USA Star Pair Laura Graves & Verdades Likely to Seek Las Vegas World Cup Start

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Laura Graves and Verdades in the World Games Freestyle. © 2014 Ilse Schwarz/dressage-news.com
Laura Graves and Verdades in the World Games Freestyle. © 2014 Ilse Schwarz/dressage-news.com

Feb. 17, 2015

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

Laura Graves is likely aiming her Verdades for their first World Cup Final that could produce a performance in Las Vegas to top the Freestyle that made the pair stars of the American World Games team.

After a break from competition of six months, the rider and her 13-year-old KWPN gelding are reported to have displayed at a recent American elite clinic in Wellington, Florida an even higher level of ability than the world championships where finishing fifth placed them the highest American horse and rider.

If the 27-year-old rider and “Diddy,” as she calls Verdades, represent the United States at Las Vegas in mid-April the duo may not have to go to Europe to be selected for the American team for the Pan American Games in Toronto in July. The Pan Ams are critical for securing a team slot at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

“We are still working on ‘top form’,” the typically understated Laura told dressage-news.com from her training center near Orlando, Florida.

“It may or may not happen this year. Diddy has more in him than people have seen.

“I believe we will see an improvement this year but I can’t say that that is his ‘top.’ We are able to touch the top now in every movement. But real top form will be maintaining that through an entire test.”

To qualify for the World Cup Final in Las Vegas in mid-April, Laura and Verdades need to have an average of two Freestyle scores to put them in the top two in the North American League.

Two World Cup qualifiers, enough for her to fulfill the requirements, remain on the schedule at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Wellington–Mar. 4-8 and Mar. 11-15.

The leading North Americans, with two events in Wellington and two in Southern California remaining, are Karen Pavicic of Canada with an average of 73.125 per cent and Catherine Haddad-Staller of the U.S. on 72.590 per cent.

An appearance by Laura and Verdades at the World Cup Final would add to the excitement already generated by world No. 1 Charlotte Dujardin of Great Britain and Valegro defending the title they won last year.

Laura and Verdades scored 82.036 per cent in the Freestyle at the Normandy Games in August, just six months after beginning their international Grand Prix career with scores in the low to mid-60 per cent range that did not put them on the radar as a championship combination.

On a horse that she had nurtured and trained from a foal bought by her mother from a video, Laura emerged as a top American rider after a decade spanning two Olympics and two World Games dominated by Steffen Peters.

Ravel and Steffen Peters in the medals ceremony at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky in 2010. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Ravel and Steffen Peters in the medals ceremony at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky in 2010. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Laura brought Verdades home from Europe to rearrange her professional life after a whirlwind journey that began last winter at Global at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, moved to Kentucky in a last-ditch effort to squeak into the U.S. championships in New Jersey where the “newly discovered” combination were thrust into the cauldron of top sport.

Back in central Florida, Verdades enjoyed a few weeks of being what Laura described as a “real horse,” turned out to roll, run and “get dirty.”

Before long, though, Diddy was “climibing the fences” so Laurs put him back into work, mostly long hacks and some bareback riding “just to keep his body loose and his mind busy.

“I have only recently put him back to what most people consider work,” she said, “dressage movements and the double bridle.”

No clinics or intense training, not even with Debbie McDonald that she has come to trust and rely on not only for coaching but also for advice. And barely a word to the world outside their home near Orlando that led to a lot of wild speculation.

“Honestly, I believe keeping him fresh has been the best thing for him,” Laura said. “There are two things that will never change–No. 1 he is not a machine and, No. 2. he is not my personal cash cow.

“He is a living being. I enjoy him every minute of every day. It is as if in his down time he has been reading and studying his dressage.

“He is simply magical and I will do everything I can to preserve that.”

As a result of the experiences of the past year, she said, “Getting on him is like riding a real trained horse now. He understands it all and I can put pressure on without him always getting so emotional.”

For her personally, “the last year made me realize that I am in this sport for a different reason than some other professionals.

“I really love my horse–this horse in particular–but all of my horses.

“It is not that way for everyone which is a surprise to me.

“I feel blessed to be able to do what I love every day and now to be earning a living. This is my dream… and sometimes it feels a lot like work!

“But at the end of the day I could not be more lucky.”

Those who witnessed the pair performing at the elite clinic with U.S. dressage chief Robert Dover and Debbie in Wellington earlier this month used descrptions like “fantastic,” “incredible” and “a partnership that has reached a new level.”

The look on the face of Laura Graves says it all after after riding Verdades in the World Games Freestyle in August, the last competition for the pair. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
The look on the face of Laura Graves says it all after after riding Verdades in the World Games Freestyle in August, the last competition for the pair. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Aside from that clinic, Laura has not competed in Wellington as the winter circuit of seven CDIs is at the mid point with the two World Cup events and the Nations Cup remaining.

For the combination to be considered for the long list for the U.S. team for the critically important Pan Ams she needs to log two CDI results by early April to put them on the long list of four Big Tour and four Small Tour pairs.

Laura is known for preferring to let the results speak for her and said of her immediate plans, “We will take it show by show. There is still nothing definite.”

But adds, “If we can step up our game the way I think we can, I think we could have a strong showing if we end up in Las Vegas.

“Las Vegas would be very exciting!

“In addition to it being a championship on our home turf it will also be an emotional event being at the Thomas & Mack Center and Wizard now retired.

“I would love nothing  more than to ride into that stadium for my good friend Adrienne and coach Debbie.”

Wizard is owned by the Thomas family that also owned Brentina, Debbie’s World Cup champion horse, and for which the stadium at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas is named.

Laura has expressed reservations about the toll on Verdades of competing in Wellington in March, travel to and from Las Vegas for the World Cup in April, competing in Europe in May and June, then heading back to North American for the Pan Ams in July.

Robert Dover points out, however, that the rules for selection of horses and riders for the Pan Am team allow for a combination to skip the European segment in special circumstances.

“The selection criteria for the Pan American Games is clear and does allow for the possibility of a combination having a very high previous scoring record which competes and maintains the same degree of excellence receiving a bye with regard to Europe,” he told dressage-news.com.

“It does not automatically name that combination to the team, however. Four Grand Prix and four small tour combinations will go to Europe and if their scores are better than those of the combinations which received a bye, they will be named to the Pan Am team ahead of the one who stayed home.

“I think this is both wise, considering the welfare of the animals if they in fact have proven and consistent excellent results. Further it allows us to send more combinations to Europe to enhance their experience and exposure as well as America’s depth internationally.

“I feel confident this selection process will work and produce the most prepared and confident team the U.S. can send to Toronto and also be best preparing for Rio and beyond simultaneously.”