Valegro Still Got Swagger, Wins Grand Prix at 2016 Olympic Games

Thu, 08/11/2016 - 22:45
2016 Olympic Games

The prodigal son has returned. World, Olympic and European Champion Valegro proved that he still got swagger and won the Grand Prix at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Thursday 11 August. With a hammer score of 85.071% he showed that he is still a league of his own and fended off the German power train with Sprehe, Schneider and Werth, who took places two to four, all with 80% + scores.

The 14-year old Dutch warmblood Valegro (by Negro x Gerschwin) returned to the show scene after a one-year break from competition. His last "serious" performance was at the 2015 European Championships in Aachen in August one year ago, where he was beginning to show signs of wear and tear. Owner and trainer Carl Hester correctly decided to give him a big break and since then the super star only did a dress rehearsal at the all-British home CDI in Hartpury with no critical spectators or solid competition in sight. Valegro would be the jack-in-the box at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games with no one having a clue in what condition or fitness he would be.

Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro have won it all. As the world record holder in all three tests, Dujardin is riding her final competition in Rio on Valegro as he will be retired from shows after the Games. The owners' duo Carl Hester and Roly Luard decided to retire the horse at the peak of his career instead of dragging the horse on to shows for self glorification. A wise decision but also a sad one as today the horse proved he still is the best in the world. The effortlessness, power and style the duo displays is unparallelled by any combination at the moment.

The weather was wonderful today for the second leg of the Grand Prix. Sunshine and a lightly overcast sky, 22 ° C and a cool breeze were more Brazilian than the dreary "Eurostyle" weather experienced on Wednesday. Valegro and Dujardin were the ones to watch and lived up to the expectations even though there were a few niggling imperfections which haven't been there before. Especially the quality of the piaffe has decreased.

They began with a perfect halt at entry, but then the horse got slightly crooked in the hindquarters to the left on the rest of the centerline as well as on the first diagonal in the extended trot. Valegro's lower lip was trembling a bit it would have been nicer to see him more quiet in the mouth, but he was always very consistent at the vertical with Dujardin keeping the hands steady and quiet. The half passes were outstanding, the second trot extension powerful even though there was a tiny fraction of irregularity to be noted. The first passage was soft and sweet, but could have travelled more forward, the first piaffe was a bit too forward and there was a slight loss of rhythm in the transition out. The extended walk had one to two hooves overtrack, the collected walk got a bit short-long in front but was clear in the rhythm. The second passage was lovely but the horse needed to show more forward energy. In piaffe, Valegro has nice sit and activity but he crossed the hindlegs and stepped on his own hooves. The canter work was high class with straight two tempi changes, a big zig zag, superb one tempi changes and beautiful balance and sit in the left pirouette. The final trot extensions was big and scopy but not 100% pure in regularlity. The final centerline was well ridden even though it showed clearly from behind that Valegro now crosses the hindlegs in piaffe.

The judges panel, consisting of Peter Holler (GER), Susanne Baarup (DEN), Gary Rockwell (USA), Stephen Clarke (GBR), Maribel Alonso (MEX), Thomas Lang (AUT) and Eddy De Wolff (NED), rewarded the ride with 85.071%. Their marks ranged between 82.900 and 86.900%.

“I can’t help but smile when I ride Valegro," said Dujardin. “Today I didn’t even have to ask him to do a thing, he just did it himself! He enjoyed it and it felt easy, he just tries his heart out.” The 31-year-old is really enjoying her second Olympic experience. “Some people come to the Olympics under pressure, but they still have to do the same as at any other show so I’m enjoying it and having the time of my life. I’m in the village with the world’s best athletes. ‘Oh there’s Roger Federer, oh there’s Nadal, or Murray’ and I’m star-struck! I’ve been pin-swapping and everything, it’s just great fun!”

Bröring-Sprehe Leads German Power Train

The Germans are on top form this year and on a clear gold medal course with three combinations scoring above 80% and its fourth one still at a convincing 77% with room for more. The 2015 European Championship silver medal winner Kristina Bröring-Sprehe was the locomotive of the German train also in the Grand Prix in Rio. Aboard her 15-year old Hanoverian stallion Desperados (by De Niro x Wolkenstein II) she placed second with 82.257%.

