London Olympia’s “Short” Grand Prix–What Was Intended & How Did it Work?
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By KENNETH J. BRADDICK
LONDON, Dec. 18, 2018–Simon Brooks Ward has developed major international horse events with a special allure–at Windsor Castle where the Queen and other “Royals” stop by and the Olympia indoor in a Victorian era behemoth in the heart of London that hosts World Cup qualifiers in dressage, driving and jumping.
In a nation with a proud history of horse sports, dressage at grassroots and among the population at large has not so far risen to the level of support of powerhouses Germany and the Netherlands to foster commercial success despite superstar Olympic and championship performances of Carl Hester, Charlotte Dujardin and Laura Tomlinson among others in the past decade.
Along with Richard Davison, the four-time Olympian who is dressage director at Olympia and whose whole family is steeped in the three Olympic equestrian disciplines; Will Connell, a senior advisor in addition to his day job on the other side of the Atlantic as sports director of the U.S. Equestrian Federation, and others have worked with Simon to figure ways to bring change.
He’d long been committed at home and elsewhere in the world to see what might be achieved–organizing the 2009 European Championships highlighted by Edward Gal on Totilas, Adelinde Cornelissen on Jerich Parzival, Laura Bechtolsheimer, marriage to change her last name to Tomlinson, on Mistral Hojris beside the floodlit ramparts of Windsor Castle. And working successfully to get prime time TV coverage.
Unprecedented gold medal victories at the 2011 Europeans in the Netherlands, the even more glorious 2012 Olympics at home in London with the Carl/Chalotte duo and the adored Valegro through to the 2016 Games and Blueberry’s retirement from competition at Olympia the same year all brought the different pieces to this latest dressage undertaking.
Richard Davison was tasked with coming up with a new Grand Prix that was shorter than the current version of five minutes and 45 seconds. The target time for the new format was five minutes.
The presentation in the arena was to be more like a Hollywood production of commentary and an interview with each rider under spotlight after their test with no-holds barred questions as to their experience in the arena, including mistakes.
Then, with a drumroll worthy of the Academy Awards, attention swung to the giant centerstage full color scoreboard as scores of each of the five judges next to their portraits rolled up. The riders were shown looking up, their faces displaying their reactions.
The results of spectator judging followed, and compared with the official ground jury scores.
Many in dressage lament the absence of the reinback and the zig zag and reducing the importance of piaffe as a loss for the stated aim of the Grand Prix as the ultimate display of high performance training. And that is being reflected in comments from around the world.
As an event, how did it work, athlete and horse combinations focusing on staying on course of 27 movements compared with the 33 for the regular Grand Prix, with the eyes and ears of thousands of spectators as the show continued under the spotlight in center arena?
The riders were fully into it. So was the crowd of 4,700 in the 7,000-seat stadium voicing its feelings as the scores were posted.
From winner Hans Peter Minderhoud on his Tryon World Equestrian Games Glock’s Dream Boy, to Charlotte Dujardin having borrowed Carl Hester’s Tryon mount, Hawtins Delicato, and being the first to go, placing second, Germany’s Frederic Wandres on aptly named Duke of Britain making his Olympia debut in third.
And the hard luck of England-based Ulrik Moelgaard of Denmark on his experienced Michigan was, surprisingly, the only pair to go off course. But he poked fun at himself in the after-test interview that the crowd admired and gave him extra rousing applause.
“It was all very new and different to what we have been used to,” said, Hans Peter, “but for me it was a really cool moment when the scores came up and I was very happy.”
Charlotte said: “I didn’t have the chance to watch anyone ride through the test and Del (Hawtins Delicato) has never been to an indoor show like this so I was pleased with him.
“Getting off the horse in the arena and having an interview straight away took me back a bit but it was great to have the support of the crowd.”
Frederic had not only the new test to deal with but his first exposure to Olympia.
“When I saw the arena for the first time, I thought it was just breathtaking,” he said. “I have never been to a show like this before and it is the nicest show I have ever been to.
“I was nervous about riding the new test but for me it rode well and my horse coped with the movements and felt really good.”
The judges, no longer almost anonymous?
Germany’s Katrina Wüst who was president of the ground jury and is well known for working on innovation in dressage–developing the “degree of difficulty” for freestyles, for example–declared her support for the benefit of exposing riders as stars similar to other sports such as soccer where top players are celebrities.
Britain’s Stephen Clarke, well known to fans here and around the world, said: “Yes, the test was quite difficult as the movements come up quickly and are short–it is undoubtedly easier to judge than ride. But the evening as a whole was great; there was a good crowd and you could really feel the interest and enthusiasm.
“It was a good evening for the sport.”
This correspondent had come to London from Frankfurt where the show ending the day before was of unparalleled German organization of big and small tour national championships and a top notch CDI4* before sellout crowds, and so efficient as to summon a snowfall during the event just in time for Christmas. Extra effort is made to prepare fans what to expect and to look for in upcoming tests, and interviews after each ride are routine
The overall effort at Olympia had to be considered brave. All the more so in light of the recent history of what some charge as too many gimmicks–the confoundingly confusing re-purposing of a proposal to delete high and low scores for every movement, elimination of collective marks–and poor decisions by officialdom of international dressage such as cancellation of the WEG freestyle that have given many in the sport a sour taste.
One of the multiple goals was to offer the complete “package” of ride, interview, scoring both by the judging panel and spectators all to fit within the same time parameters of a regular Grand Prix–nine minutes all in.
The timing worked flawlesslly.
Unofficial timing by dressage-news.com showed that from the combinations entering the arena at A to the final salute, three of the 12 pairs from eight nations in the starting lineup performed the ride in abour 4 mins. 15 secs., well under the five-minute target. All others except for one with an error of course, were under the five minutes by varying amounts.
This means there is room to tweak the test so when it is offered again next year as part of the two-year pilot program it likely will flow better.
Simon Brooks-Ward told dressage-news.com afterward he thought the night had succeeded overall, and as a leading event organizer learned enough to work with his team on changes for 2019.
He admitted candidly he hadn’t communicated well beforehand and that, too, would change as his group moves forward.
After all, he said if he wants the judges to be front and center on the scoreboard he wants transparency for all aspects of the event because that’s what will help engage and keep spectators.
And Simon left no doubt he was not looking to have this “short” Grand Prix imposed for the Olympics or championships. It has no impact on qualifying for the World Cup Final, to be held in Gothenburg, Sweden, in April as points are awarded only for the freestyle that is set for Tuesday night.
He wants riders, spectators, judges and the media to experience Olympia at its best, as one of the premier shows in the world, and to come back for more so his company can afford to continue to stage a vital showcase of international dressage in Britain.