The inaugural Exquis World Dressage Masters debuted at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Club on Friday, Jan. 30. The brisk weather made for some frisky horses but the USA's star from the 2008 Olympic Games shone brighter than ever. Steffen Peters, who traveled from San Diego, Calif. for the occasion with Aikiko Yamazaki's Ravel put on a performance that was very much the best of the Grand Prix - and the highest score of Peters' career.
Against some of the world's best riders, including reigning Olympic Gold medalist Anky van Grunsven, Peters showed the world an improved version of his horse, who, in his fourth place effort at the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong, was already seriously impressive. Undefeated until the Olympic Games, Peters started a new winning streak in 2009, and took home the biggest slice of the €10,000 ($13,000) for the Grand Prix. The Grand Prix Special and the Grand Prix Freestyle on Saturday take the total prize money for the event to €100,000 (US$130,000). What happened to Anky and Painted Black?
"All I can say is that the horse makes it look good," said Peters. "He was so honest today, he was very forward and very, very supple. Sometimes you go in there and some tests are more work but today it was honestly pure fun. He offered every movement and it was honestly one of the best rides I've ever had."
On a score of 75.574%, Peters won easily and looks poised for another crowd-pleasing freestyle Saturday night under the lights in the International Arena. Ravel, who at 13 has matured in the last six months, was unfazed by his surroundings, attentive and accurate throughout the test. A leaner, stronger version of the horse who wowed the world in his first Grand Prix appearance outside the US at the Olympic Games did not disappoint his fans at home.
"This has the feeling of a major championship," said Peters, who was recently named USEF Equestrian of the Year for 2008. "Its amazing to compete in a horse community like Wellington. Using this format for the first time, and with more than $150,000 prize money on the line, the competition came from across the globe and was fierce, but no one was getting close to Ravel.
"]Van Grunsven, who was a strong favorite, had a very uncharacteristic test on Painted Black and barely made the cut to the freestyle. The beautiful, black Dutch gelding was unsettled in the atmosphere and then very surprisingly, van Grunsven made two errors of course. Their score of 66.936% was a shock for everyone.
"I don't even want to think about it anymore," said the Dutch rider after her test. "It was his first outdoor, he was too wild. He started to spook, but in the warming up he was really, really good so I thought ok I'm fine and then stupid me forgot the reinback... and then he didn't really take to the passage/piaffe. Then got really scared on the short side by the judges. I don't know why he's never afraid and never spooky. The rest of the test I was really trying to get him there and because its a new test I was just focusing on him because he was so afraid and I completely screwed up myself. I did the wrong test two times. I'm very embarrassed, it will never happen again. He was completely different than normal."
Canadian Ashley Holzer and Pop Art put in a very polished performance, this pair also looked to have benefited from their trip to Hong Kong last summer. They finished on a score of 71.319% but Holzer thinks there is even more there.
"I think that getting used to this new test takes a little bit. I didn't push, push, push I just went for a clean test," said Holzer. "I wouldn't say it was his most, most, most brilliant Test. My goal today was to ride clean. If you looked at my scores I stayed at around 70-71 throughout my test, and I think that is what I was aiming for."
Hans-Peter Minderhoud, from The Netherlands was third with Exquis Escapado on 71.149%.
The top eight riders had the choice to ride in the Freestyle for 60,000 Euros and the remaining 11 will perform the Grand Prix Special Saturday afternoon for 30,000 Euros.
Two American combinations will be performing in the freestyle: Jane Hannigan and Maksymillian, and Peters and Ravel. Michael Barisone declared for the Grand Prix Special with Neruda which allowed for van Grunsven to move into the Freestyle.
Peters knows, that despite van Grunsven's disaster today, she won't go down in the freestyle without a fight.
"Let's face it Anky did this in Amsterdam too, the first day didn't go so well and then it was a hell of a freestyle," said Peters. "The freestyle has been working great so far, but we have to step it up again for tomorrow."
Photo: Steffen Peters riding Ravel to victory in the Grand Prix at the Exquis World Dressage Masters at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center Friday.