, but the earth didn’t shift. It was a ride, not a transcendent experience.
Steffen and Legolas came in next. Steffen had added a few vocals to his freestyle music, and the first line, “Hi, I’m Legolas” from Lord of the Rings, came early in the test. It was humorous, and the crowd reacted with a big laugh and cheer. Startled, Legs jumped. I don’t know if this affected his whole test, but he just wasn’t in his usual form. Not even in the piaffe, which is normally so spectacular and rock solid. But the crowd cheered mightily again for him after the salute because he is the home town hero, and he really got rattled, and perhaps that was when Steffen’s spur nicked his side…. Steffen, who is all about his horses, who is the consummate horseman, who has so many tools in his riding toolbox that he doesn’t need a rough aid, was devastated when the steward found a trace of blood on Legolas’ side during the post ride inspection. It meant elimination. Here is Steffen’s statement:
I’m truly sorry about my elimination from the 2015 World Cup finals in Las Vegas. I’m clearly responsible for this. There was absolutely no doubt that all FEI Stewards, Dr. Mike Tomlinson and the president of the ground Jury, Lilo Fore made the correct decision. Legolas is a sensitive horse, because of this I ride with a dull rounded end spur without rowels. I cannot explain when it happened, and I feel terrible for Legolas. I feel guilty and extremely embarrassed, and apologise to Akiko and Jerry, our Federation and our friends and supporters. But still very proud of Legolas who did a wonderful job in the Grand Prix and in the Freestyle.”
Anyone can behave well when things are going well. It’s a mark of a good horseman – and a good human – to behave with poise and class when things have gone wrong. Thanks for being classy, Steffen.
To see more photos from World Cup, follow this link!