Valegro to Retire After 2016 Rio Olympics, Carl Hester May Stop Competition Riding

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Valegro being warmed up by Charlotte Dujardin before a championship ride. © Ilse Schwarz/dressage-news.com
Valegro being warmed up by Charlotte Dujardin before a championship ride. © Ilse Schwarz/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

WELLINGTON, Florida, Feb. 9, 2014–Valegro will likely retire after the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games, Carl Hester disclosed, although the Dutch gelding will be just 14 years old.

Valegro and rider Charlotte Dujardin have been ranked No. 1 in the world for most of the past 2 1/2 years, have Olympic, World and European Championship team and individual gold medals, a World Cup title and record scores at all three Grand Prix levels.

Carl believes, though, Valegro (Negro x Gerschwin) has more in him that could push the Grand Prix score to 90 per cent, more than 2 1/2 percentage points higher than the pair’s existing record of 87.460 per cent.

Carl, who will be 49 years old when the Olympics are held in Rio in July, 2016, said the Games will be a “watershed” or “a nice time to change” for both Valegro and himself.

It could be a “good time to hang up my competitive boots” and pursue other options that are already being offered, he said in the interview with dressage-news.com at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Florida where he worked with U.S. team rider Katherine Bateson-Chandler.

Valegro with Charlotte Dujardin aboard and Carl Hester making final preparations for competition. © Ilse Schwarz/dressage-news.com
Valegro with Charlotte Dujardin aboard and Carl Hester making final preparations for competition. © Ilse Schwarz/dressage-news.com

Carl Hester, based in Gloucestershire, England, in recent years has been a mainstay of British dressage elite levels–as a rider on a succession of horses, trainer and mentor of Charlotte as well as part-owner of Valegro and trainer of other team combinations. Britain has no team coach because individuals have their own coaches, but has a chef d’equipe to coordinate programs.

Carl’s first Olympics were Barcelona in 1992 followed by Sydney in 2000 then Athens in 2004, as well as the inaugural World Games in 1990 and four European Championships before the breakthrough at Windsor, England in 2009 when Great Britain won team silver. Then silver again at the World Games in Kentucky in 2010. Gold at the Europeans in Rotterdam in 2011 foreshadowed the biggest reward.

Great Britain with a team of Charlotte and Valegro, Laura Tomlinson and Mistral Hojris and Carl on Uthopia won gold, the first dressage medal for Great Britain in the history of the Olympic movement. Charlotte and Valegro won individual gold and Laura and Mistral Hojris bronze.

Of his multiple roles, Carl said, “I still love doing it. I think now the challenge has shifted from, ‘let’s get there’ to ‘let’s stay there.’

“That has been instrumental in me staying involved, helping to increase the base of British dressage.”

Carl Hester and Nip Tuck in the Grand Prix at the World Equestrian Games. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Carl Hester and Nip Tuck in the Grand Prix at the World Equestrian Games. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

About 10 horses and riders are in the group he sees that are likely to provide the next team combinations for the European Championships in Aachen, Germany this summer and the Rio Olympics for which Britain has already qualified. Among them are Laura Tomlinson, a frequent championship team mate of Carl, and her assistant, Lara Griffith, who are both competing for the first time at Florida’s Global Dressage Festival.

“I’ve been in talks with different people in different countries to see where I might go,” said Carl who has a home in Spain as well as his farm in Gloucestershire.

“The trouble is you never know as a rider how you’d feel not doing that any more.

“But I can’t fulfill all these roles, it’s very difficult.

“It depend on how I feel after Rio, to see whether it is a good tme to hang up my competitive boots.

“I’m enjoying it at the moment and enjoying Nip Tuck. It has been very instrumental in my continuing to compete.”

Carl saw in the Amsterdam World Cup event at the end of January which was won by Charlotte and Valegro with near record scores after just three days back riding the horse folowing an absence of three weeks in New Zealand.

It was on target to be a new world record from the technical performance, he said, but the artistic was an easy program that did not provide for a higher score.

“From that point of view there are still more percentages to get,” he said.

“I’m pretty sure I can see him getting 90 per cent in the Grand Prix.

“I look at him every day. I know we still have that last little edge.”

A slightly higher degree of collection and taking the extended walk Valegro shows at home into the competition arena where it has been affected by the atmosphere, he said, could give the pair the edge to go to 90 per cent.

Great Britain’s Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro, strutted to victory at the World Cup event in Amsterdam. © 2015FEI/Arnd Bronkhorst
Great Britain’s Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro, strutted to victory at the World Cup event in Amsterdam. © 2015FEI/Arnd Bronkhorst

“Rio would be the grand finale. I would see that, I would like to stop after Rio. After so consistent a career I don’t want to see him go on because he can. I can’t see any other horse doing what he has done for the country.”

The retirement ceremony would probably be at London Olympia, the Christmas show that has become an international spectacular with world record scores being set not only by Valegro but by Totilas when ridden by Edward Gal.

Demands are heavy for appearances by Valegro to give special exhibitions and for Charlotte to make appearances, including reality TV shows.

“I never thought a dressage rider would be asked to do reality stuff,” he said. “We’ve got to be careful not to lose sight of what job she does. I also have to remember that she is half my age and she needs to enjoy herself.”

The fulfillment that Carl said he has had in the last eight years after being in the sport for 25 years “has been huge.”

“I never dreamt that in a championship sport with 60 to 80 competitors only three people are going to get a medal, I just gave up the idea it would ever be me,” he said. “I began to enjoy not going to prize givings; it had got to that stage.

“Once you’ve smelled the coffee, as they say…”

The “smell” first came at the European Championships in 2005 when he rode Escapado to sixth place in what he thought at the time was one of the best rides of his life but the horse was sold to Hans Peter Mindehoud of the Netherlands.

“It isn’t winning that makes you happy, it’s the best performance you’ve had.

“In my own mind I had won a medal. Four years later, I really tasted it for the first time.”

Carl Hester on Liebling II at the 2009 European Championships © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Carl Hester on Liebling II at the 2009 European Championships that marked Great Britain’s position among the world’s elite dressage nations. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Carl already has Valegro’s retirement companion picked out–a “fuzzy little Welsh pony” he’d like to buy at the sale at Hay-on-Wye in Wales, known also for its book festival.

“We’ll do Rio and then Olympia as the swan song,” he said, “and that’s what you’re torn between.

“On the one hand Valegro carries the hopes of so many but he deserves a fitting retirement.

“I couldn’t imagine selling Valegro. I don’t want to lose my head or be put in the Tower of London.

“He’ll retire to my farm.

“The truth is Valegro loves nothing more than having his head shoved down eating grass

“He’ll still be ridden, and maybe come to Florida and do a demonstration. I don’t think it would be good for him not to be ridden when he retires.”

Trish Gardner, who lives on her own in a nearby village and rode for Great Britain in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, some times hacks out Valegro when Charlotte is away and she ocassionally goes to Carl’s stables to watch him ride the horse.

“She has good eyes,” he said of the 79-year-old, “very straight talking, no fluff. She says that letting her hack Valegro gives her purpose.”

Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro in the round of honor after winning the second individual gold medal at the World Equestrian Games. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro in the round of honor after winning the second individual gold medal at the World Equestrian Games. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com