Bröring-Sprehe rode controlled trot extensions, big half passes and a powerful and well engaged first piaffe-passage. The walk part was very well ridden with proper relaxation and stretch over the back. In the second piaffe-passage the horse struggled a bit with the rhythm. Especially in the second piaffe he snorted a few time and pulled on the bit. The two tempi changes were ground covering but slightly laboured and in the expressive, uphill extended canter he was a bit overbent to the right. The zig zag had a bobble but the one tempi changes were a highlight: very uphill and straight. Desperados turned very small, well balanced pirouettes and showed a powerful final trot extension, but overall it would be nice to see the rider keeping her hands closer to the withers instead of up high with long reins. The passage on the final centerline was expressive, but in the piaffe at X he got wide behind. Their individual scores ranged from 80.400% to 83.800%.

 “It was really good today but we did make a few mistakes. In the piaffe we lost rhythm and there was a mistake in the zig-zag," said Sprehe. "I’m very proud of him. It was his first time on a flight coming here and he was a bit nervous at first but he’s really happy here now. We are here over eight days so we are happy to begin. We have have a very strong team and Sonke (Rothenberger) and Dorothee (Schneider) were great yesterday. I hope Isabell will do the same!”

The overnight leader, Dorothee Schneider and the Hanoverian gelding Showtime, ended up in third place overall with 80.986%. Team mate Isabell Werth and Christina Arns-Krogman's 11-year old Oldenburg mare Weihegold (by Don Schufro x Sandro Hit) finished fourth. They were the last pair to go today and took advantage of that best starting place as they were generously scored. While Weihegold did show improvement, especially in the contact with the bit -- she wasn't baring her teeth so much -- Werth rode her on the very safe side but still got generous marks. The extended trots, for instance, were very conservative and hardly had any overtrack but the 8s generously flashed on the board. The last extended trot had a clear mistake in the rhythm, but the 8s kept coming. Also the walk was quite poor today. The collected walk was tense and very short, but still earned her 7.5 to 8. Still, there were many highlights too. The passage work was top class and the piaffe had good sit, but the transitions still need to be smoother. The extended canter was uphill but could have had more swing over the back. The zig zag was outstanding. The two tempi's good, but the ones need more ground cover. The pirouettes were correctly executed and small. Weihegold had a good rhythm going in the final piaffe at X but got a bit wide behind. She scored 80.643% with individual scores going from 78.00% to 81.700%.

German is currently leading the team ranking with an average score of 81.295%. “If there is no drama, which we all know can happen, we will hopefully take home the gold!” said five-time Olympic gold medallist Isabell Werth (47).

British on German Heels

The British team riders are provisionally standing in second place with a team average of 79.252%. Dujardin's winning score contributed greatly to that result, but the other team riders put in equally impressive riders. Carl Hester is a key figure for British dressage. Not only does he own Valegro with Roly Luard, he also trains Charlotte. He coaches Fiona Bigwood, who rode Britain's second best score in the Grand Prix (77.157%), and he himself contributed the third score riding Jane de la Mare's Dutch warmblood Nip Tuck (by Don Ruto). Oh by the way, he has also been coaching Britain's fourth team rider Spencer Wilton here at the Games, just to show his relevance to Team GB.

Carl had to deal with a typically spooky Nip Tuck who shied a few times in the corner at H. Hester regulated the trot work very well though, but the entire test was lacking some electricity. The half passes were huge in overtrack but slow, the rein back was good. The trot extensions were too conservative and lacked overstep. In the extended walk the bay gelding had two hooves overtrack. The piaffes were nicely on the spot, but the transitions out are still difficult. The extended canter was strong, the tempi changes very clean, and the zig zag good. Hester showed what beautiful dressage is like! The pirouette right needed more airtime. The final centerline was sweet but overall Nip Tuck just needed more pep in his step to truly shine. They scored 75.529% to finish 15th. 

"Frustratingly a Pokemon at P," Hester joked after his test. "A lot of points lost but lots to like! Tomorrow is another day." In the mixed zone, Hester further said, "he (Nip Tuck) is probably the biggest horse here, but he has the heart of a mouse! He is good with noise but very visual. It was probably something ridiculous that spooked him, like a flower moving in a pot - maybe he needs glasses!” Hester joked. "He went fantastic all week and we had ten minutes in the arena this morning and he was totally relaxed. He had me completely fooled, I didn’t expect this and I’m gutted!”

