Twenty-five year old tradition is a brilliant reflection of change and transition.
by Marie Sebastian
Thousands of years ago, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote, “The only thing that is constant is change.” Now in its 25th year as part of the 72-year-old Del Mar National, Dressage Week is a vivid and brilliant reflection of the change that has taken place in West Coast dressage over the last quarter-century. It is especially poignant to look at these changes in 2017 because of the 25-year history of Dressage at Del Mar and taking note of the transitions underway in the make-up of the current exhibitors in the competition arena.
The Del Mar National originally featured western, hunter/jumper and show horses, including Saddlebred and Morgan divisions. Dressage Week replaced the multi-breeds in 1992 and hosted its first CDI in 2000. After much convincing by then and still Dressage Week Manager, Regina Antonioli, the Evening of Musical Freestyles was introduced in 2003. Night of the Horse moved to Western Week.
“It’s hard to imagine now how hesitant facility management was to make the change. They just didn’t think many people would come out to watch dressage,” Regina recalls. “That first night probably drew about 1,000 people, as compared to current crowds that come very close to sell-outs in the nearly 4,000-seat house.”
When owner, Akiko Yamazaki, and rider, Steffen Peters, chose Saturday night at Del Mar as the right place and time to retire two-time Olympian and World Cup Champion, Ravel, in 2013, that goal was very nearly met and the popularity of the night has not wavered.
Regina considers Ravel’s retirement one of the most moving moments in Del Mar’s Dressage history. Watching the film, produced by Akiko, her husband Jerry Yang and their Four Winds Farm team, playing on the jumbotron above the arena, spectators got a sense not only of the individuals, but also of the effort, teamwork and determination it takes to build an international equestrian athlete. That was followed with Ravel and Steffen performing their Freestyle for the last time, and then graciously posing for pictures with Steffen signing autographs for more than an hour. It was a truly magical and memorable evening.
A few years earlier, the show said another “happy” goodbye to Brentina, the Olympic and World Cup Champion owned by the late Parry Thomas and he and wife Peggy Thomas’ Rivergrove Farm, ridden by Debbie McDonald. Formally retired a week before Del Mar at the World Cup in Las Vegas, the pair of special ladies returned for a fond farewell to their Del Mar fans riding to their supercharged, freestyle music, featuring Aretha Franklin’s Respect. Though Debbie is missed on the West Coast, now training in Florida, she continues to make a huge impact on dressage as one of the USEF High Performance Coaches, and coach to current U.S. superstars, Laura Graves and Verdades.
Steffen, who lives and trains here in San Diego with his wife Shannon, remains one of the most prolific and consistent competitors in dressage history by continuing to develop and win with new equine partners.
The year following Ravel’s retirement, he returned again to the Del Mar CDI Freestyle on Legolas 92. After taking a hiatus from the Del Mar show in 2015 to concentrate on international competition, he returned in 2016 with authority. Again riding for owners/sponsors, Akiko and Jerry, Steffen started out winning both the Prix St. Georges and Intermediaire Freestyle on Bailarino, a 2008 Oldenburg gelding with scores over 73%.
Steffen went on to capture first place honors in all three of the Large Tour classes on two different mounts. The newer of the two, Rosamunde, a 17.1 hand, Rhinelander mare, placed third in the Grand Prix and, declaring for the GP Special, took the top spot with a 76.510%. On Legolas 92, he bested a field of 20 to win the Grand Prix with a 77.160% and electrified the Saturday night crowd with their victory in the Grand Prix Freestyle. Steffen and Legolas 92 went on to help the U.S. bring home the team bronze at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
With a generous eye on the future of our sport, Steffen has given Dawn White-O’Connor the chance of a lifetime. She has taken over the reins on Legolas 92. For 2017, Steffen is placing more focus on Rosamunde and Bailarino, so, with the Yamazakis, the decision was made to give the ride to Dawn. The 28-year-old has worked with the Peters for more than 10 years, first as a groom and then moving up to assistant trainer. Last year she gained much notice at Del Mar winning Saturday night’s Open FEI Freestyle on Carla Hayes’ Dutch gelding, Aristo. In her first outing on Legolas 92 at the CDI-W Las Vegas earlier this year, Dawn was second behind her mentor.
Steffen’s wife also has some new rides including, Illuster Van De Kampert, a 9-year-old Belgium Warmblood purchased by Sasha Cutter last October. “He is one of the most talented horses I have ever sat on!” Shannon exclaims. She plans to do the small tour this year, and hopefully move up to the GP in 2018. She has another young horse, Disco Inferno, competing in the small tour. “This is exciting for us as we have owned him since he was 6 months old. He does all the GP already, but is super hot and sensitive, so we are taking our time in the show arena.”
