On the podium after the Grand Prix Freestyle at the FEI European Dressage Championships 2011 in Rotterdam: L- R - silver medallist Carl Hester (GBR), gold medallist Adelinde Cornelissen (NED) and bronze medallist Patrik Kittel (SWE). © FEI/Peter Nixon.
In a gripping competition filled with all kinds of possibilities, the spectators engaged with every competitor that came into the ring and expressed their opinion each time a result went up on the board.
There was a huge roar from the home side when Cornelissen was awarded the winning mark of 88.839, but it was almost matched by the approval registered for the 84.179 achieved by silver medalist Carl Hester from Great Britain who has stolen the hearts of a whole new generation of dressage fans. Bronze went to Sweden's Patrick Kittel whose foot-perfect test with Watermill Scandic was awarded 83.429.
These championships have provided a refreshing boost for the sport of dressage, as a rising tide is exposing a wealth of new human and equine talent while also highlighting the quality of the current stars.
Germany's Isabell Werth held the lead after the first eight of the 15 starters had taken their turn. Riding El Santo NRW she posted 80.536 to overtake Hester's protege Charlotte Dujardin whose performance with Valegro didn't altogether meet with the approval of her boss.
"For the first time she was nervous today and she went in and lost her way - she missed every turn. She's not experienced enough to put it right when it goes wrong and I nearly fell over myself I was so annoyed with her!" Hester said afterwards with a twinkle in his eye.
But testament to the quality of the horse's obvious potential was Valegro's score of 79.357 which, in the final analysis, left the nine-year-old gelding and his promising but inexperienced rider in ninth place at the end of the day.
With just six left to go, Spanish showman Juan Manuel Munoz Diaz set the arena alight with a truly entertaining performance from his grey stallion Fuego de Cardenas that included fabulous one-tempi changes on a left-handed circle and a dare-devil one-handed one-tempi parade up the centre line. The spectators couldn't contain themselves even though there was plenty more of the test to come, and broke out into spontaneous applause in time with the music. His leading score of 80.982 held for only a moment however, as Kittel quickly swept it away with a stunning ride on Watermill Scandic HBC. The 12-year-old stallion has often shown rhythm and precision, but this test took those elements to another level altogether as horse and rider blended into a single unit that was completely in harmony with their Depeche Mode musical score. Scandic looks like he could do perfect passage all day long and that, accompanied by wonderful piaffe, helped achieve a personal-best score of 83.429.
Silver medalists Carl Hester and Uthopia. © FEI/Peter Nixon.
Hester's team-mate Laura Bechtolsheimer couldn't overtake him, despite the fact that she really nailed the piaffe with Mistral Hojris this time out as she scored 83.018, and now there were only two left to go.
The tension was palpable as Cornelissen set off with Parzival, but there was no cause for concern. They were right in the zone from the very beginning of a performance that was almost totally perfect, the big gelding producing the most delightful passage and piaffe as he danced his way to a new high of 88.768. Only Germany's Matthias Alexander Rath and Totilas could prevent the Dutch duo from scoring an individual double of wins now. But the glory would remain with the host nation as the German duo posted 83.018, only good enough for fifth place behind Bechtolsheimer.
Talking about Rath's performance afterwards, Ground Jury President Fouarge said, "yesterday Totilas was too short in the neck and a bit tense," and it was similar today. "They've only competed together five times," Fouarge said, "the combination needs more time to come together. Matthias is a good rider, and everyone knows Totilas!" he added.
"Never before have we seen so much quality at a Championship. The English were not a surprise for me like they were for many others. I want to pay a big compliment to Carl and Charlotte - their way of riding is wonderful, and it is exactly what we want to see in the sport," Fouarge said.
Cornelissen said that her test felt good from the very beginning. "It felt particularly good in front of my home crowd, but I had to tell myself to concentrate because, after yesterday, I didn't want to forget my programme!" she said.
"Parzival was good again today like he has been all weekend - and today I was also good! When I started the test he put his head up and his ears forward and I had to say "no, don't enjoy yourself too much, we have to work now!"
