In a competition that buzzed with excitement from start to finish, Great Britain’s Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro claimed Dressage Grand Prix Special gold at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games™ in Normandy, France today. It wasn’t a flawless performance from the dynamic British duo, with mistakes that Dujardin afterwards described as “silly”, but such was the quality of the rest of the work she produced with her extraordinary gelding that she still headed silver medallist Helen Langehanenberg with Damon Hill NRW, whose German team-mate, Kristina Sprehe, earned bronze with Desperados FRH.
“We made three expensive mistakes and I thought ‘Oh it’s cost me the medal!’, so I knew after each one that I had to go for a bit more to try and catch up on what I had already lost,” she said afterwards. “But he’s such a fantastic horse, he’s got a heart of gold. If I need to go for a bit more he tries to go for a bit more, he never says no I can’t do it,” said the rider who now holds the Grand Prix Special title at Olympic, European and World Championship level.
They almost fell victim to their own enormous popularity however, as Dujardin found the enthusiasm of the spectators in the D’Ornano Stadium quite distracting throughout her test.
The hardest thing
“It was really hard with the crowd,” she said afterwards, “probably that was the hardest thing because when you were doing good and bad you could hear “ooooh” or you could hear people talking. I wanted to turn round and say ‘shut up!’ When you’re trying to ride you’re trying to think where to go and to think of what you’re doing, and all you can hear is the crowd talking and gasping, it’s very, very tough. Obviously you don’t experience that very often. I know I had it in Herning (FEI European Dressage Championships 2013 in Denmark) last year and a bit in Aachen this year, but otherwise you can normally only hear the music or it’s silent, so I found it really difficult out there today,” she explained.
It was her fellow countryman, Michael Eilberg, who held the lead in the early stages of the competition after showing much better form with his grey mare, Half Moon Delphi, when seventh of the 30 starters this morning. On the first day of the team competition on Monday their performance was below par, but today they produced their best ever Grand Prix Special mark and Eilberg was well pleased.
“I had to set up every movement to get her up a bit more,” he explained. “I knew what to expect after yesterday, and how to adjust my riding. She was more on her hind legs, more up and positive, especially in the passage and piaffe. I could get her more balanced, and also got more extension in the trot. Half Moon is only 12 years old, and getting better every year.”
He was overtaken for the lead by fellow Briton, Carl Hester, who was also a member of yesterday’s team silver medal winning side, whose gelding, Nip Tuck, is growing in confidence every time he comes into the ring. “He was nervous after the prizegiving yesterday so it just shows the genuine side of this horse. He is so desperately trying to please me all the time and today I had a personal best with him so I’d nearly like to stop now and not do anymore!” Hester said, having posted 75.532.
“It’s difficult when a horse is that sensitive to get your leg on him, you can’t move on him, he’s still so inexperienced, but it’s all going the right way. It will take one more year to produce him in the ring the way he is at home,” said the 47-year-old whose own performance today was nothing short of a master-class in the art of horse production.
The scores subsequently kept growing however, with America’s Laura Graves continuing her spectacular run to head the leaderboard on a score of 77.157 before the final tranche of riders took their turn. The 27-year-old rider and her lovely 12-year-old gelding Verdades seemed to be in a world of their own as they executed each movement with quiet precision. Graves’ stillness in the saddle and Verdades’ attention to her every instruction suggests an unusually powerful bond in this partnership that has lasted almost the entire length of the horse’s lifetime.
“I do a lot of homework,” Graves said. “I spend a lot of time studying the top riders and I picture in my mind’s eye what I’m trying to do when I’m in the saddle. I shut out what’s going on around us and just concentrate on trying to reflect what I’ve seen them do,” said the American who finished two places ahead of her considerably more experienced team-mate, Steffen Peters with Legolas, when slotting into eighth place at the end of the day.
Built to a crescendo
The excitement built to a crescendo as the final group took their turn, with Sweden’s Tinne Vilhelmson Silfven and Don Auriello re-setting the target at 78.235 only for Germany’s Kristina Sprehe and Desperados FRH to go further ahead when posting 79.762 two horses later.
The crowd went wild as Dujardin and Valegro followed them into the ring, and the pure energy of the performance this pair produced had everyone sitting on the edges of their seats. Big scores for extended trot and half-pass were followed by a distracted moment however when a call of nature meant Valegro was unable to immediately respond to his rider’s aids in the first piaffe. But not even a mistake in the two-tempi changes could prevent the judges from awarding them 86.120 which proved an unbeatable score despite a super effort from Langehanenberg and Damon Hill.
“I won’t give up (trying to beat Dujardin and Valegro),” Langehanenberg said afterwards. “I believe in Dami and I’m very pleased with him today.”
There was tension in the Dutch camp as the scores for Adelinde Cornelissen and Jerich Parzival, last to go in today’s competition, were finally calculated. It seemed quite possible that they might take the bronze, but in the end their mark of 79.328 left them less than 0.5 behind Sprehe to miss a podium placing.
Dujardin admitted she had big plans when going into the arena today with Valegro. “I was going out there for a world record, that’s what I was aiming to do. I knew it was possible because he felt so good, it was just a pity because without those mistakes it could have been a world record”.
She said Valegro was “probably the best he’s ever felt. I know I made those mistakes but they were just silly ones. It felt like when you’re driving a Ferrari and you put your foot down. To have that much power underneath you, especially after doing the Grand Prix yesterday, I’m just delighted for him, I’m so happy!”.
She’s been working hard on the fitness of both herself and her horse over the last month. “At Aachen it was so hot and I really struggled with it, and he really struggled with it. Obviously we weren’t at full fitness because we wanted to peak here. That’s what we were aiming for and to get him as fit as we could for here, so we went there a bit under-fitness and it affected us greatly when we hit the heat. In normal temperatures we would have got away with it.
“Now I have a personal trainer, I train four or five times a week, she’s fantastic and I do a lot of core work and a lot of cardio work. I felt physically exhausted after Aachen because of the heat so I thought I cannot have that if I’m coming here and it’s hot, I wanted to be ready for it this time.”
Now she’s looking forward to Friday’s Freestyle, and there’s no doubting the colour of the medal she wants to take home from that. “I love my music. I’ve ridden it at the World Cup Final and in Aachen so I want to go out there and try and nail it, get it to my absolute maximum. I’m not going to give anything away, I’m going to ride for everything. That’s the problem when you ride for everything, you can make mistakes but you know I’m going to risk it because there’s only one chance of the gold!”
And she fully intends to take it.
Result: Grand Prix Special: GOLD – Valegro (Charlotte Dujardin) 86.120; SILVER – Damon Hill NRW (Helen Langehanenberg) GER 84.468; BRONZE – Desperados FRH (Kristina Sprehe) GER 79.762.