Laura Graves & Verdades Underdog to Star at US Championships

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Laura Graves and Verdades at the US Championships. © 2014 SusanJStickle.com
Laura Graves and Verdades at the US Championships. © 2014 SusanJStickle.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

GLADSTONE, New Jersey, June 12, 2014–Laura Graves was “just feeling so grown up” after riding her Verdades to a tie of three under-30 women riders for fourth place in the United States Championship Grand Prix that won ravesfrom fellow competitors and judges.

The ride by Laura, who operates her equestrian business out of the tiny Orlando community of Geneva in central Florida, squeaked into the championships at the last minute to give the 26-year-old a chance to become one of the eight horses and riders to go to Europe to battle for a place on America’s team for the World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France in August.

“I can’t compare this to any other ride I’ve ever had,” said Laura after the Grand Prix where she and the 12-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Florett AS x Goya) tied on a score of 72.540 per cent with the Olympic pair of Adrienne Lyle and Wizard and Caroline Roffman and Her Highness O.

“I’m just feeling so grown up. You spend a lot of your youth in this sport for so long then comes today when you’re warming up and riding against the best riders in the country. To hold your own is unbelievable. There’s been a lot of tears. I’ve never had a ride like this.”

To be in this position with “Diddy,” as she calls Verdades, is a lot different than her one other occasion at the championships at the historic U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation headquarters in Gladstone, New Jersey– in the Intermediate event two years ago that she describes as a “forgettable” experience.

Her mother picked out Verdades as a six-month-old foal from a video of several youngsters sent by a European dealer.

Laura has been able to share the experience with her long time boy friend, Curt, who was in Gladstone being supportive and helping where he can after minding the business at home for the past several months as Laura competed in South Florida and Kentucky to qualify for this event.

With Laura among the new faces at the championship, said Jan Ebeling who rode his Olympic partner Rafalca to second place in the Grand Prix, was”wonderful to see.”

“We want to see the new riders at this level like Caroline and Laura. It’s very exciting.”

Gary Rockwell, the FEI 5* judge who was president of the ground jury, said he was thrilled with the performance by Laura and Verdades.

“It’s really exciting,” he said, “from the very first trot I thought, ‘Wow!’ I love to see that glimpse into the future. It’s their time, their time to come along.”

Laura Graves and Verdades. © 2014 SusanJStickle.com
Laura Graves and Verdades. © 2014 SusanJStickle.com

Laura laughs at the position she finds herself in–“I came in as a real underdog by the skin of my teeth.”

Being the underdog gave her, she said, an advantage.

“I said to my family, ‘If I go in and don’t have a good ride it’s OK because no one’s expecting it, if I have mistakes no one is expecting a flawless test.’

“Thinking that way took a bit of pressure off me.”

But she holds herself to a really high standard to have the confidence to compete at the top level of the sport.

“It really is a mental game,” she said. “Everything depends on those eight minutes in the ring to be mentally strong and not let nerves and adrenaline overwhelm you.”

Her parents, who operate a small business in Vermont, a state she left behind with its long cold winters for the sun and warmth of Florida, raised her to be mentally tough.

“My parents never sugar coated anythng,” she said. “They always wanted for us to do our best. If we signed up for something, you showed up and did what you had to do… a sense of responsibility.”

And she has her parents strong competitive nature–her father played soccer competitively and none of the family wants to play board games with her mother because she’s so competitive.

The Grand Prix counts for 45 per cent of the total for the championship, with 40 per cent for the Grand Prix Special on Saturday and 15 per cent for the Freestyle on Sunday. The eight top combinations will leave next Wednesday for Europe to compete at the Fritzens, Austria CDI4* on the July Fourth weekend and the World Equestrian Festival with its CDIO5* Nations Cup and CDI4* two weeks later. Based on performances at those shows, the team of four combinations and a reserve will be selected for the WEG.

She funds her passion herself with support from her “awesome” boyfriend and her parents but the costs of travel and competition in Europe will be paid for. Even though she will lose some income from her small training and boarding business while traveling, “saying no is a silly decision for me at this stage. I may never have this opportunity again. To say no would be foolish.”

Her share of the most prize money ever offered at the championships will also help make ends meet if she makes it to Europe.

“I have to make it happen. If I have to sleep in my horse’s stall I’ll sleep in my horse’s stall. I know it will be clean.

“This is the dream.”