Britain claimed team gold for the first time in the 25-year history of the FEI European Dressage Championships when Carl Hester and the fabulous stallion, Uthopia, produced a dream performance at the Kralingsbos stadium in Rotterdam, The Netherlands today. With his country already in front at the halfway stage following yesterday's good results from first-line rider Emile Faurie and Elmegardens Marquis and the new British star partnership of Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro, 44-year-old Hester racked up a score of 82.568 which left him with the leading individual mark of the competition and took the pressure off anchor Laura Bechtolsheimer with Mistral Hojris.
The result is a triumph for British Dressage which, over the last three years, has risen up the ranks and now looks like the most threatening force in the sport ahead of next year's Olympic Games on their home turf.
"Some of us have seen Great Britain through the dark days - 20 years ago this would never have seemed possible - so it's a truly historic moment for us, and London should be a sell-out now!" Hester said proudly this evening.
Battle for Silver
Germany pipped The Netherlands by just over three points in the battle for the silver medals, Isabell Werth's test with El Santo NRW slotting her temporarily into individual second place with a score of 75.213. "I was unhappy with the piaffe, but the rest was very good", she commented afterwards. And she laughed when adding that "his piaffe was really good during the prize-giving this evening!".
Team-mate Matthias Alexander Rath was pleased with his score of 79.453 with Totilas, the horse that set the world of Dressage alight with spectacular performances for Holland's Edward Gal during the FEI European Championships at Windsor (GBR) two years ago. The 27-year-old German has the unenviable task of following in Gal's record-breaking footsteps, but he showed that his relationship with the great stallion is growing stronger and more secure.
He admitted this evening that he feels under plenty of pressure every time he goes in the ring, but said that being at these championships is no different to anywhere else. "There is always pressure riding Totilas, but he always tries his best for me and he tries not to make mistakes. I have a lot of fun with him every day I ride him", Rath pointed out.
Fun and great sport have been the theme of these championships so far, and Gal, the hero of the 2009 Championships but this time around the man who provided the drop-score for the defending champions from The Netherlands after a tense test with Sisther de Jeu, said "in the warm-up I won, but when I came into the ring it was all gone!". Like the Germans, the Dutch admitted that the British were always the favourites to take the 2011 team title. "It wasn't a surprise to be honest", said Isabell Werth. "We all expected them to be very strong."
Hester and Uthopia were amongst the first group in action this morning and produced a breath-taking test. The crowd gasped with delight as the stallion sprang off the ground in his first extended trot which earned an average score of 9.6, and that set the tone for the rest of the performance which included lovely piaffe, pirouette and tempi changes. The final extended trot was so extravagant that it drew gasps and giggles from the sidelines and 10's from the judges. Hester admitted that he wasn't sure what was happening when he heard people laughing - "I thought maybe there was a dog in the ring or something!" he said afterwards.
But it was just the sheer enjoyment of witnessing a horse and rider working in perfect harmony, and there were many tear-filled eyes, and faces wearing foolish grins, as the British partnership drew to a final halt to rapturous applause. Hester dropped the reins and Uthopia seemed to be smiling himself as he left the arena with an air of total relaxation.
"He felt more controlled that he did at Hickstead where he was almost wildly flamboyant", commented the rider afterwards. "He felt really light in my hand today. He's a 10-year-old but he behaves more like an old man! He used to be the opposite, big and bouncy, but he's settling - this is only his sixth Grand Prix in his life and I'm still finding out about warming him up. I rode him twice today - you see everyone else doing it so you think, yeh I better go back out there and do the same!" he added.
By the time last-line British rider, Bechtolsheimer, went into action the fate of the 2011 gold medals was already decided so she was only riding for an individual finishing spot that would earn her a place amongst the top-30 who will line out in Saturday's Grand Prix Special for the Individual medals. That didn't take the edge off her desire to do well however.
"I wanted to do a great performance, to show that Alf and I are in good form, but he was tense, the noise and the atmosphere got to him and he was really strong today. He was stronger than he has ever been actually, and at one stage I was just holding on for dear life!" Bechtolsheimer said. Her score of 77.280 was good enough for individual fifth place however behind team-mate Dujardin who kicked off the British success yesterday.
Rath was pushed down the order by The Netherlands' Adelinde Cornelissen, last to go in the entire competition with Jerich Parzival and delayed for over 30 minutes after a thunderstorm and lightning strike on the showgrounds led to a temporary halt to the competition. Cornelissen is a cool customer however, and with 81.155 slotted into individual second spot ahead of the German rider. With so many wonderful individual performances over the last few days, it seems spectators are in for a real treat when the action resumes on Saturday and again in Sunday's Freestyle.
Hester must now be hot favourite to head the Special, but this evening he was just savouring the delight of what he, and his team-mates, have achieved so far. "Every now and then you have a dream ride and I had it today, it was very smooth, especially for a horse so young. I've never had one like this before - I'm so glad he came into my life before my retirement. I'm so very lucky to have him. Today was a great day for us, and for our sport at home," he concluded.
GOLD - Great Britain 238.678 : Elmegardens Marquis (Emile Faurie) 70.426, Valegro (Charlotte Dujardin) 78.830, Uthopia (Carl Hester) 82.568, Mistral Hojris (Laura Bechtolsheimer) 77.280.
SILVER - Germany 226.110: Damon Hill NRW (Helen Langehanenberg) 71.079, Donnperignon (Christoph Koschel) 71.444, El Santo NRW (Isabell Werth) 75.213, Totilas (Matthias Alexander Rath) 79.453.
BRONZE - The Netherlands 222.645: Moedwill (Sander Marijnissen) 70.578, Exquis Nadine (Hans Peter Minderhoud) 70.912, Sisther de Jeu (Edward Gal) 70.912, Jerich Parzival (Adelinde Cornelissen) 81.155.
4. Sweden 214.437: Bocelli 1044 (Rose Mathisen) 68.024, Lennix (Cecilia Dorselius) 66.763, Favourit (Tinne Vilhelmson-Silfven) 69.939, Watermill Scandic HBC (Patrik Kittel) 76.474..
5. Spain 211.580 : Faberge (Beatriz Ferrer-Salat) 67.842, Jade De MV (Claudio Castilla Ruiz) 66.900, Fuego de Cardenas (Juan Manuel Munoz Diaz) 73.404, Prestige (Jordi Domingo Coll) 70.334.
6. Denmark 209.985: Jonstrupgaardens Raneue (Lisbeth Seierskilde) 69.970, Exquis Clearwater (Anne Van Olst) 68.632, Blue Hors Romanov (Sune Hansen) 67.660, Digby (Nathalie zu Sayn-Wittgenstein) 71.383.
Full results at http://goo.gl/b23Ods