It’s three years since I was last at Rotterdam showgrounds. Back then my morning got off to a very ordinary start as I was sitting in the drizzling rain and watching Anky ‘schooling’ Salinero did nothing to lift the spirits. This time the weather is better, and the warm-ups are less ‘dramatic’ and a whole lot more horse friendly. Is the world of dressage a nicer place? We’ll have to wait and see.
And has the judging improved? Well there are a lot more of them this time round. Seven actual judges, and all their scores count, supervised by another three wise men – they are just one short of a cricket team. They start the morning in a generous frame of mind, none more so than Australia’s own Mary Seefried, who is consistently a couple of points higher than her colleagues. The instant score board is no longer showing individual marks per movement – too many scores for the board, says the announcer, and we are just getting the magnificent seven’s average, plus a running comparison with the leading horse.
The first to go are the Danish pair of Lisbeth Seierskilde and Jonstrupgaardens Raneur (Ragazzo / Schwadroneur – if they can fit that lot on the board they can fit anything!) It is a pleasant test, gently scored for a 69.97. The range is from 68 to 72, with the generous lady from Australia on the 72. It’s a nice story, the young rider is trained by her mother, and rides a family-bred horse – and also rode the mare’s mother…
The judges are pretty much in agreement all morning, the only really big spread is on the Swedish pair of Rose Mathisen and Bocelli – the horse has that bizarre Briar-style trot – hind legs mincing along behind while the front paws wave wildly, I have to check the start list to find that it is in fact by Don Schufro out of a Bernstein mare. Stephen Clarke gives it a 70.851 while the French judge, Jean-Michel Roudier is more realistic, 63.404.
The early leader is Damon Hill (Donnerhall / Rubinstein) with Helen Langenhanenberg. I have a problem with this horse – he is very handsome, very impressive, superbly trained and very well ridden, but, but, that near hind leg looks ‘funny’ – and it is not just the white sock. It always seems slightly out of rhythm, and in the piaffe that was directly in front of me, that leg was well to the left, away from its body. In the one times changes, it is that leg that gets shorter and shorter until finally both are together, whoops, that’s a 3.9. The stallion tries to stop short on the final centre line, still the judges like the test – 71.079.
The first Dutch combination – Sander Marijnissen and Moedwill (Goodwill / Beaujolais) are a blast from the past, the chestnut is a bit jacked up in front with a tendency to come behind the vertical, and the horse is out behind in the extended trot and flicking in front. The pair end up on 70.578.
Christoph Koschel has Donnperignon (Donnerhall / Mozart II) looking so happy and soft, it is just a pity that Christoph at times looks ungainly on the horse with his tendency to perch in the saddle, and when his long long legs move to extreme positions, it is quite distracting. They have a mistake right at the end of the ones, and pay the price, 4.1. Still the harmony gets its reward, score 71.444.
But it is the next horse that really brings joy to the arena. British team debutants, Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro (by the Ferro son, Negro out of a mare by Gershwin, a son of Voltaire). This is what dressage should be about. The frame is perfect, the connection delightful. To a medley of Beatles tunes provided by the management, they spread their love around the big arena. Super extended trot, so even, so engaged, so unhurried – 8.9 and for the first time we have a horse in the 80s. The next extended trot is even better, 8.8, wonderful passage, the piaffe has such balance, only the extended walk lets them down a little for a 6.8, 8.4 for the two times changes, 8.1 for the ones – big, expressive, straight, effortless. The judges rightly award an 8.8 for the rider, 9 would have not been excessive. First with all the judges on a 78.830, but really the C judge, Wotjek Markowski got it right with his 82. A new star combination is born, and boy oh boy, did the dressage world need one.
Just how much the wheel has turned was apparent the next morning, when the Danish based, Oldenburg stallion, Blue Hors Romanov (Rohdiamant / Grundstein) made his appearance with Sune Hansen. Don’t get me wrong, I’d happily send a mare to this horse, but his style of dressage is the now, hopefully, thankfully, out of date ‘spectacular’ look – the tension, and the heavy handed contact was showing, and at last the judges can see it too. 67.724.
