Changing of the Guard at the Top of Dressage?

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Edward Gal wiping away tears as he leaves the arena after Moorlands Totilas posted a world record Grand Prix score at the European Championships. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Edward Gal wiping away tears as he leaves the arena after Moorlands Totilas posted a world record Grand Prix score at the European Championships. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

WINDSOR, England, Aug. 26–Of the top five individual riders in the Grand Prix at the Alltech FEI European Championships all are under 40 years old, three of them no older than age 25.

The “old” man of the group is Edward Gal, the rider of the spectacular nine-year-old stallion Moorlands Totilas that in only his seventh Grand Prix and the second competition at the top level of the sport outside his Dutch homeland, who is, to use his own words, “39 going on 25.”

The names of the “new” kids on the block are well known already to dressage fans around the world.

Victoria Max-Theurer (23), Laura Bechtolsheimer (24), Matthias Alexander Rath (25), Adelinde Cornelissen (30) and Gal (39). They are from four different countries–Austria, Great Britain, Germany and The Netherlands.

The four youngest are fresh faced and filled with the irrepressible enthusiasm of the young. Or they are not bashful about showing their emotions. No siff upper lip rectitude.

Three come with buckets of money and an extensive equestrian pedigree. One has access to money in the form of sponsorship and horse ownership. But history is littered with shattered dreams of the wealthy trying to buy their way to the medals podium.

With these riders, barely out of the Young Rider program, there is no denying the talent.

The “baby” of the bunch in terms of years at just 23 is Victoria-Max Theurer of Austria, the daughter of Olympic medalist “Sissy” Theurer.

Ya gotta love it! Victoria Max-Theurer on Augustin OLD enjoying the moment at the European Championships. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Ya gotta love it! Victoria Max-Theurer on Augustin OLD enjoying the moment at the European Championships. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Victoria has already competed in two Olympics, Athens in 2004 when she was still a teenager, and Beijing in 2008.

Laura Bechtolsheimer at 24 is also an Olympic veteran, Beijing 2008, and her individual third place finish in the Grand Prix led the team from Great Britain to their best ever finish, a silver medal, at the European Championships on their home turf at Windsor Castle just outside London.

Although her family use their considerable fortune to hire top talent to help Laura attain her goals–former U.S. team coach Klaus Balkenhol, for example, is her trainer–they also are major supporters of dressage in Britain.

Laura does not appear to have a sense of entitlement that often accompanies wealth. Her ever present smile makes her approachable and her friends describe her as fun-loving and very genuine.

Laura Bechtolsheimer on Mistral Hojris at the European Championships. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Laura Bechtolsheimer on Mistral Hojris at the European Championships. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

The frequent phrase appended to Matthias Alexander Rath, now 25, was “rising star of German dressage.

Not any more. In this year when so much of Germany’s top talent was sidelined he produced the goods with a score that placed him fourth individually in the Grand Prix at the European Championships the highest score for his team that placed them on the medals podium, albeit with a bronze medal and not the usual gold, a string that was broken in 2005 when they took home silver with The Netherlands on top as they were again in 2009.

Monica Theordorescu, the most experienced member of Germany’s 2009 team, said: “Before we came people said we had a weak team, but we are very happy with our bronze medals.

“And this is only the first international competition ever for Matthias, his very best score ever.”

Yeesss! Matthias Alexander Rath on Sterntaler-Unicef, the highest finishing combination on Germany's European Championship team. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Yeesss! Matthias Alexander Rath on Sterntaler-Unicef, the highest finishing combination on Germany's European Championship team. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Adelinde Cornelissen, who wrinkles up her face when admitting she turned 30 just a month before the European Championships,  is possibly the shyest of the group and by far the smallest bank balance.

A school teacher at a small town in Holland, Adelinde had only one horse, Parzival, and it was the first horse she trained to the Grand Prix level. And with eye-popping results. The pair won three World Cup events in the intensely competitive West European League in 2008/2009.

They flew to the Finals in Las Vegas last April only to have the horse go lame right before the start of competition that included the seasoned top international combinations of Anky van Grunsven and IPS Painted Black and Isabell Werth and Satchmo and the eventual winner, America’s Steffen Peters and Ravel.

After a long layoff, Adelinde and Parzival competed successfully in Britain in July to qualify for the European Championships at Windsor.

Their championship record score on the first day of the Grand Prix and only one of two above 80 per cent–the other being her compatriot, Edward Gal on Moorlands Totilas–left no doubt they’re back in top form even if the record lasted only 20 minutes. But two days later she turned the tables on Gal. The table were turned a day later in the Grand Prix Special.

Gal and Totilas turned in what could have been a world record score, but before it was verified two rides later, Adelinde and Parzival scored 84.042 per cent to take away the lead by one percentage point.

Adelinde Cornelissen and Parzival setting a championships record Grand Prix score at the European Championships. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Adelinde Cornelissen and Parzival setting a championships record Grand Prix score at the European Championships. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Since she gave up teaching last year to ride full time, she is beginning to attract offers of horses for her to ride, a necessity for some one in her financial position.

Edward Gal noted the significant number of younger riders compared with the past.

“I think it is good what is happening to the sport with these riders from so many different countries,” he said.

At next year’s World Equestrian Games in Kentucky he will be a member of the over-40 club.

That’s not so bad.

Both Anky van Grunsven and Isabell Werth are in it.

Anky is 41, the mother of two children; Isabell is 40, and expecting her first child in November.

The two have dominated dressage for the last decade so at the beginning they were young. Without their head-to-head battles at championships, dressage may have withered were they not from different countries. Anky hates to lose and still has the fire in her belly to want to win. Isabell is more reserved–a relative term comparing her with the ebullient Anky–but her work ethic and desire to be the best astound her peers.