For those of you who didn’t come to Vegas this year, I have some bad news for you. You missed what might have been the best freestyle competition in the history of dressage. No joke. It was stupendous and I get goose bumps writing about it, even at 8 in the morning, sleep deprived and dehydrated, with no caffeine yet coursing through my bloodstream. It was easily the most exciting and high quality set of freestyles I have ever witnessed in one place. Even the rides toward the bottom of the placings were exciting, and apart from both Monica and Heath using Pirates of the Carribbean music (if Leslie M. had made it this far there would have been three of them), there was a great deal of musical variety. Before I comment on the judging and on the atmosphere at the press conference (not all the bridesmaids were smiling), here is a brief blow-by-blow:

Heath and Regardez Moi – I just love this little stallion. The ride wasn’t mistake-free and the choreography didn’t always set him up for success, especially with the one tempis, but there is some real talent in there, especially for the piaffe and passage. It’s too bad he lives so far away in Oz, but perhaps he will do some time in Europe or NA leading up to WEG.

Marco and Diamore – their highlight was half pass to a circle of two tempis to half pass back the other way. It made up for really dreadful double pirouettes that were more a turn in the middle. Showing double of something bad is definitely not in one’s best interests. The music was nondescript, but Marco had a loyal, cheering group of fans and I am sure he was tickled to just be out there enjoying his first WC Final appearance.

Jeanette and gigantic Nartan – actually, I think the horse is less gigantic than Jeanette is petite. Awesome freestyle, and the first to really connect with the crowd. The music was fun, a bit silly, but very strong and suited to the big footed, floppy eared horse that showed both elasticity and power. The passage music was Hernando’s Hideaway, which may not be a totally original song fora freestyle, but it was a great arrangement with lots of goofy instruments. Jeanette made one very original move  by leaving the walk to nearly the end of the freestyle. The walk music was uber-cute, so it wasn’t anticlimactic to walk so close to the final centre line. Two thumbs up for using fun music that really suited the horse.

Michal and Randon – I said it last year already in Hong Kong. This is an emerging talent from behind the ex-Iron Curtain. I was expecting bad music, but as soon as he started to passage from the halt to very strong drums, I was hooked – as was the crowd.  I loved his trot music too, though I can’t quite place it. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard it in a TV commercial. The canter music was the only part I didn’t like so much, but the overall performance was exciting to watch.

Jan and Briar – I was a little disappointed for Jan that Briar’s swansong had a couple of little blow ups, but perhaps it was fitting. The first time I saw Briar was in Jerez 2002, and he pretty much lost his marbles in the freestyle. Perhaps he was just showing everyone that at 18 he’s still ‘got it’. Jan received a standing ovation after his ride, then a second one at the end of the evening when he was brought back in for a bittersweet lap of honour. This was Briar’s last appearance in competition. Thanks and kudos must go to Jan for producing such a long and successful career with a stallion who might not have shone so brightly in other hands. A Dieu Briar. We’ll miss you.

Monica and Whisper – one thing really puzzles me about Monica. In 1994 she won the WC Final on Ganimedes, with one of the most well designed and executed freestyles of that era. Her use of Broadway music to fit the choreography was head and shoulders above what was the norm in those early days of freestyles. So here’s the contradiction: her freestyle with Whisper has none of that going on. She trots and passages to different sections of the same rock song (which I recognize but can’t name), so the music matches only the trot work; it’s too fast for the passage. The canter music is a strange violin arrangement of Pirates music, and the tempo doesn’t match the gait. There is very little interpretation and no theme that I can detect. I don’t get it. She’s a brilliant rider on a brilliant horse but the lukewarm applause at the end of her ride was evidence enough that she has not found magic with her choice of music.

Hans Peter and Nadine – I just adore the music HP has chosen for Nadine. It has everything that was missing with the previous pair. I loved it in HK and I love it now. It is one of the best matches of horse to music out there. Nadine tends to get more tense as she goes along, and by the end of the freestyle the passage showed some very strange activity in the left hind because of it. HP may have recorded a personal best score last night, but I am sure he knows he can reach even higher once he finds the way to keeping Nadine happy all the way to the final halt.

