World Equestrian Games Dressage Freestyle: A Soldout Night of Artistic Sport With Surprises and Even Laughter

The United States Equestrian Federation is calling tonight?s dressage freestyle competition extravaganza ?the greatest night of dressage action in the history of the sport on American soil?.

I think tonight wouldn?t have been possible ten years ago much less twenty or thirty years ago. We had to build up to this night, and we needed a cast of characters.

A leading man like Edward Gal and a superstar horse like Moorlands Totilas certainly help rivet the attention on the sport. And gold bell boots to match the gold medals certainly don’t hurt. Gal?s self-effacing and sometimes almost shy attitude are refreshing and certainly a surprise when considering the records he has broken and the giants he and Totilas have pushed (however gently) from pedestals.

A quiet prince like Steffen Peters made a huge difference at the awards ceremony tonight when he made a personal gesture and returned to the arena wearing his helmet out of respect for his friend, American Olympic dressage team rider Courtney King-Dye, who was injured in a schooling accident last winter in Florida.

The disconcerting and tragic disqualification of Dutch star Adelinde Cornelissen and Jerich Parzival of the Dutch team on the first day of the dressage competition was a shock to everyone present and a rattle to the golden cage of the Dutch. Her horse bit his tongue during warmup or perhaps early in the test and blood mixed with his saliva; the Ground Jury was forced to stop her test and disqualify her on horse welfare grounds,even though the cut was very tiny and stopped bleeding immediately.

Suddenly the sure thing didn’t seem so sure any more. They were anyone?s medals, but more than that, Adelinde?s personal loss was suffered with dignity through the pain rather than with controversy and angry scenes and threats. The Games survived a terribly awkward situation because of her grace under pressure. Adelinde suffered, to be sure, as she missed her chance at the medals.

Who would ever suspect that dressage would have a court jester? But that’s exactly what we saw tonight. An elegant court jester, to be sure: Spain?s Juan Manuel Munoz Diaz who rode the spectacular PRE stallion Fuego. To quote Louise Parkes in her FEI news release: ?Prancing into the ring with his knees almost touching his nose, the grey stallion demanded maximum attention. But just before the Spanish pair were to go before the judges, Diaz stopped to settle himself and Fuego joined in, leaning down to scratch his nose on his foreleg, leaving spectators a little bemused.

?Smiles turned to gasps of delight however as they stormed into the routine set to their Spanish soundtrack, and there were spontaneous cheers during Fuego’s first extended trot. There was lots more to come however, including one-handed one-tempi changes, and by the time Diaz steered his horse up the center line–in passage and once again using only one hand–there was near-hysteria around the ring.

?The showman Diaz couldn’t contain his excitement at the halt, but very nearly parted company with his horse who shot forward as the Spaniard whipped off his hat and thumped the air with his fist in delight. The crowd went wild, and voiced their disapproval when this partnership were awarded 81.450 which they thought wasn’t nearly enough, but it was a spectacular score and well deserved.?

A tip of the hat to the fine Australian rider Brett Parbery on Victory Salute; he delivered the best performance ever by an Australian rider. He was quite elegant and it was great to see Australia in the top ten finishers tonight.

And a consolation bouquet to the fine hero of Games and Olympics past, Isabell Werth of Germany, who is still a magnificent rider and always will be. She came here leading a young and inexperienced team but they will not always be that way. And she’ll be back. Don?t count her out.

Finally, we can’t forget the fairy tale princess of the entire week, Great Britain?s Laura Bechtolsheimer and her Mistral Hojris. Even though she has been ?Number Three? in the world for the past months, she was always mentioned as an afterthought behind the Dutch and the Germans, in spite of her improvement and her diligent work under the tutelage of Klaus Balkenhol. Then, here in Lexington, Kentucky, she had her fairy tale moment when she leap-frogged ahead of all but the Dutch and carried Great Britain into silver medal territory for the first time.

The fairy tale princess, the past and present and future heroes, the court jester, the fallen star, the thoughtful prince and the humble golden-booted medalist are all packing now for the trip back to their homes. Some pack medals. Some pack broken dreams. But some of tonight?s magic will be captured inside each suitcase when it’s closed, to be released in many places around the world, and kept alive.

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