El Santo (Ehrentusch / Rhythmus) is a rather old fashioned looking beast, but there is no denying the power in the engine, and Isabell Werth is a master at harnessing horse-power. Even with the hindlegs slightly trailing, the horse is scoring an 8.4 for the first big trot, but the bay still has his problems with a piaffe that tends to fade to the stationary – 5.4 and a 5.2 for the transition, and they have their work cut out to get the percentage up again – huge flying changes but another grounded piaffe. The horse is falling on his forehand in the changes of hand and the ones look laboured. Isabell is the genius of the canter pirouette, an 8.5 and an 8.3, but a 5.2 for the final piaffe. 75.213 is generous.
Okay, I apologize for once remarking that ‘British Dressage is an oxymoron’, for the highlight of the second day, came once again from the Sceptred Isle, Carl Hester and the Dutch stallion, Uthopia (Metall / Inspecteur) have come to play. Across the diagonal – can they possibly maintain this extraordinary trot? You bet they can. 8.6 but wait there’s more, much more to come, and the progressive score is topping 80%. 9.8 for the next trot, 8.5 for the passage. The walk is not great but 6.3 is mean. 8.1 for the piaffe, 8.2 transition, and an 8.4 passage. 8.6 for the extended canter, and 8.5 for the huge, dead straight changes. The work is so forward, so bright, another huge trot and the crowd is giggling with delight, straight tens from all the judges!!! A superb final centre line and the spectators are whistling, stamping, cheering and on their feet saluting a truly great dressage test. 82.568.
The Dutch chances were not looking good. Sister de Jeu may be by Gribaldi, and may be ridden by Edward Gal, but there the similarity ends. She walks into a non halt and starts on a 3.4. 5.9 for an awful rein back, and 4.8 when she fluffs the changes. The last piaffe is seriously ugly and a 5.4 is generous. 66.109.
It is down to a battle of the Brits v the Germans. Can Totilas (Gribaldi / Glendale) the super horse make the difference? I must confess that when I decided to go to Rotterdam for the Euro Champs, I thought that poor Matthias Rath’s entry into the arena, would be a little like the Christians and the Lions in Ancient Rome, but Paul Schockemöhle has stage-managed the black stallion’s transfer so well, that right now the only real resentment is at the nauseating level of ‘Toto’ hype and the awful yellow trim of the Totilas product range. I also have the feeling that after going way over the top on the horse’s test at Aachen, the judging fraternity may be having second thoughts, and perhaps Matthias will have to work harder today to come out on top…
The test doesn’t start so well. The horse is rolled over in the halt and there is so much less happening behind than in front in the extended trot, and the judges see it, 7.1 The half passes are very impressive, but another 7.3 for an extended trot, and the score is below 80. A 9 passage and an 8.9 piaffe and they are back to 82. Even with a 9.1 for the next passage, they are still behind Carl and Uthopia. A mistake in the ones, big mistake, for a 4.7, and the horse tries to halt early. 79.453. The joie de vivre the horse showed with Edward Gal has vanished. Edward is, of course, a very experienced rider at the international level and a great showman, while poor young Matthias seems to have the weight of the world on his shoulders, is it possible that Totilas’ fifteen minutes of fame are up? Let’s hope he breeds more successfully than the early indicators would suggest…
I have the feeling that Laura Bechtolsheimer’s fifteen minutes of fame with Mistral Horjis (Michelino / Ibsen) is also in count-down mode. I guess you can only grab and spur for so long before something breaks, or blows up. The horse backs out of the first halt and they are starting on a 4.6. The chestnut is over bent, leaning on the bridle and looks irregular on the extended trot, and he fair bolts in the two times changes for a 4.9. They finish on a very generous 77.28%, the third best British score, but the UK team is unbeatable for gold. There is still a mathematical chance that Parzival can drag the Dutch into silver over the Germans, but my feeling is that perhaps Adelinde’s place in the sun is also about to cloud…
Parzival (Jazz / Ulft) is boring into Adelinde Cornelissen’s hands in the extended trot and perhaps 8.7 is a little high. Still the 8s keep coming, they are in front of Carl and Uthopia now. Lovely two times changes, and a huge extended canter. Whoops, there is a mistake in the changes of hand and the 5.2 puts Uthopia back in the lead. The leggy chestnut gelding dribbles into the final trot, for an 81.155 and Carl Hester and Uthopia finish the Grand Prix in first place. Is this the blast of fresh, horse friendly dressage we have all been praying for?
