Up Close and Personal with Akiko Yamazaki on the 2011 World Dressage Masters Experience

Wed, 03/30/2011 - 14:45
2011 World Dressage Masters

By all accounts the 2011 World Dressage Masters CDI5*, held 9 - 11 March in Palm Beach, was a huge success. This is quite a turnaround for a show that was canceled in December of 2010 by its previous organizers, who cited their inability to guarantee the participation of the top European riders. However, feeling very strongly about the importance of the event, Akiko Yamazaki and Steffen Peters took the lead to help make the U.S. leg of the prestigious WDM possible.

The Masters is the only five star FEI dressage competition in the North America and it is the richest competition. Riders from the United States, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Germany, Sweden, The Netherlands and Poland all competed for the 100,000 Euros in prize money. The event marked personal bests for many of the riders, including Steffen Peters and Ravel (USA), who won both the Grand Prix and the Grand Prix Kur; Michal Rapcewicz and Randon (Poland) who claimed the first victory ever for his country in a CDI5* event; and Tinne Vilhelmson-Silfven and Favourit (Sweden) receiving their highest score to date in a Freestyle.

Eurodressage's U.S. correspondent Sheryl Ross caught up with Akiko to get her impressions of the whole experience.

Sheryl Ross: Why did you feel so strongly about preserving the 2011 WDM even though the top European riders could not attend?

Akiko Yamazaki: I felt that it sent the wrong message to cancel one of the only shows to which Europeans actually fly over to compete on U.S. soil. The U.S. has been striving to be on the map and we have been successful at the high performance levels, but we have always had to prove ourselves "over there." WDM provides the rare opportunity for U.S. competitors to compete against the top riders of the world without the usual burden that comes with international travel. Beyond the competitors, the audience benefits tremendously from the first-hand experience of watching international top riders.

I do not understand how anyone can say that the line of competitors we had were not top riders. Tinne Vilhemson-Silfven is a multi-time Olympian for Sweden. Anne van Olst represented Denmark in the Olympics. Valentina Truppa is one of Italy's top riders. Christa Laarakkers, Anja Ploenzke, are all in the top 30 in the FEI Rankings. They are all top riders in their native countries. If someone does not recognize them as top riders, they need to educate themselves more!

SR: What type of feedback are you getting from the sponsors, the competitors and the attendees?

AY: The best word I can use to describe the mood at the show is "exuberance." I believe everyone worked towards making the show a success and it was! Mr. (John) Goodman from the International Polo Club was so generous to host a dinner at his home for the riders and sponsors and pledged his continued support. Carol Cohen spearheaded the host committee and her touch was present everywhere. Tony Kies from Exquis (The Masters is his brainchild) and Anne Van Olst's sponsor, was present and looked very happy at the turn of events. Antonia Ax:son Johnson, Master's sponsor, and Tinne Vilhemson mentioned to me that they were very pleased with not only how the Masters turned out but with their whole experience of being in Wellington for the winter circuit. Hats off to the show organizers, Noreen Sullivan and John Flanagan from Classic Dressage and John van der Laar from Masters/Sportsbizz, who pulled it off! They seemed happy and relieved it was a huge success after all.

SR: The show was held in a different venue than previous years, the Palm Beach County Jim Brandon Equestrian Center. How did the venue workout? What was the response from both the riders and the audience?

AY: Apparently the venue is owned by the county and is normally not a fancy place. The transformation was very successful because from the footing to the decor, it looked like a world-class venue. The night of the Freestyle, the venue was beautifully decorated with projected images on the sides of the arena. The seats were arranged around the ring about 15 feet away, so one could see the action up close. In addition, flat-screen TV monitors were placed around the arena so the spectators had a view of every movement. The tables overflowed with flowers, wine and sumptuous food. What was very obvious was the effort and care that went into making the venue as welcoming and beautiful as it could be. The riders all commented on the footing feeling very good and appreciated the energy from the audience. The audience was very supportive, appreciative and happy to be there!

SR: Some critics claim that because the top European Riders did not compete that the show was not a success, because one of the main goals of the WDM is to bring together the top riders in the world. What are your thoughts on this?

AY: I would like to understand what definition the critics are using to determine who is a top rider and who is not. If representing their country in the Olympics and being ranked in the top 30 in the world doesn't make you a top rider, I wonder what does?

SR: From your perspective what was the experience like for the European riders who did compete?

AY: Every year, I believe all the riders who have come to Palm Beach have enjoyed it tremendously. The "equine infrastructure" in the area is very unique and I think all competitors appreciate the setting. The show grounds was also hosting a CDI, whose PSG class had 60 entries. It took two days to complete the class. The energy was palpable through the week.

SR: Will you stay active with the WDM?

AY: Yes!

SR: Why do you think there aren't more top dressage competitions, like the WDM, in the United States? Do you see a day when there will be more of them?

AY: It takes a tremendous amount of energy and resources to mount something like this. I give Tony Kies and John van de Laar from Holland a lot of credit for coming up with the concept, which is international in scale. Today, the Masters has partners in Sweden, Germany, Austria and the U.S. And yes, it has to be financially viable but the most important ingredient for success is passion and genuine love for the sport. Otherwise, it becomes an event without a soul.

Given that the Freestyles were the only sold-out events during the World Cup and World Equestrian Games hosted on U.S. soil, I believe the U.S. dressage audience is very loyal and hungry for more world-class events.

SR: Will you support other top dressage competitions in the future?

AY: I have been supporting some West Coast CDI shows. I think it is very important to support the major shows, not just so that your horse can compete in them, but also because it elevates the sport.

SR: Have you given any thought to creating your own show with a competition star status of a 4 or 5?

AY: I think that task is best left to those who know what they are doing! I will keep doing what I know a little bit of, which is to ride and show myself, and keep being a sponsor of Steffen and Shannon Peters.

SR: What did you learn from this experience?

AY: Antonia Ax:son Johnson said to me that their working students' chins started to lift up week by week as they experienced the Americans' "can do" attitude. It was so refreshing for me to hear something positive about a very positive American trait. The love and passion that we have for the horse and dressage is universal and everyone involved had a "can do" attitude. When everyone has this attitude, the results can be truly uplifting!

SR: The show for you personally was a huge success, with Steffen and Ravel thrilling audiences with two spectacular performances, earning a personal best, 80.872% in the Grand Prix Test CDI5* and garnering the highest score ever awarded at the WDM Palm Beach with 84.550% in the Grand Prix Freestyle. You must be very proud. What's next for Steffen and Ravel?

AY: I am very proud. I will never forget the jumbotron flashing the big "80". We are hoping to go to Aachen and a few other shows in Europe in the summer.

SR: And finally, I know a lot of people are wondering, what happens when Ravel retires? Do you have any plans? Are you looking for a successor?

AY: When Ravel retires, he will eat carrots every day and eat grass until he wants to come inside. It will be very difficult to find another horse to fill his shoes. I keep asking Steffen when he will retire so I can retire from sponsoring. So far, he says he has a few more years left in him!

Article by Sheryl Ross © Eurodressage.com
Photo © Sue Stickle

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