Loxahatchee, FL - Sunny skies, a convivial atmosphere and top-notch dressage performance highlighted the 30th anniversary of the Palm Beach Dressage Derby CDI-W February 28-March 3. Seasoned international competitors and young rising stars alike came out to vie for victory at the historic event. An enthusiastic crowd came out to cheer riders on at the International Horse Sport (IHS) Champions Park at Equestrian Estates in Loxahatchee, FL. While battling it out in the show ring, riders kept the mood light between tests, enjoying the support of the crowd and applauding their fellow competitors as they entered the ring. Entertaining interludes, including a Macarena tribute to retiring FEI Judge Axel Steiner and a stick horse appearance in the Grand Prix Freestyle awards ceremony, offset the fierce competition at the Derby.
Lars Petersen and Mariett distanced themselves from the field in the FEI Grand Prix classes, winning both Friday's Grand Prix and Sunday's Grand Prix Freestyle by convincing margins. They began the weekend by scoring 72.745% to take the Grand Prix, besting second-place finishers Shelly Francis and Doktor by three percentage points. David Marcus and Don Kontes took third in the competitive class of 15 entrants.
The Grand Prix Freestyle on Sunday featured standout musical performances by an elite group of riders, several of whom were coming off top finishes on the South Florida winter dressage circuit. Petersen and Mariett looked like they had the win wrapped up as they coasted through their circus-music themed routine, though their victory was briefly in question when they strayed from their set choreography in the middle of their ride. Petersen stayed cool under pressure and improvised a way to get back on track.
"I was very happy with the horse," Petersen said after his ride. "I had a little mistake in my choreography, and I did a little bit of taking my own line in the middle of it. I thought about the jumping riders, but otherwise I was very happy with my horse today."
Marcia Pepper, who co-owns Mariett with Petersen, explained that they are giving the 15-year-old Danish Warmblood mare the time she needs to mature and progress. "We'll see how it develops," she said. "There has never been a plan. Ever. We're just taking it slowly."
Shelly Francis and Doktor repeated their second-place effort in the Grand Prix to take the red ribbon in the Freestyle, while Mikala Gundersen and My Lady placed third.
Mette Rosencrantz and Finally put together a fluid, consistent test to lock up the title in Saturday's Grand Prix Special, improving markedly after their 14th place in the Grand Prix. Evi Strasser rode Action Tyme to a second-place finish in the Special, while Cheryl Meisner and Tango took third.
"I think I did a helluva good job!" Rosencrantz exclaimed after her win. "The other day I had a problem from the warm-up to the ring, but today I thought, 'I've got nothing to lose.' I think there's a lot of things I could do better, but it was a good test and I was really proud of him."
Kimberly Herslow and Rosmarin established themselves over the course of the weekend as ones to watch in the small tour division. They posted three over-70 scores to rack up two wins and a second place against a tough field of accomplished riders. They scored 70.789% for the win in what was only their third Prix St. Georges to date and earned 71.650% to take home victory in Sunday's Intermediaire I Freestyle, their debut freestyle in competition. Caroline Roffman and Her Highness O edged them out in Saturday's Intermediaire I, scoring 71.211% to Herslow's 70.868%.
Sunday's program featured the presentation of The Dressage Foundation's Carol Lavell Advanced Dressage Prize to Sharon McCusker. Adrienne Lyle, the other recipient of the award, was competing in California and could not be present. Carol Lavell, husband Tom Lavell, Show Manager Noreen O'Sullivan, and The Dressage Foundation Board of Directors members Michael Poulin and Karin Reid Offield were on hand to congratulate McCusker on the Prize.
"It's always been a dream of mine to go and train and compete in Europe and now that dream has come true," McCusker commented. "I cannot thank the Foundation enough for this opportunity."
Lavell noted that her own challenges during her competitive career, and the support she received that allowed her to train and compete at the highest level, inspired her to found the Prize. "The Award is a way for me to follow my philosophy which is 'What goes around should come back around,'" she explained.
The Palm Beach Dressage Derby marked the last FEI show of Judge Axel Steiner's illustrious career. Steiner received his first national judges' license in 1968 and attained Official (FEI-O, now designated as FEI 5*) status in 1988. He has judged at the Olympic Games, Pan American Games and World Cup Finals, as well as other world-class competitions. Steiner is a faculty member of USDF's "L" program, serves as a judge instructor and examiner, and is on the USEF Dressage Committee.
A group of competitors, owners and spectators staged a flash mob to celebrate Steiner's retirement from FEI judging. They danced and sang to the Macarena, changing the lyrics to "Hey, Axel Steiner!" Steiner was initially surprised and then joined in with a smile, accepting congratulations for his long years of distinguished service.
The Palm Beach Dressage Derby was a fitting stage for Steiner's swan song as an FEI judge, as it played a crucial role in the development of his judging career. Over his decades of involvement with the Derby, he benefited from collaboration with other eminent international judges.
"It was my first exposure to judging with European judges," Steiner recalled. "This year is very important for me. I have many, many memories."
"The Derby was the premier show in Florida and even today it probably is still one of the most influential," he added. "What Devon is in the fall, the Derby is in the spring."