It is a record breaking first ever European Championships gold medal for the British team, silver for Germany and bronze to the Dutch. The last four tests in the Special should be pretty special: Valegro, Mistral Hojris, Uthopia, Totilas. I’m predicting a politically correct win for Carl and Uthopia in the Special, with a gold for Adelinde and Parzival in the Kür just to send our orange clad hosts home with a smile on their faces…
Well it didn’t quite work out like that in this most thrilling of Championships. It makes dressage so much more exciting when you don’t know in advance who is going to win.
In the Special, we had the march of the Donnerhalls: Damon Hill looks much better, freer and more even and well deserves his 75.283. Princess Nathalie’s Digby (Donnerhall / Sandro) is his usual honest self for a 75.060, while Donnperignon looks great except in piaffe. 73.750. Three very different types, but all with that Donnerhall trainability. To underscore the point, the next horse out, Dorina, is by Don Schufro.
Isabell Werth’s El Santo is another that struggles with the piaffe but the rest of the work is great, for a 76.533. Patrik Kittel’s Scandic (Solos Carex / Amiral) has problems in the first halt, but the rest of the work is fine, with the horse much better into the bridle than he has been in the past. The final piaffe is wonderful for an 8.6, total 76.771.
The noisy crowd moves into a patriotic hush as Adelinda Cornelissen circles the arena on the notoriously spooky Parzival. Huge extensions, wonderful passage, great piaffe, then whoops, what is happening? Adelinde has started her changes instead of the half passes. This is one cool cookie, she circles, and picks up the test as if nothing has happened. They finish with just the best trip down the centre line, with the 9.1 piaffe the highlight. 82.113 to grab the lead.
Debutant, Charlotte Dujardin, playing Eliza to Carl’s Professor Higgins, continues to be one of the brightest lights of this little party. The extended trot is truly perfection, so engaged, so huge, so rhythmic – see you can have a spectacular extension that is also correct, with no suggestion of less behind than there is in front. Whoops, they break into canter on the half pass, and the score hits the floor, 4.4. What me worry? 8.1 passage, 9.1 extended trot, 8 passage, and Charlotte is grabbing those marks back. 8.6 for a brilliant piaffe, what a complete horse this is, as happy to extend as it is to collect. There are a couple of mistakes in the changes but still they finish on 76.548.
Laura Bechtolsheimer’s Mistral Hojris looks slightly easier to ride today, but in keeping with this Special, they too have their whoopsy, when the chestnut canters for a stride on the wrong lead. The final centre line is impressive with great (9.4) piaffe. The French judge, Jean-Michel Roudier goes gaga with an 84.167, three (!) percentage points higher than his score for Adelinde and Parzival. It is no surprise to see one of the supervisory panel, Eric Lette having a little chat with the Frenchman over breakfast the next morning… They end up in 3rd on 79.256 – although two judges, Markowski and Eisenhardt, had them 6th on their final scores.
Dear Carlo, can he pull it off with Uthopia? Right from the start that amazing trot is on show – 9.8 – and he too can collect as well as extend, 9.4 for his passage. The work is so assured, so complete, the piaffe gets a touch fiddly but he has got the horse flowing again in the canter work, effortless twos for an 8.4 then it all comes unstuck in the ones for a 3.4 and goodbye to that nice gold trinket. They finish in second place on 81.682, less than a percentage point behind Adelinde.
Oh yes, there is still one more to go, but really it is not so pleasant writing about Totilas’s test. He stumbles into the halt and ends up with his chin on his chest (a score of 7.1 is amazingly generous!) and once again, the trailing behind is glaringly apparent in the extended trots, and he is scoring low 7s for the movement. There is a 9.1 for passage, but a 4.7 and a 4.4 when he blows up in the piaffe. He kicks out at the spur in the half pass right for a 4.6, and even the canter pirouette, in the past Totilas’s party trick, looks more like a spin, and a pair of 7.4s is kind. 5.1 for the changes on the centre line and he stops where he started with his head on his chest. 77.039 to finish in 4th, which is still way too high. Mary Seefried at C had the guts to put him in 7th - which is about what he deserved. Sad.
