Postcard: Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games Grand Prix Special

The individual medals for the Grand Prix Special at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Caen, France, went as expected, but America's new superstar, Laura Graves, added to her luster with an eighth-place finish.

August 27, 2014 — Laura Graves continues to amaze in her first season at Grand Prix, turning in an awesome Grand Prix Special with Verdades to finish eighth in the discipline’s first individual competition at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

Laura Graves had a sensational Grand Prix Special on Verdades to finish eighth individually | Photo copyright 2014 by Nancy Jaffer

“You rock, baby,” her joyful trainer, Debbie McDonald, told Laura as she rode out of the arena on a wave of applause after her stellar performance as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” played in the background.

I’ve told you about the background music before. It’s nothing that the riders select, it’s just there to add a little flair to the presentation. Sometimes, it’s inappropriate (I mentioned the Brazilian being serenaded with La Cucaracha, if you recall). But in the case of Laura, it hit the mark.

Would you expect to find a former bartender, waitress and cosmetologist center stage at the WEG with a horse she bought off a video as a foal? Only in some horsey teen novel or fantasy land over the rainbow, right? But dreams can come true with desire, hard work, the right horse and the right help. Laura’s achievements doubtless will feed the dreams of many young riders who long to be where she is today.

U.S. veterinarian Rick Mitchell and an emotional Debbie McDonald watch as Laura Graves performed her inspiring Grand Prix Special ride.| Photo copyright 2014 by Nancy Jaffer

For a few precious minutes, Laura actually led the 30-horse field, culled from the best starters in the Grand Prix that ran Monday and Tuesday, until the “name” riders including Charlotte Dujardin, Helen Langehanenberg and Kristina Sprehe made their appearance and wound up with the medals.

Everyone is still asking “who’s that?” about Laura. On the bus back to the hotel, Michael Tucker of Great Britain (you know him as one of the voices of Rolex Kentucky) asked me to fill him in on her. As I told the story, I realized yet again how remarkable it is.

Here’s what Laura had to say moments after earning an incredible 77.157 percent score for a ride that had Debbie jumping up and down and coach Robert Dover smiling ear to ear.

Laura even wound up beating her teammate, Steffen Peters, long the country’s top dressage rider. He had predicted it last month, and he’s fine with it because, as he put it, “It’s staying in the family.”

Steffen finished 10th on Legolas — after nailing his one-tempis that he missed yesterday in the Grand Prix. His score was 75.742.

“It was a very exciting Grand Prix Special for Legolas,” Steffen said.

“It’s always been our hardest test, and we came just a little bit crooked in the first one-tempi on the centerline, but we still got our nine one-tempis in. It was tricky, because in the warm-up, he didn’t want to stop after nine, so he kept going.

“I was really reinforcing that ninth change and it was super-exciting that he actually quit on nine. I had a better feeling than yesterday in the Grand Prix and seeing those two American flags up there (in the top 10 on the scoreboard)…is just awesome.”

At the top of the standings, Olympic double-gold medalist Charlotte wasn’t about to be denied another gold with Valegro, despite a few mishaps. Valegro had a bad moment in piaffe, when he paused to manure, and there was a mistake in the two-tempis. But his grace, power and perfect harmony with his rider carried the day with an 86.120 percent score, and several movements were marked as 9-plus (out of 10) on a composite score of all the judges.

Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro won the Grand Prix Special individual gold medal as expected at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games | Photo copyright 2014 by Nancy Jaffer

Charlotte, still carrying her mascot toy horse Freddy (now wearing a Dressage Today pin on his little sweater), analyzed her ride when we talked.

The crowd was with her, but maybe a little too much. When she had a mistake, there was a massive gasp, or when she did particularly well, they said “oooh.” She found it all quite distracting.

“I wanted to turn around and say, `Shut up,’ ” she confided with a good-natured smile.

Charlotte now has had quite a sweep, with gold at the Olympics, the European Championships and now here at the world championships.

Helen Langehanenberg of Germany’s gold medal team came fairly close with 84.468 and took silver with Damon Hill NRW, who she calls “Damie.” Helen’s teammate, Kristina Sprehe, earned the bronze on the beautiful black Desperados with 79.762. It was a surprise for Kristina, whose focus was the team gold. She called her horse “perfect” in his performance, with the exception of losing some rhythm in the passage.

Germany’s Helen Langehanenberg won the individual silver medal in the Grand Prix Special on Damon Hill NRW | Photo copyright 2014 by Nancy Jaffer

Helen had to enter the arena right after Charlotte was leaving to thunderous applause, which I thought perhaps was difficult. She didn’t think so. This is what she had to say.

Here’s the thing about dressage, though. It’s like life. One minute you’re one top, enjoying the view, then it’s a swift ride downhill as the applause goes silent. Or perhaps you’ve been on the bottom, and then suddenly, you’re back on top.

All together on the podium, Grand Prix Special silver medalist Helen Langehanenberg, gold medalist Charlotte Dujardin and bronze medalist Kristina Sprehe | Photo copyright 2014 by Nancy Jaffer

It was the former today for U.S. team member Adrienne Lyle, and the latter for British team member Michael Eilberg.

Adrienne, our wonderful Dressage Today blogger, contributed to the team’s fourth-place finish on Tuesday, when many expected the squad to wind up behind Spain, Sweden and Denmark.

Today, however, her horse just didn’t want to play. As soon as I saw Debbie, Adrienne’s mentor, go to the ringside “kiss and cry stand” for coaches and family, I could tell by her tense look that trouble was on the way.

It arrived quickly. Wizard became uncooperative at several points throughout Adrienne’s test, giving her a score of 69.202 percent and putting her last in the class.

Always gracious, Adrienne handled the situation well.

“He was super for the team, so I’m happy about that. I don’t know what was bothering him today. He’s not feeling himself,” she said.

“The focus was 100 percent on the team and we got that done, so I’m really happy. If you have to have a bad ride, thank God it’s on the individual part and not for the team,” she said, noting he was “a little funny” in the warm-up.

“He’s just opinionated sometimes. He was wanting to run a little to the left on everything today.”

Meanwhile, Michael was having the opposite experience with the gray mare, Half-Moon Delphi. She wasn’t at her best in the team test, scoring 71.886 percent and I listened to some British team supporters in the stands watching Michael ride and urging him to be more aggressive (not that he could hear them.)

Today, it was a different story, as he finished 13th with 75.462. Thinking of what happened to Adrienne, I asked Michael to explain how he recouped.

Dressage takes a break until Friday, when the Grand Prix Freestyle is held for the top 15 competitors. Laura, who has ramped up her freestyle to make it more difficult, and Steffen, made the cut. But there’s no break for me.

Tomorrow, I’m off to endurance, 90 minutes from Caen in Sartilly. I have no idea what awaits me there, except I understand it’s very wet because of several days of rain. Whatever it is, I’ll tell you all about it in my next postcard.

Until then,

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