Cornelissen said she was now planning a new freestyle for the Olympic Games.
Hester reflected on the spectacular results he has achieved in the past few days - team gold, and silver in both the Special and Freestyle. "I didn't think, six weeks ago, that it could be possible to win an individual medal here, my horse has improved beyond all recognition, at Hickstead he found a new gear and now - here I am!" he said.
Bronze medalists Patrik Kittel and Watermill Scandic. © FEI/Peter Nixon.
"In three weeks I go to the British Championships, then there will be a few shows at home before Olympia. After that he will have a rest and we will start preparing for the Olympics next May."
When asked if Uthopia will be sold before next year's Olympic Games - "no, we are hanging on with our fingernails until London!".
The result crowns a stellar week for Hester and the British team, which has enjoyed its most successful championship after they won gold on Thursday for the first time in dressage history as well as silver and bronze in Saturday's grand prix special.
Kittel was claiming Sweden's first individual medal since Jan Brink and Briar took silver at Hickstead in 2003, so it was a special achievement. "I'm so happy sitting here with a medal around my neck!" he said at the post-competition press conference. "I've been dreaming of this since I was a kid and it's very special. Today my horse went better than ever and because I went early I was sitting there waiting to see everyone else. Watermill Scandic is unbelievably good at the moment. When he was doing his last piaffe/passage today I was thinking 'is this real?'."
Bechtolsheimer and Mistral Hojris ended in fourth position, and the rider said he "grew in ambition as the test went on."
"I'm so proud of him that he was so cool and focused. It felt like one of the best music tests he's done; maybe the marks didn't quite reflect what I felt but it's still been an amazing show for British dressage. For Carl to get another podium finish is fantastic," Bechtolsheimer said.
For Cornelissen now it is time to give Parzival a break and to celebrate an extraordinary year in which she has claimed the Reem Acra FEI World Cup title along with European Grand Prix Special and Freestyle gold, as well as team bronze. Quite an achievement. And her next goal? "I only have to complete two World Cup qualifiers to get to the World Cup Final next year and then, after that, well then there's London!" she said tonight. Success at the 2012 Olympic Games is next in her sights.
15 riders competed in the Grand Prix Freestyle - the final competition at the FEI European Dressage Championships 2011 in Rotterdam.
The Netherlands' Queen Beatrix attended the Freestyle final at the FEI European Dressage Championships 2011 in Rotterdam. The Queen competed herself at CHIO Rottedam when she was 18 years old.
The Grand Prix Freestyle, or Kur to Music, was first introduced to the FEI European Dressage Championships at Donaueschingen (GER) in 1991. Germany's Isabell Werth won on that occasion with Gigolo, and they repeated their success two years later at Lipica in Slovenia. The Championships reverted to the single individual competition format at Mondorf (Lux) in 1995, but the Kur was reintroduced at La Mandria (ITA) in 2007 where The Netherlands Anky Van Grunsven came out on top with Keltec Salinero.
Van Grunsven's compatriot, Edward Gal, won the Freestyle title with Moorlands Totilas at Windsor (GBR) in 2009, scoring a massive 90.750% during a spectacular record-breaking spree.
Great Britain's Charlotte Dujardin had never performed a Freestyle test with Valegro prior to yesterday. She described her musical score as "Epic!".
This was Sweden's first FEI European Dressage Championship medal since Jan Brink and Briar took individual silver at Hickstead (GBR) in 2003.
Exquis Nadine, the 16 year old chestnut smare ridden to multiple success by The Netherlands' Hans Peter Minderhoud, did her last test before being officially retired in the arena at Rotterdam. The partnership finished 11th in the Grand Prix Freestyle.
Freestyle - GOLD: Jerich Parzival (Adelinde Cornelissen) NED 88.839;
SILVER - Uthopia (Carl Hester) GBR 84.179;
BRONZE - Watermill Scandic HBC (Patrik Kittel) SWE 83.429.