Americans Back on the Podium?

As soon as he got hired as U.S team trainer, Robert Dover made a clear statement that his personal goal is to bring the U.S.A back on the podium. He hasn't shied from making the bold statement that the U.S. would win gold at the 2016 Olympics. That dream might still be wishful thinking this year, but America has certainly come back with a vengeance. Their team is brimming with potential and they always have routinier Steffen Peters to rely on for high scores.

Laura Graves and the 15-year old Dutch warmblood Verdades (by Florett As) are spearheading this American dream of returning to the podium. They placed fifth in the Grand Prix behind Dujardin and the Germans with 78.071%. The very sympathetic duo showed real highlights as well as working points. The trot extensions were a bit hurried so that Verdades did not achieve sufficient overtrack. The half passes, however, were fantastic. The passage was elegant, but in the first piaffe the horse leaned on the hind quarters. In the second piaffe he developed a bit more balance and sit, even though those hindlegs continue to move out instead of under. The second passage was bouncy and huge, but not always as regular. Graves rode gorgeous pirouettes, especially the left one, and the straight one tempi's are so nice to watch, even though one change was clearly short behind. In the extended canter he toppled a bit on the forehand. The final centerline was well ridden. Verdades is nicely foaming and chewing on the bit and the contact with the bridle and steady and relaxed, the way it should be. Their individual marks went from 76.800% to 79.300%.

"I had my horse out here this morning for a little bit of very light schooling and he was so quiet and so relaxed, I popped on him again this afternoon and he was very quiet and then the wind popped up and the plastic bags around the speaker started going and he just burst into action so I was kind of happy with that," said Graves. "I didn’t get a chance to settle him down before he came in (to the arena) and unfortunately I didn’t ride clean today but super-happy with the feeling and the way the training is reflecting in the arena."
Can’t say enough good things about our team. Team has a lot of different meanings, and for us as equestrians in particular I think the Olympics is very special. We have the team of our horses and ourselves, and then we have our trainers and our friends and family, and we have each other - I couldn’t ask to be here with a better group!”

Steffen Peters and Akiko Yamazaki's 14-year old Westfalian Legolas (by Laomedon x Florestan II) were sixth with 77.614%. The pair has pulled out all the stops and put in their best effort. Legolas is quite limited in the trot work and lacks elasticity and swing in the top line, but today he showed fairly good trot extensions and huge crossing of the legs in the half passes. The rein back was good, but the second trot extension got uneven. The bounce he lacks in the collected trot, abounds in the passage. It is rhythmical and springy. In the extended walk the gelding could develop a longer stride, the collected was very clear in the 4-beat rhythm. The second piaffe-passage combination was delightful although Legolas showed a tiny bit of back-stepping in piaffe. The energy was good though. The two tempi changes needed to be more straight and the extended canter more swing over the back, but the pirouettes were nicely executed. There was a mistake in the one tempi changes. The final centerline had good energy and engagement but Legolas got crooked to the right in the piaffe at X. The judges's marks ranged from 76.200% to 79.700%.

“This was one of the biggest tests of my horse’s life and it’s difficult, but there wasn’t a single point we gave away," said Steffen Peters. “He delivered the test I dreamed of for my team! It’s going to be tight here now for the team placings though.”

The U.S.A. is now standing in a provisional third place with a team average of 76.971%

Dutch Battling for Bronze

While the U.S.A. might be back on the podium if they can keep up those performances, the Dutch are truly on their heels and the difference between the third and fourth place is minimal. Holland is now standing fourth with 76.043%, less than one percent behind the U.S of A.

Hans Peter Minderhoud and the KWPN licensed stallion Johnson (by Jazz x Flemmingh) were the stars in Rotterdam and bronze medalists at the 2015 European Championships, but in the Rio Grand Prix they were not yet reaching this same peak level. Minderhoud is known for riding his horses with much forward energy and expression, but today Johnson was a bit over tempo. In the extensions the rider was visibly spurring the bay stallion forward. The half passes were very big and active, but especially the left one was so steep and fast that the horse lost the regularity. Johnson did not fully relax in walk today and the overtrack was limited, also in the collected he became tense and short. The side silhouette in passage is gorgeous. The horse is very elegant with nice knee action and lightfootedness, but in the piaffe he gets too narrow behind and lacks proper sit on the hindquarters. The extended canter and zig zag were highlights, the one tempi changes were straight but the horse dropped behind the vertical. The pirouette right was the best one of the two. The contact with the bridle was not ideal. Johnson did not chew the bit nor produce any foam. He opened the lips and showed his tongue. The pair scored 76.957% to finish 9th overall. The judges seemed puzzled what to do with this test: their scores ranged from 73.900% to 79.900%.

