With a winning score of 73.40%, Debbie McDonald and Brentina were back in form for the Grand Prix Special, Class 2 of the USET Selection Trials for the World Equestrian Games, on Sunday, June 2, 2002, at USET headquarters in Gladstone, New Jersey. After their uncharacteristic fifth place finish in the Grand Prix on Saturday (67.840%), the pair has moved into third place overall. "I knew I needed a good test today," said McDonald. "I was incredibly nervous and upset that I didn't score better yesterday." She said that overnight she rode the test 50 or more times in her mind. Her performance in the Special earned the highest percentage the judges have awarded in the Trials so far. "It all felt smooth and harmonious," said McDonald. "She was light to the leg. I was really happy with it."
In the Grand Prix on Saturday, Brentina's audible, labored breathing caused McDonald to be concerned about her condition. She said that it is normal for Brentina to "make noise breathing" but that the air in New Jersey was "th icker" and the mare was struggling yesterday. McDonald said she worried about Brentina, her partner for the last eight years, not because of their score but because she felt something was wrong with her. "I've had her since she was three," McDonald said of the 16.2-hand, 11-year-old Hanoverian mare owned by Peggy and Parry Thomas. "I know her like I know myself."
Treatment from the veterinarian overnight resulted in Brentina's improved breathing during the Special. Last year at the Festival of Champions, Brentina suffered a case of hives. "We've had a 'helluva' time here. We're not fond of the east," joked McDonald. She said during the upcoming week she would work Brentina a little more and that by next weekend she expected the mare to have shed a few pounds, be more fit, more acclimated, and ready to compete.
Judge Hanne Valentin of Denmark, the judge at C for the Special, said that what she liked the most about McDonald's test was the fluency and that there were no mistakes. "It's what we like to see," she said, and told McDonald, "You really did a beautiful job."
Judge Joseph Knipp of Germany who presided at B commented that Brentina is a very good horse. "You should show a bit more sparkle and energy," he told McDonald. "She is absolutely safe." He said that as a rider, McDonald was never rude and always kind but that she should try for a livelier ride.
McDonald responded, "As a rider I should dare to do that."
The exchange of information between judges and rider that occurred during the press conference after the competition was unique; both judges said that they found it peculiar to the United States that the officials were kept secluded from the riders at all times. Judge Hanne mentioned that the reception held after the Grand Prix on Saturday for the riders, grooms and owners did not include an invitation for the judges; they were served a separate luncheon on the second floor of the USET hall. "That's strange for us coming here," said Valentin. Valentin said that in Europe, they would have attended the luncheon downstairs and talked to the riders to tell them where they need to improve. Both judges said that socializing with riders does not influence or affect their judging.
Guenter Seidel summed up the 'sequestered' judge situation, "We should change that."
Guenter Seidel on Dick and Jane Brown's Nikolaus 7 placed second in the Special with a score of 72.28%. Combined with his second place score in the Grand Prix (70.440%), Seidel is now in second place overall.
The judges also addressed Seidel's ride. Judge Knipp said that Seidel and Nikolaus 7 had a "better performance yesterday. It was not as sparkling today." Judge Valentin concurred, "It was not as expressive as yesterday," she said, then added, "But it was a very high level. We're not being negative, we're talking details."
Seidel said that Nikolaus was more tired in the Special but is exuberant by nature, so when he felt that the horse was not quite active enough after he started the test, he did not want to take a chance in the arena to urge him on too much and risk over-exciting him. Seidel said he was pleased with how relaxed the horse was. "He should be more brilliant. It's always been a problem for that horse to be too exuberant."
Blinks First Overall After First Weekend
In third place in the Special were Sue Blinks and Flim Flam, scoring 71.56%. The pair is in first place overall for the Selection Trials.
Blinks and Flim Flam had two highly unusual mistakes in the Special - in the transition from passage to canter, Flim Flam took the wrong lead and had to add a flying change; but even more uncharacteristic were the bobbles in the ones. "I have to say we're having flying change issues," said Blinks good-naturedly. "We have to clear that up before next weekend." She said she did not know what the problem stemmed from, but that she planned on fixing it before next Sunday's Freestyle where she performs a long steady stream of ones - Flim Flam's specialty. "I plan to do them and get them!" said Blinks.
The judges did not award any 10s in the Special, but Valentin said she awarded two scores of 9; the first one went to Betsy Steiner on Rainier for the first halt, salute and out; Knipp said he also awarded his sole 9 for this same instance. Valentin awarded only one other 9, and that was to Seidel for the extension and transition to passage, which she described as "so soft and smooth - beautiful."
Judge Knipp said, "Fifty percent of the whole test is extensions. The riders should work more on these transitions." If they are supple in the transitions, they will have better scores, according to Knipp.
The Judges' Contibution
The judges discussed two of the 'resistances' seen in the Special - tail wringing and short necks. In regard to tail wringing, Knipp said judges have to decide what is resistance and what is just a habit of the horse citing Steiner's ride on Rainier in which the horse never stopped wringing his tail. Apart from the tail, judges watch for ears, eyes, teeth grinding and other signs to determine whether there is true resistance (which lowers the score) or as in Rainier's case, it is merely habit and does not affect the score. Steiner and Rainier placed fifth in the Special, scoring 67.80%. When it came to 'short necks' the judges concurred that over-bent is marked down because the horse is refusing or fighting the rider's hands.
Overall, compared to last year, there has been constant improvement in horses and riders in this country, according to Knipp. He gave a point of advice to the riders: read the judge's marks on the tests; if the horse gets a good score on a movement such as piaffe or passage, don't practice that but instead work on the things the horse can't do. With the horses that are on top now, if they stay sound he feels that the US has a good chance at the WEG.
Judge Valentin quipped that in Denmark, they are "scared of your team" because "we are fighting for the Bronze."
Knipp and Valentin pointed out that they maintain the same standard of judging whether they are in the US or in Europe. "[The country] doesn't matter for us," said Knipp. "I speak for all judges." Valentin seconded the opinion, "It will always be the same basic standard; always the same. What we give you here will be the same as in Europe." Knipp agreed, concluding, "It makes no sense to change the standard."
Top Horses Off to Aachen After Trials
Spectator attendance this weekend was light compared to previous years when the Trials were held in conjunction with the Festival of Champions. The USET changed the dates for the Selection Trials in order to accommodate the riders going to Aachen to compete. "That was a decision our coach, Klaus Balkenhol made," said Blinks.
Seidel said that it was important for the riders to compete in Europe whether it was Aachen or another show; they needed the experience and exposure. McDonald said that because she has a mare, she does not plan to go to Aachen if she makes the team because of the 60-day rule quarantine restrictions. "The time frame won't allow it," she said, pointing out that it was too close to the WEG.
Seidel said that the lack of spectators was disappointing, not so much for the riders but for the sponsors supporting the sport; he added that it was great to have a crowd. Plans are in the works to publicize the final weekend, according to Classic Communications, the USET Public Relations firm.
Competition continues next weekend (June 8-9) with the Grand Prix and Grand Prix Freestyle to determine the six riders who will continue to vie for the four-member final team to represent the U.S. at the WEG in Spain in September.
Mary Hilton for DressageDaily.com