The final day of what has been a spine tingling Championships. In the early group, the young Polish rider Beata Stremler riding the Polish Warmblood, Martini (Deryl SP / Madryt) takes my new star out of the blue award – lovely rider, wonderful horse, they finish on 71.637. Of course we can’t have progressive score tallies in the Freestyle, but what about a pulse rate metre on the C judge?
Hans-Peter Minderhoud is riding Equis Nadine for the last time and brings her out to say good bye at the medal ceremony, at least we won’t have to listen to the Close To You sound track for another time. Perhaps there could be a flaming cauldron in the middle of the arena, with riders required to bring their dvds of any music that has been used at two or more championships, and burn them to a cinder. As it is, Nadine finishes just outside the top ten with a score of 76.59.
In tenth place we have Princess Nathalie, and once again she does a superb test, and yes, I love Digby’s Westside Story score, but it too is due for a fiery end. 78.8
Eliza, alias Charlotte Dujardin continues to dance all night with Valegro, there are a few little hiccups and the pretty dire noise in the background does nothing to help, but this is a future megastar. 79.357, ninth place at her first championships. Wow.
Helen Langehanenberg and Damon Hill really do make an attractive picture, but there is no magic in their Kür, just a relentless pounding beat. 80.45.
Isabell Werth and El Santo were diabolical, the horse looked so heavy and on the forehand, and the music was so bad the press gallery were in hysterics, the operative version of David Bowie’s Starman, was the crowning absurdity. As one of the corps remarked, she used to ride a giraffe, now she is riding a hippo! The judges took leave of their senses and awarded an 80.54 – at least Stephen Clarke saw the joke and gave it a 73.
Juan Manuel Muñoz Diaz and his PRE stallion, Fuego de Cardenas (Utrerano VII / Elgido III) are always the crowd’s favourite. The Spanish music has such wonderful light and shade, the music builds and ebbs, keeping the tension all the way through as Juan and Fuego take all the risks. Fab piaffe to the syncopated hand clapping, great double pirouettes, twos on a half circle, one-handed ones down the centre line, and sure enough the crowd claps along with the final passage. The rider punches the air, the crowd is on their feet cheering. 80.98 and they will finish in 6th place.
The next horse in is the Dutch stallion of solidly Swedish breeding, Scandic (Solos Carex / Amiral) and Patrik Kittel. The big stallion is so light on his feet, the Depeche Mode score is not my taste in music, but they are absolutely on the beat in a very polished show. Fabulous big canter, huge ones, great piaffe, not a glitch for an 83.43, and they will end up taking home a bronze medal, Sweden’s first since Briar and Jan Brink took silver at the Europeans at Hickstead in 2003.
Next in Carl Hester and Uthopia, at least we can’t complain we are sick of this music since it is the first time Carl has ridden to it – although I am not sure we want to hear it a second time! He is quick to show that amazing extended trot, and just as easily back to passage. Two times changes to a double pirouette, huge canter, steep canter half passes, this time the silly boy nails the ones he needed for a gold medal yesterday. Passage half pass, piaffe, passage half pass, super halt, drops the rein, and the stallion wanders calmly out of the arena. 84.179 to take the lead, and this time he has five 10s for his extended trot. Only a wonky right pirouette (4 to 6.5) lets him down but what a horse, what a rider.
I loved Laura Bechtolsheimer’s Shadows music at Windsor, but it is now past its use-by-date, still Mistral Hojris is on song today, and that piaffe is extraordinary. 83.02, and they finish just out of the medals in fourth.
Adelinde Cornelissen and Parzival, this is their thing and the Tchaikovsky score is beautiful. Sugar Plum Fairy from Coppelia and music from Swan Lake – so appropriate for the big chestnut who was something of an ugly duckling before the talented Dutch girl turned him into a beautiful Swan. This has been a wonderful performance and I am sure you have all watched it on Youtube by now. All the judges have them over 90 for their artistic mark and they end on 88.84 – first with all seven judges.
The last test comes from Matthias and Totilas. It is not a success, and they finish in 5th on a score of 81.70, but 8th with two judges: Markowski and the German judge, Evie Eisenhardt who may not get an invite to Mr Schockemöhle’s Christmas Party.
The arena is a sea of orange flags, scarves, jackets, whatever. The local beautiful hero has triumphed, but really dressage was the big winner
Story – Chris Hector
Photos – Roz Neave