Lexington, KY - Simply put, it was the greatest night of dressage action in the history of the sport on American soil.
It came down to a dashing Dutchman, a young English woman and the superstar American rider - all who continually broke and set records in a week that saw the world turn its attention to the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Lexington, KY.
For the Americans, it was a double-dose of new heights achieved in the sport. Steffen Peters and his incredible partner, Ravel, earned two hard-fought Bronze medals in a battle royale against two of the sport's biggest hitters at this World Championships - Edward Gal and his magical Moorlands Totilas and Laura Bechtolsheimer and Mistral Hojris. Gal absolutely shattered scores and pulled off the ultimate hat trick by taking Team Gold, Grand Prix Gold and the Gold medal in the Grand Prix Freestyle. His opponent from Great Britain took home three Silver medals in her own right. It was an incredible spectacle for dressage fans, and it won't likely be seen again for a very long time.
Eleven nations made the cut to compete in the Freestyle - Austria, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany (three riders), Great Britain (two riders), The Netherlands (two riders), Poland, Spain, Switzerland and the United States. But it was the Dutch, English and Americans who truly came away from these Games with all the glory.
Peters and Ravel, owned by Akiko Yamazaki and Four Winds Farm, led the U.S. effort with his usual style and grace. He had admitted earlier in the week just how much his near miss of the medal podium at the 2008 Olympics had affected him. Those hard knocks were seemingly healed with his Grand Prix Special medal.
"I was simply beside myself," he said.
Now, that is all a distant memory. Redemption came in the form of two Bronze medals that became the first for an American dressage rider at the World Championships. Its impact on the sport in the U.S. will be felt for years to come.
"It was amazing...it's absolutely amazing how the standard has risen. I have to say there was just as much pressure on Ravel and me for the Individual medal in the Grand Prix Special. Let's face it. We didn't have a medal in the United States for over 70 years. That was absolutely amazing. That was icing on the cake," he said. "Tonight, we sprinkled a little bit more medals on the top of that icing, and I think that's a pretty good looking cake!"
The pair was near foot perfect in their test, and the appreciative audience was quick to award them with thunderous applause.
"I'm so thankful for an amazing horse that I'm allowed to ride. I'm a lucky guy to have such a horse," he said humbly. "You can't do well by yourself, and I have such an amazing support team. Many thanks to the owners Jerry [Yang] and Akiko [Yamazaki], my coach at home and the love of my life, Shannon. What an amazing week to share a couple of medals with the whole group."
Peters also got special notice for returning to the ring for the Honor Round when he made the personal decision to wear a safety helmet. This was in honor of his friend, Courtney King-Dye, who suffered a devastating riding accident and has fought for months to make her recovery.
"I sent an e-mail to Courtney today saying that tonight I would dedicate the ride to her. She has inspired me...and I felt like what she overcame in the last six months was so extremely inspiring that I made the ride for here tonight."
It was an exceptional gesture, and the perfect ending to his medal-winning ride that scored an 84.900.
Of his mount's performance Peters said, "He came in with good extensions and was quite relaxed in the first halt. I was really pleased with the first part of the test. There was a slight mistake in the first part of the tempis," he said. "I think this is pretty much the ultimate Freestyle for him. We changed a few things around, and we even tried different music. It's just like a good movie. You know the first one is always the best one, and then the sequels are sometimes not as good, so we stuck to the original one and enhanced the music a little bit more. I talked to the person who does the music, and I told them to pump it up a bit. I got it back, and I said, 'You pumped it up, but now we have to turbo-charge it. That's what she did, and I'm really happy with the outcome. And, it looks like the judges were, too."
All week long, Gal and Moorlands Totilas, a 10-year-old KWPN stallion, have dazzled the dressage fans at the Rolex Arena with their foot perfect work. Their Grand Prix and Grand Prix Special scores proved they had come to the Games off the momentum of the amazing year they have had in competition. Coming into the final test of these World Equestrian Games, they looked the picture of preparedness. The big question of the evening was whether or not they would pull a hat trick and take home a third Gold medal to add to their Team and Grand Prix ones.
"Yesterday we practiced with no one at all, and tonight it was a little bit different," he said of the atmosphere that affected his horse. "That's why he went into canter in my extended trot...but we all have to deal with it, and it went well." The misstep was the only blemish in an otherwise stellar performance. The pair earned a 91.800 for the Gold.
"When I came here, I knew I could do it," said Gal of the possible three Gold-medal sweep. "But, it also has to happen. It's quite difficult, and there was a lot of pressure on me...I don't know what to say because it's just sinking in a little bit. I did it with Totilas, and that's just amazing."
Interestingly, a bit of a rumor that had been circulating around the dressage ring was put to a final answer. Had Totilas been bred to superstar American dressage horse Brentina? The rumor was quickly put to rest by Gal who cheekily said, "That is not a rumor."
Britain's Laura Bechtolsheimer and Mistral Hojris, a 15-year-old Danish Warmblood gelding, had also wowed the crowds this week with their confident work that showed exactly how far they had come over the last year or so. In fact, the pair set their own country's record during the Grand Prix Special when they posted an 81.708 to bring home Britain's first-ever Individual Silver medal from the WEG.
She came into the Freestyle with something to prove, and she did just that posting an amazing 85.350 for her guitar-laden, Western influenced performance.
"First, I'm obviously really, really happy. To get another medal is pretty indescribable," she said. "When I went into tonight, I was a bit worried because my horse has always found freestyles a little bit more difficult to deal with...frankly, he really put in a brilliant effort to stay with me and concentrate tonight. I had two little mistakes in the two-times and a little mistake at the end in my piaffe. That kind of thing doesn't normally happen, but he showed his true colors. The fact that as soon as he realized, 'Oops, sorry Mommy!' he straight away picked up and carried on and I'm very, very proud of my horse."
All-in-all, it was an unforgettable night of dressage, and those lucky enough to have been witness to it will certainly be talking about it for years to come.
For complete results, visit http://www.alltechfeigames.com/competition/results/ResultsDetail.aspx?calendarId=4&date=1001&round=Grand+Prix+Freestyle&competition=Dressage&competitionNumber=3&id=178.
Photo: Steffen Peters and Ravel. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.