CHARLOTTE DUJARDIN & VALEGRO, GREAT BRITAIN’S GOLDEN COUPLE
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KENNETH J. BRADDICK
Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro will enter the Olympic Games with some similarities to Edward Gal and Totilas, but a world of differences in the road the British combination has traveled in surpassing some of the achivements of the Dutch pair that raised goose bumps on anyone who witnessed the partnership of poetry in motion.
Both horses were aged 10 and both just 13 months from the start of their international Grand Prix careers when each set new world records for the Grand Prix Special, Charlotte and Valegro with a score of 88.022 per cent to trump the previous record of Edward and Totilas of 86.46 per cent.
The Games in London where dressage starts at Greenwich Park on Aug. 2 will be the first for both Charlotte and Edward.
As the world knows, though, in what may be their only chance of appearing on the world’s laregst sport stage, Totilas will not perform at the 2012 Olympics as Matthias Alexander Rath, his German rider for the past 18 months, reports he is too ill with mononucleosis to compete the black stallion.
Great Britain’s hopes are lying on the shoulders of Charlotte and Valegro, Carl Hester and Uthopia and Britain’s superstar pair for the past four years, Laura Bechtolsheimer and Mistral Hojris to bring gold to their homeland.
A slew of combinations–Holland’s Adelinde Cornelissen and Parzival, two-time World Cup champions; Laura and Mistral Hojris, Carl and Uthopia, 2011 European Championships team gold medalists; Germany’s first-time Olympians Helen Langehanenberg and Damon Hill NRW and Kristina Sprehe and Desperados, 2012 Nations Cup and 1st and 2nd in the CDIO championships at Aachen, Germany, and the USA’s Steffen Peters and Ravel, 2009 World Cup champion and Aachen CDIO champion as well as double bronze-medalist at the 2010 world championship bronze medalist–are likely to be among those vying for individual honors.
And Charlotte came second by the narrowest of margins behind Steffen and Ravel on their home turf in Florida last winter, the only time the two pairs have competed head-to-head.
So intense is the competition in a new format that counts on results from the Grand Prix and the Special for team medals a significant factor could be maintaining both the phsyical and mental conditions of horses and riders over several days.
For Britain, a nation’s hopes will lay on the shoulders of each team member as well as the eyes of not just the spectators packing the stands at Greenwich Park but the unblinking lens of television cameras carrying it to the world. Will Britain as a team and one of the individuals finally break a century-long drought of medals in dressage?
“Of course I want to have a gold medal,” Charlotte said in a conversation. “I’m not going to go there not wanting the gold medal. I’m going there wanting the gold medal, and do my best.”
But most especially, what role will be played by her coach, mentor, team mate and part owner of Valegro, Carl Hester?
“I will just imagine Carl in the judge’s box,” she said. “I will ride down that centerline. The Olympics are the Olympics, but it is just another show. And that’s how I deal with it. I hope it won’t take over me but that’s how I’m going in thinking.
“The way I think or deal with things I don’t want to change so I don’t put pressure on myself. Why do that to myself I want to do well. If I don’t do well I’m very angry with myself. I don’t analyze it.
“It’s just another show, another arena, just a different day.
“We have an amazing team. We have a really strong chance. What’s the point of worrying and stressing about something like that. All I can do is go there and do my best.”
She admits to a highly developed sense of competitiveness, of being driven.
When she was riding “show” horses competing against her sister as kids, “if I didn’t win I was an absolute prat.”
Valegro, a 10-year-old KWPN gelding (Negro x Maifleur x Gerschwin) was the first international Grand Prix horse for Charlotte, who celebrated her 27th birthday a week ago.
Edward, on the other hand, was aged 40 when Totilas (Gribaldi x Lominka x Glendale) wowed the world–both horsey and non-horsey–with team and two individual gold medals at the World Equestrian Games and the World Cup title in 2010.
