Next to a World Equestrian Games or an Olympic Games, the most exciting competition may well be the selection trials for a WEG or an Olympic team. I wish I could have been ringside at all of the US trials for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Kentucky (hard to believe that they kick off a little more than one month from now!), but they're being held all over the country, and I happen to live within range of only one: the dressage trials, which were held August 6-8 and 13-15 at the magnificent US Equestrian Team Foundation headquarters in Gladstone, New Jersey.
I traveled to Gladstone last weekend for the grand finale, the Grand Prix Freestyle, final hurdle for the WEG hopefuls and marquee event of the 2010 Collecting Gaits Farm/US Equestrian Federation Dressage Festival of Champions. These annual championships decide national dressage titles in several divisions, including Grand Prix. This year's Grand Prix national championships doubled as the WEG selection trials, and it was obvious that making the WEG team was more important to these competitors than earning the title.
The WEG team anchor, international veteran Steffen Peters on Akiko Yamazaki's Ravel, was in the commentator's seat instead of the saddle for this competition, having been granted a bye not to compete at the trials. With the top spot locked up, the competition at Gladstone was for the second, third, and fourth team spots. The fourth-placed horse and rider at Gladstone would then become the reserve pair for the WEG.
Now we have our WEG team, and it's an interesting mix of veterans and relative newcomers, on a mix of veteran and not-so-veteran mounts. Let me tell you a little bit about them.
Steffen and Ravel are the names you're most likely to know. Steffen, 45, is a native of Germany who's lived in the San Diego area since the late 1980s and became a US citizen just a little too late for the 1992 Olympics. At his first Olympics, in Atlanta 1996, he won team bronze riding Udon. He's gone on to achieve dressage superstardom, in part thanks to Ravel, a 12-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding who burst onto the scene at the 2008 Olympics and went on to sweep the 2009 FEI Dressage World Cup Final title as well as all of the Grand Prix classes at the prestigious Aachen, Germany, international show that year. Ravel is expected to lead the US dressage squad in the WEG standings, and he's also considered to be our strongest contender for an individual medal. He is a stunning horse, and Steffen is an astonishingly gifted and sensitive rider.
Number two, and the 2010 USEF national Grand Prix champion, is Tina Konyot on the twelve-year-old Danish stallion Calecto V, whom she co-owns -- a rarity in today's elite horse sport. Tina, 48, of Palm City, Florida, is no stranger to high-performance dressage competition and has finished thisclose to making teams in the past, but the 2010 WEG is her first one. Many dressage enthusiasts don't know that Tina is from a famed circus equestrian family. Her grandfather, the Hungarian-born Arthur Konyot, was a celebrated horseman with the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus; as were Arthur's children, Alex and Dorita. Tina is the daughter of the late Alex Konyot. The Konyot family has been inducted into the Circus Ring of Fame. Tina has a classical, elegant style obviously taught to her from an early age, and she and the big black stallion with the swaggering loose forelock make an unforgettable pair.
The 2010 USEF national Grand Prix reserve champion, 40-year-old Todd Flettrich on Cherry Knoll Farm's14-year-old Danish gelding, Otto, are also US team first-timers. I know Todd pretty well, as I trained with him for a decade in southeastern Pennsylvania. He's a former dressage Young Rider individual gold medalist who in turned coached YR gold medalist Catherine Malone in 2005. Todd apprenticed under Olympian and former US dressage chef d'equipe Jessica Ransehousen, and since then he's worked intensively with such trainers as Steffen Peters, Oded Shimoni, and Hubertus Schmidt. A native of Louisiana, Todd now calls Royal Palm Beach, Florida, home. Otto is a seasoned Grand Prix horse, having been shown successfully under Heather Blitz before sponsor Margaret Duprey's Cherry Knoll Farm bought him as a potential WEG mount for Todd. (Lucky guy!)
Rounding out the WEG team is another team first-timer and the WEG squad's youngest member, Katherine Bateson-Chandler, 35, riding Jane Clark's fifteen-year-old Dutch gelding, Nartan. Bateson-Chandler, of Wellington, Florida, for years was assistant trainer to Olympian Robert Dover. When Robert retired from international competition, Katherine took over the ride on his mounts and also the sponsorship of Jane Clark, who bought Nartan from Dutch team rider Jeannette Haazen as a potential WEG mount for Katherine. (Lucky gal!) Interestingly, as Katherine related during the press conference following the trials at Gladstone, Jane Clark looks to be realizing a dream at the WEG this year. The Forbes heiress, a former American Horse Shows Association (now USEF) president, sponsors not only dressage but combined driving and jumpers. If driver James Fairclough and jumper rider Mario Deslauriers on Urico indeed make it to Kentucky, then Jane will own horses in all three of the WEG disciplines that she sponsors -- an amazing accomplishment by any standard.
Catherine Haddad must be happy that she made the trip from her current hometown of Vechta, Germany, to contest the trials. The 46-year-old American rider holds the reserve WEG slot with her 10-year-old Hanoverian gelding, Winyamaro. The flaxen-maned "Winnie," with his big blaze and pink muzzle, made quite an impression on the fans at Gladstone. He is fairly green at Grand Prix but obviously has an impressive future ahead of him. Although we probably won't get to see this pair compete at the WEG, Catherine has the advantage of having trained and competed extensively in Europe, so she's a well-known commodity to the European judges. And it's widely accepted that exposure is a good thing.
So as far as the US dressage-team lineup goes, our national dressage technical advisor, FEI "O" judge Anne Gribbons, is "happy as a pig in..." -- well, you can guess.