The Dutch are defending European team champions in Dressage, but the shine hasn’t gone off those Olympic gold medals won by Team Germany last summer and their individual silver medallist from Rio, Isabell Werth, is in the form of her life. With Great Britain’s Charlotte Dujardin no longer presenting a challenge following the retirement of the phenomenal Valegro, can anyone get in the way of a German whitewash at next week’s Longines FEI European Championships 2017 in Gothenburg, Sweden?
A total of 17 teams, and riders from 21 nations, will line out at the Ullevi Stadium in the heart of the charming Swedish city when the action gets underway with the Grand Prix on 22 August. Staged every two years, the story of these Championships has long been about German domination.
There was no team event when the first official edition took place in 1963, but for 40 years between 1965 and 2005 Germany won every team title, their spell broken for the first time by The Netherlands at La Mandria (ESP) in 2007. The Dutch won again at Windsor (GBR) in 2009 and Patrick van der Meer, Hans Peter Minderhoud, Edward Gal and Diederik van Silfhout stood top of the podium in Aachen (GER) at the 2015 edition, where Great Britain took silver and the hosts had to settle for bronze.
Minderhoud, Gal and Van Silfhout are in the Dutch side once again, this time joined by Madeleine Witte Vrees, but Carl Hester is the only remaining member of the 2015 British squad while Isabell Werth is the sole representative of the third-placed German team. Following impressive results on home ground at the recent CHIO Aachen however, Team Germany looks very formidable indeed, Werth named for Gothenburg along with Helen Langehanenberg riding Damsey and Rio team-mates Sonke Rothenberger (Cosmo) who claimed the Longines Rising Star Award in 2016, and Dorothee Schneider who this time will partner Sammy Davis Jr.
Teams from Denmark, Spain, Switzerland and Sweden can be expected to be competitive, but when it comes to the individual European title it’s difficult to look past Werth and her Olympic mare Weihegold. German riders have won 16 individual European gold medals since 1963, no other country comes close to that, and Werth has earned five of those. The format of individual competitions has changed several times down the years and Werth’s first success was with Gigolo in the Grand Prix Special at Donaueschingen (GER) in 1991. Her last was in the Freestyle in La Mandria with Satchmo, and a decade later the most decorated athlete in international equestrian sport arrives at the latest Championship on the crest of yet another wave.
She is the ultimate sportswoman, gritty and determined but with a character and sense of humour that has carried her through all the inevitable ups and downs of sporting life. After her team’s disappointing bronze medal finish on home ground two years ago she said, “we were not as good as we can be, and I think the third place was right. Congratulations to the Dutch and the British - but be careful” she warned with a smile, “we want to come back, we will do our homework and next year we will do a better performance!”
How prophetic was that, because 12 months later she would be standing on the top step of the Rio Olympic podium after bettering the score produced by Britain’s Dujardin and the incredible Valegro for the highest individual mark in the team event. The British duo posted a new Olympic record score of 93.857 to win the individual Freestyle in which Werth had to settle for silver with 89.071, but as one partnership was on the rise the other was coming to the end of a fairytale career.
At the FEI World Cup™ Dressage Final 2017 in Omaha (USA) in March, Werth cruised to her third title with consummate ease after a long 10-year wait, and next week will be the one to beat. Opposition should include the popular British partnership of Carl Hester with Nip Tuck, and the on-form Danish duo of Cathrin Dufour with Atterupgaards Cassidy and Anna Kasprzak with Donnperignon. The Netherlands’ Gal and Glock’s Voice and Minderhoud with Glock’s Johnson, Sweden’s Patrick Kittel with Delaunay and Tinne Vilhelmson Silfven with Paridon Magi and Switzerland’s Marcela Krinke Susmelj and Smeyers Molberg are likely to be also in the mix.
And of course Irish pocket-rocket Judy Reynolds cannot be overlooked either. She finished just off the podium in fourth place in Omaha with the brilliant Vancouver K and if she can perfect that incredibly complicated floorplan she has devised for her Freestyle then another extraordinary piece of Dressage history will be written. Because the 36-year-old, who is 14th in the world rankings, is the only Irish rider competing at the top end of the sport, so putting her name amongst the list of European greats would be some achievement for both herself and her small country.