Isabell and Satchmo – I would imagine that Isabell came to Vegas with a pretty strong expectation that she would be adding a WC title to Satchmo’s list of accomplishments. I even predicted it a few days ago on this blog. And in fact, three of the five judges gave her scores that put her there. It isn’t reflected in the breakdown of artistic and technical marks, but I do think that what she lacks as a WC rider is music. Her music often does not match tempo, even though it wouldn’t take much to speed the passage music up a little to fit every footfall. Her choreography is difficult and well executed – there is no doubt that technically she is as good as they come – but there just wasn’t the spark that we saw with not just a few, but many of the performances last night. Satchmo is a superb athlete, but so is Ravel.  The fact that the judges were divided (Linda Zang and Wim Ernes had Ravel first, and by enough of a margin to make the difference) is evidence that it was a tough call. But Ravel had the tunes on his side.

Steffen and Ravel – it was simply magic. The horse is that one in a million combination of power, athleticism and an honest desire to do the job. Steffen brings out every ounce of the horse’s potential. I know I’m gushing, so here is a little criticism to balance out the admiration. I think Steffen should rethink how he begins his canter tour with the twos on a loop at M. Ravel had his only hiccup at the start of the twos in Hong Kong and then in Vegas. The jury in HK pointed at that hiccup for what kept Steffen off the podium. Last night he got away with it, but juries vary and so does the performance of one’s rivals. Why stack the cards the wrong way when, as Linda Zang said last night, it’s your choice when and where you perform each required movement? Ok, back to gushing. Steffen has been ‘close but no banana’ so many times over the years. I believe he fully earned the title last night. It is also so very good at this fragile moment in the sport’s history that the outcome is not a foregone conclusion. Anky even said as much in the press conference.

Anky and Painted Black – would Anky have won if she brought Salinero? We’ll never know. I wonder if she’s ever been third in a WC final. At any rate, Painted looked as lovely as ever, but Anky was unsuccessful with the two tempis, even after a second try at them at the end of the canter tour when she substituted them for her second extended canter. I really had the impression in the press conference that she was quite satisfied with her result. Such can not be said of Isabell, who was scowly and kept staring at the judges’ scores in her hand. After Anky commented that it was good for the sport that for once she and Isabell weren’t one and two, Isabell betrayed what was in her mind by saying that “maybe next time not three but four judges will have me first.”

Ashley and Pop Art – what a tough spot to start in, last and following the big three, but Ashley showed she absolutely belongs in this company. She and Poppy were just delightful out there. I was of course proud on multiple levels to watch them receive what I think might have been a personal best score in the FS, though of course I would lie to say I didn’t wish the score were a titch higher. There was a little loss of rhythm in the extended trot that would have cost her a bit. But that canter to piaffe was just awesome, as was all the passage and piaffe. I still think Poppy has the best piaffe to passage transitions of the whole field. Ashley told me this morning that she was going for it with a bit too much power but realized her mistake after the extended trot. She said the rest of the test was just a ‘cruise’, every bit as fun to ride as to watch.

Speaking of the field, there were just 11 in the final count. It was a bad luck week for 4 horses and riders, though I suspect that by the end of the freestyles very few spectators felt anything but complete satisfaction at having witnessed an unprecedented event. Brian O’Connor had previously announced that last night was sold out, but alas he exaggerated. The stands looked about 2/3 filled and the FEI release this morning confirmed that the head count was well short of a full house. But when Steffen did his victory lap, you would have thought all of America was cheering him on. And so they should. He just gave the sport on this continent a very, very big shot in the arm. His win represents a potential shift on a global scale too. It is now possible to imagine a gold medal, even if you don’t ride under the Dutch or German flag. I also think this gang of judges made some good decisions when handing out their marks this week. I really do.

I could go on for hours with details about each ride (most overused movement of the night: extended canter to pirouette at D), but you should really just watch for yourself if you can. I have heard that FEI TV’s live streaming worked brilliantly last night, with Robert Dover ably commentating. I have been promised a chance to question the FEI TV guru who is onsite in Vegas, and if the promise is kept I should be able to tell you tomorrow if Americans will gain access to the WC dressage some time in the near future.

Today we will discover who will become the WC show jumping champ. Meredith may be set for a hat trick, but not if Sapphire or Oki Doki (I’m rooting for him, he’s like a bouncy rubber ball) have anything to say about it.