Another familiar and local face to watch on a new mount for 2017 is Guenter Seidel. One of the most decorated riders in the U.S. with numerous Olympic, World Equestrian Games, national and international medals and titles, he has spent the last couple of years as somewhat of the proverbial “bridesmaid,” coming in second behind Steffen in numerous competitions.
For 2017 he is debuting a new horse, the big Dutch mare, Crush On You. “My friend Egbert Kraak, who has a sales-barn in Holland, had the horse for the last three years and is still part owner of her,” Guenter explains about finding the impressive 17 hand bay. “Coral Reef Wylea was a mare as well and just like her, Crush is very strong and opinionated, which I love as a quality in horses.” He expanded on the mare possessing three good gaits, with her canter being exceptional. He is planning on showing her PSG and Intermediate 1 for now and hopefully Grand Prix by beginning of next year.
Nicholia (Niki) Clarke is a great example of California’s younger rider/trainers. Working under her own label, Dressage Unlimited out of Temecula, Niki has trained horses through Grand Prix, but made a real impact at the 2016 Del Mar show with some of the new mounts she is bringing along. Aboard Evelyn Murphy’s KWPN, Einstein S, she was first or second in all the Third Level classes entered with scores over 65%. Riding her own KWPN, Fling, Niki won another Third Level class, the Young Horse Practice class (78.4%) and the FEI 6-Year-Old USEF Qualifier with an 84.400%, the highest score of the show.
Continuing her winning ways in 2017, Niki showed three horses at the San Diego Mid-Winter event. In Second Level classes, she was first on Thomas Potter’s Gagarin, and in the Intermediaire I Clarke was second on Lisa Bradly’s Finesse and first on Jennifer Mason’s Oldenburg Quincy with a 77.763% - another show high score.
The Del Mar show attracts talented riders from all over California and other western states. Cyndi Jackson trains out of her To the Max Dressage center in Scottsdale, AZ, named for Cyndi’s first dressage mount, a Tennessee Walker/Quarter Horse cross, Maxine. She has earned her USDF bronze, silver and gold medals, and is a graduate of the USDF “L” program with “distinction.” Over the years, she has been coached by the best, including Olympians Debbie and Steffen, and has garnered numerous Region 5 year-end championships.
She travels every year to Del Mar, where in 2016, she picked up an Intermediaire I win on her own Oldenburg, gelding, Risky Business, and a win at Prix St. Georges on Romantic Man, owned by Kenzies’ Awesome Equines. But it was her performance on Shuttler Stables’ Sir Amour that really gained attention. Cyndi and the then 5-year-old, bay gelding earned first place honors and scores of over 78% and then 79% in the CDI Young Horse Qualifier. They went on to place third in the Markel/USEF Young Horse National Dressage National Championships.
Sometimes the biggest wins are not just the first-place victories. Certainly, Sabine Shute-Kery of Thousand Oaks had a big first place victory at the 2016 Del Mar National, taking home the top honors in the USEF Developing Horse Grand Prix aboard Alice Womble’s exquisite Hanoverian stallion, Sanceo (71.625%). But it was in the CDI where Sabine really proved she can play with the “big boys.” In the Prix St. Georges, she was third behind Steffen and Jan Ebeling on Nicole Bhathal’s Sir Cedrik H. While Steffen did sit out the Intermediaire I, Sabine and the black Oldenburg gelding picked up the second behind Jan. Then in Saturday night’s Grand Prix Freestyle she garnered a stunning 74.275% on Rea Scott’s Andalusia-PRE, stallion, Marques. Sabine finished the year on Sir Cedrik H winning CDS Prix St. Georges Horse of the Year Championships.
Coming to Del Mar every year from Northern California is Christian Hartung, who grew up in former East Germany, where he won his first state championship in dressage at 11, and rode his first PSG at 14. In 2006, he joined the team at the Christiane Noelting Dressage Center, in Vacaville. Christian has earned both USDF bronze and silver medals, won several FEI high- point awards, CDS and USDF Championships and at Del Mar had a Small Tour horse in the CDI and wins at Fourth Level on Don Romeo.
He also seems to have a special way with young horses. A case in point is the 2011 Oldenburg, Desario. Regina declares the 17-hand brown gelding as her own personal “horse crush.” In 2016, owners Christiane and Christian chose to compete him in Second Level classes rather than additional Young Horse qualifiers. The pair won all their Second Level classes and earned two scores over 77%. The strategy paid off when Christian and Desario won the 2016 Markel/USEF Young Horse National Dressage National Championships in Chicago, with an 88.240. This is a pair to keep your eye on.