And the roster of other horses that Edward has competed at the very top–except for the Olympics–is testament to his prowess as a trainer and rider–Lingh in the 2003 European Championships, World Cup Finals in 2004, 2005 and 2006 and the world championships in 2006; Gribaldi in the Worl Cup Final in 2007; Interfloor Next One, Sisther de Jeu, Blue Hors Romanov and now Undercover which he will ride on the Dutch team in London. And Ravel was in his training program when the horse was bought in 2006 as a future Olympic mount for Steffen Peters of the United States (London will be the second Olympics for that partnership).
Valegro was Charlotte’s first international Grand Prix mount. Her second horse, Fernandez, was sold after just a few months at Grand Prix, and she recently showed Tatler in their first CDI Grand Prix.
Since the first competition when both were rookies in France in the winter of 2011, the pair was the second highest scoring for Great Britain behind Carl and Uthopia for the team to win their first ever gold medal at the Europeans later that year. Then the world record Special in Hagen and earlier this month a new British freestyle record score of more than 90 per cent.
The combination goes to the Olympics ranked fourth in the world behind only Adelinde Cornelissen and Parzival, Laura and Mistral Hojris and Matthias and Totilas. Betting is that the home side will win team gold, but if they get any medal it will be history-making, the first ever of any color for the nation in dressage. An individual medal will be a huge bonus.
The new freestyle for Charlotte and Valegro has a British patriotic theme that no doubt was tailored for the occasion and is bound to bring spectators to tears as Totilas did in his most memorable performances. And it may even tug at the heart strings of Stephen Clarke, president of the ground jury and an Englishman, though as one of the finest judges in the world he may have to steel himself to be objective.
Charlotte admits she’s learned more than just riding and horsemastership from Carl since he took her on at his Gloucestershire training center. She has developed some of his now legendary sense of humor and confidence
When he tells her how to perform a movement and she does not understand, she said, “then when you see him ride it’s annoying sometimes because he makes everything look so easy. I’m like, ‘Goddamit.’ It’s really nice to watch him train.
“I’m very proud when he beats me. well, not proud, maybe, but I’m happy for him. I think it’s the same for him as well. He doesnt like me beating him but… TOUGH!”
Since working with Carl, “I’ve developed. I’ve always been a bit outspoken but now I think I’m more confident to say it. Being around Carl he’s such a funny person. He’ll sit and watch me and shout at me and then I’ll sit and watch him and shout at him as much as he shouts at me.
“The best advice? Believe in yourself. I doubted myself for quite a long time. Carl has helped me in that.”
Charlotte first saw Blueberry, as Valegro is nicknamed, when he was four years old.
She rode him one day and “I never seemed to get off him. I was so lucky.
“I remember the first day I rode him, the power was amazing, it was unbelievable. I remember Stephen Clarke saying he didn’t think Valegro would ever be able to collect the canter because it was so big. He just has amazing temparement and trainability. He’s just a lovely horse.”
Does the horse have weaknesses?
“Carl always says he’s a genius,” she replied. “He’s already read the dictionary when he was young. He has been an unbelievable horse in training. He never says. ‘no.’ I didn’t know what I was doing but Valegro, who was nine years old, took everything in stride. He was always a hot horse as a young horse, but he’s managed to cope with it all.”
Charlotte said she recalls vividly the day they set the new world record for the Grand Prix Special.
“A score of 88 per cent is very unreal. I can just remember when we finished the test the judge at C looked overwhelmed. I came out and Carl said, ‘Do you know the score you got,’ and I said, ‘No. I didn’t look at the scoreboard.’
“He said, ‘You’ve got 88 per cent.,’ and I said, ‘Oh, God.’ Then I remember everyone running around, ‘You’ve got a world record, you’ve got a world record!’
“It was crazy. I actually didn’t think I could achieve something like that at the age of 26.”
One thing Charlotte does not like before a competition is a change in her gear,. She, Carl and the staff know the routine of preparing for shows, but a change in equipment…
“When I changed from a top hat to a crash hat I worried that it would change things,” she said. “It didn’t.”