On a night when nerves were truly tested by the close confines of the arena, the pure class of the 2012 Olympic individual and team gold medalists shone through as Britain’s Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro topped the fifth leg of the Reem Acra FEI World Cup Dressage series at Olympia in London.
The Grand Hall at this prestigious venue is aptly named, but it is a very snug fit for the dressage ring at the Christmas fixture which attracts packed houses throughout a hectic week of great sport.
As Dujardin pointed out, “at the Olympics there were 24,000 spectators watching, but they were a long way away. Here tonight it was very different, they were so close you could hear them breathing!” she said after claiming pole position with a score of 87.950.
Runner-up with a mark of 80.075 was double FEI World Cup Dressage champion Isabell Werth from Germany whose performance with the 11-year-old Don Johnson FRH left her well pleased. And it was Dujardin’s trainer and mentor, Carl Hester, who lined up third with a score of 79.900. It was an emotional night for the Briton who shared the top step of the team podium at London 2012 with his 26 year old pupil, because Hester was riding Utopia for the very last time. “He’ll be sold in the new year,” the rider confirmed.
There were great expectations ahead of this fifth leg of the series. And when Dujardin and her 10-year-old wonder-horse produced another in her long list of world record scores when posting 84.447 to win Monday night’s FEI Grand Prix, then it seemed anything could happen again. But the FEI World Cup Dressage Freestyle record of 92.3 set by The Netherlands’ Edward Gal and the fabulous stallion Totilas at Olympia three years ago was never threatened despite some great efforts.
Imke Schellekens-Bartels and her massive 12 year old gelding Toots made their canter pirouettes look very easy as the Dutch pair took the lead with a score of 74.875 when seventh of the 15 horse-and-rider partnerships to take their turn. But it was the the 79.900 posted by Hester and Uthopia that they were chasing as the final tranche of riders got under way.
The supreme showman described his performance as “a great last ride”. He said: “I wasn’t emotional coming in, I was quite looking forward to it, but when I finished, you kind of get the feeling for what the horses have done for British dressage, so I did feel emotional coming out. It was a stress-free, enjoyable ride,” he said.
British dressage has indeed been through an extraordinary period of change and amazing success in recent years, with Hester at the very heart of it. Looking back at his spectacular partnership with the 11-year-old stallion Uthopia he pointed out that, “the plan always was that he was to be sold, but I do always like to remember that I was lucky to keep the horse for so long”.
He was followed into the ring by fellow-Briton Michael Eilberg, who is son of world-famous rider and trainer Ferdi Eilberg, and who gave an excellent account of himself with a score of 76.225 from the promising grey mare Half Moon Delphi, which would eventually place them fifth.
But it was Isabell Werth who took command with a lovely test from Don Johnson FRH with just five left to go. On their first outing in the current series, the German partnership showed power and symmetry that was rewarded with the new leading score of 80.075 to put it up to the remaining four.
Reigning World Champion Edward Gal overcame some very tense moments to show extravagant extended canter and lovely canter pirouettes for a mark of 74.050 before Dujardin raised the bar to a whole new level.
Valegro was also on edge, with a nervous moment just before entering the arena. “Something spooked him coming in,” Dujardin explained afterwards. “It messed up the whole beginning, but he settled down in canter. The changes and extensions are quite tough for horses when that happens, but I was actually very happy with them as it turned out,” she said.
And so were the majority of the Ground Jury, as she was awarded three maximum scores of 10 marks for her first extended trot along with two more for the one-tempi changes and three further top scores for her one-tempi canterwork.
Sweden’s Minna Telde followed with a strong 77.050 from the brave one-eyed black stallion Santana who would line up fourth, before Denmark’s Sidsel Johansen and Schianto brought the class to a close with another charming effort from Schianto to slot into sixth.
But there was no doubt about the strength of the winning partnership: “It was a great way to finish the year,” Dujardin said. “I’ve done what I wanted to do here last year.”
She has no further plans for Valegro at present. “We will sit down and see what’s going to happen in January. He (Valegro) may be sold on, but we are hoping to get a share of him and I’m hoping to keep the ride,” she said.
Werth said “my Christmas present is done because we did two very good tests, and today was even better than yesterday. My horse has improved a lot over the last six months and I hope it will go on like this but we have to work very hard to beat the British again! To finish second twice with a young horse – I didn’t expect it. And to sit between two Olympic champions is a really good feeling for me,” said the gracious runner-up whose own collection of Olympic medals is not inconsiderable.
While Dujardin and Hester are not planning any further participation in the World Cup series, Werth will travel to the next leg in Amsterdam in January. “I have to do that if I want to have a chance to get to the Final,” she said. And in Olympia she took the first big step on the road to Gothenburg, Sweden where she recorded the first of her two FEI World Cup Dressage series victories 20 years ago.
FEI Dressage Director, Trond Asmyr said it was the first year that the qualifying events had been reduced to eight: “to get more attention around the shows we have. There has been very good participation in the Western European League.
“When we had this process to reduce the numbers, we went through all the shows to see how they are and we are very happy that we made the correct choice to have it here in Olympia where the atmosphere is fantastic. Congratulations to the riders and to the horses, without them we wouldn’t be here”.
1, Valegro (Charlotte Dujardin) GBR 87.975;
2, Don Johnson FRH (Isabell Werth) GER 80.075;
3, Uthopia (Carl Hester) GBR 79.9;
4, Santana (Minna Telde) SWE 77.050;
5, Half Moon Delphi (Michael Eilberg) GBR 76.225;
6, Schianto (Sidsel Johansen) DEN 76.200;
7, Toots (Imke Schellekens-Bartels) NED 74.875;
8, Glock’s Undercover (Edward Gal) NED 74.050;
9, Pasoa (Nikki Crisp) GBR 72.950;
10, Pro-Set (Lillann Jebsen) NOR 71.975;
11, Vradin (Simon Misiaen) BEL 70.650;
12, World Performance Washington (Luis Principe) POR 70.575;
13, BMC Miciano (Marlies van Baalen) NED 70.350;
14, Sandro Boy (Lyndal Oatley) AUS 69.900;
15, Weltzin (Hannah Biggs) GBR 68.450.
Standings after Round 5 at Olympia:
1. Valentina Truppa ITA – 52
2. Kristin Sprehe GER – 51
3. Tinne Wilhelmsson Silfven SWE – 46
4. Marcela Krinke Susmelj SUI – 44
5. Edward Gal NED – 42
6. Minne Telde SWE – 37
7. Sidsel Johansen DEN – 34
8. Patrik Kittel SWE – 30
8. Anna Kasprzak DEN – 30
10. Pia Fortmuller CAN – 28
11. Helen Langehanenberg GER – 26
12. Marlies van Baalen NED – 24
13. Lyndal Oatley AUS – 23
14. Imke Schellekens-Bartels NED – 22
14. Anabel Balkenhol GER – 22
14. Karin Kosak AUT – 22
17. Stefan Peter AUT – 20
17. Charlotte Dujardin GBR – 20
19. Joachim Thomson DEN – 18
19. Lillann Jebsen NOR – 18
19. Jessica Michel FRA – 18