Diederik van Silfhout and his cute 11-year old Dutch warmblood stallion Arlando (by Paddox) were the second best scorers for Holland with 75.900% and a 13th place. They bay stallion is such an elegant, pretty dancer, but his way of moving is mechanic. His had tremendous flash in the trot extensions, but achieves zero overtrack. The half passes were large and graceful, but in the rein back he dove with his head. The passage is very elegant and the piaffe has much lift in the legs but is not really rhythmical and springing on the diagonal. There was barely any overstep in the extended walk and the collected was just very short. The zig zag was very well executed, the two tempi changes were good, but in the extended canter he got stiff in the topline. The pirouettes were very small but the right one was slightly quick and unbalanced. The final centerline was expressive and graceful, but Arlando swung the hindquarters to the right in the passage and piaffe. The contact was always very steady and the horse stayed quietly at the vertical.

Denmark Brings Greatness

Two combinations based in Denmark shone today in the Rio Grand Prix. Cathrine Dufour and her 13-year old Danish warmblood Atterupgaards Cassidy (by Caprimond x Donnerhall) proved today that they are Denmark's newest number one pair with a brilliant round at their first Olympics.

Dufour and Cassidy have already shown their quality by becoming the double European Young Riders Champions, back to back, and they took their time to develop at Grand Prix level. It took a bit longer than expected and the road was windy as it wasn't sure that Cassidy would master the piaffe and passage well enough, but today they proved to be world elite! Of course Dufour's incredible talent and riding skills; as well as her patience and year long commitment to the same coach (Rune Willum) paid off as well!

Cassidy was not entirely immobile when Dufour saluted but for the rest of the test he was focused on her aids and sharp. The trot extensions were expressive, the half passes had much balance. The first passage was bouyant and in the first piaffe the rhythm was good even though the steps were small. The extended walk had two hooves overstep but needed more relaxation. The second piaffe-passage was beautiful. Throughout Dufour's quiet riding and concentration marked the quality of the test. The two tempi changes were clear but lacked ground cover, the extended was uphill. The zig zag was not really properly lined up with the centerline, but still quite good. In the pirouettes Cassidy lacks scope and he shuffles a bit, but they were small. The final centerline was sweet. The pair scored 76.657% to rank 10th on their Olympic debut !

The other Danish sensation was Spanish Severo Jurado Lopez on the Elkjaer-Holm family's 10-year old Danish warmblood Lorenzo (by Lord Loxley). Jurado Lopez is not really Danish, but he works and lives there at Andreas Helgstrand's yard. Lorenzo is a flashy chesnut who always has his ears forward and who is working with his rider. The first trot extension only began to develop overtrack after X, but the half passes were big and sweeping. The rein back was nice and the passage had much suspension and spring, even though it's ridden too forward and lacks proper collection. The first piaffe was good. In the collected walk the horse lost clarity in the rhythm and in the second piaffe he was on the forehand and croup high despite the high lift in his legs.  Lorenzo often gets too tight in the neck and should be seeking the contact a bit more. The extended canter was one of their strong points, but the zig zag was a bit sloppy with too much ground cover. The pirouette were well executed and the final trot extension was huge. The final piaffe at X lacked balance and the horse swung from left to right. 

Jurado Lopez and Lorenzo scored 76.429% to finish 11th as the best Spanish pair of the day. Their team anchor Beatriz Ferrer-Salat and Delgado (by De Niro x Weltmeyer) were not yet on point in the Grand Prix with mistakes in the one and two tempi changes. They ranked 20th with 74.829%

The team competition continues on Friday 12 August 2016 with the Grand Prix Special. The top six teams and best 8 individual riders of the Grand Prix qualified for the Special, which begins at 10 AM local time.

Text and Photos © Astrid Appels (quotes courtesy FEI) - No Reproduction allowed

Related Links
Eurodressage Coverage of the 2016 Olympic Games