CNDC has another top young contender in Ari Lopez. Finishing up her college studies, Ari has been riding since she was 9 and has earned her USDF bronze, silver and gold medals as well as the Silver and Gold Freestyle Bar and many USDF and CDS championships. She joined Christiane’s program as an assistant trainer in 2012 and competed Christiane’s Fürstin Delia in the 5-Year-Old divisions last year, returning home from the Finals with a ninth place.
One goodbye this year is more painful. At last year’s Del Mar CDI, Young Rider, Ehren Volk won all three classes in her division on Jen and Bruce Hlavacek’s fabulous Weltino’s Magic. At the time, no one could have imagined it would be one of the last competitions for the big bay who passed away later in the year from complications following colic surgery.
“Magic” started his career as a 5-year-old with Steffen Peters’ wife, Shannon. The combination went on to become Reserve Champions in the Markel/USEF Young Horse Championships for Six-Year-Olds. Now over 17.1 hands and filling out, the Westphalian gelding was passed on to Steffen. This partnership was truly magical. Undefeated in 2011, they won the Prix St. Georges and Intermediaire I in Aachen and double gold at the Pan American Games in Mexico.
Magic was named the Chronicle of the Horse’s Dressage Horse of the Year. This was a horse that helped many riders reach their goals. In 2012 Brandi Roenick rode Magic to Individual and Freestyle Gold at the Adequan North American Young Rider Championships and then competed him in her first CDI Small Tour events.
Shannon took over again, moving the horse up to Grand Prix, then gave the reins to her student, Ehren. Weltino’s Magic still holds the world record for Small Tour scores: Prix St. Georges-80.132%; Intermediaire I-78.079%; and Intermediaire Freestyle-87.000%. Shannon Peters summed it up best, “Magic was a bigger-than-life personality that we all miss every day. The first to greet you and never afraid to tell you what he wanted! I will always remember how much he did for me as a trainer, as well as the Young Riders he carried, and his unbelievable record with Steffen worldwide.”
Sometimes, as with Ravel and Brentina, we can celebrate the joy horses bring us while they are still living. When Anna Buffini of Escondido asked Del Mar Dressage Week manager Regina if she could ride her Freestyle on Sundayboy one last time as an exhibition, the timing was perfect. In 2014, Anna and Sundayboy swept the Young Rider division on their way to winning the U.S. Dressage Festival’s Young Rider National Championships and helped Region 7 bring home NAJYRC Team Gold. Last year she and the Dutch gelding won the Del Mar CDI U-25 Grand Prix, going on to capture another Festival Championship in the USEF Young Adult Brentina Cup. Moving to Florida this winter to train under Debbie McDonald, Anna and the 18-year-old gelding placed second behind number-one, world ranked, Diana Porsche and De Sandro of Austria.
Buffini describes Sundayboy as her “best friend.” Originally a mount of her California coach, Guenter Seidel, the horse gave her goosebumps the first time she rode him. After the CDIO U25 Nations Cup in Florida in late March, Buffini has decided it is time to give her 18- year-old partner a new chapter. She’ll retire him from international competition, ranked #1 in the U.S. U25 Grand Prix division.
“When a show has a history as long, as the Del Mar National you see a lot of change,” Regina reflects. “What I am always impressed by is the level of appreciation and respect given to the horses and the resiliency of the owners and riders when facing change and transition.” Bruce and Jen Hlavacek talk of the “great joy” Magic brought them. Anna does not have a replacement mount for Sundayboy, but it is about what is best for the horse.
“Two things define you: your attitude when you have everything and your patience when you have nothing,” Anna explains. “Deciding to retire Sundayboy and especially withdrawing from the European tour is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.” She said watching her coach Guenter go through droughts with horses, but always keeping a good attitude and continuing to work hard inspired her. “His example has been so encouraging to me through this tough time of not having a horse to compete and not knowing when I’ll be back in the show arena. Having a grateful attitude is so important in these situations. I have had a great run thanks to Sundayboy and Guenter and I have so much to be thankful for. I am so incredibly grateful for the opportunities my family has given me throughout my career. This won’t be my last drought and this won’t be my last time in the CDI ring so I’ll keep my chin up and keep working hard.”
“Change does include loss and heartbreak,” Regina concludes. “But when you take stock of the champions that have been showcased in the Del Mar Arena; when you are awed by the talent of a young horse like Desario; and when you are humbled by the maturity of a young competitor like Anna, you can only feel grateful. The Del Mar National is such a beautiful reflection of what can be positive about change. It’s all about attitude and hope, because the change is inevitable.”
Del Mar National
• Western Week: April 18-22
For information & tickets, visit www.delmarnational.com.
Written by Marie Sebastian
Friday, 31 March 2017 19:35