Freestyle wows at Windsor
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It was a fabulous evening of dressage under the lengthening shadows of Windsor Castle to get the Al Shira’aa CDI4* underway with the Grand Prix test. 13 riders from seven nations came forward under judges Bernard Maurel (FRA) at C, Peter Storr (GBR) at E, Sandy Philips (GBR) at H, Jacques van Daele (BEL) at M and Susan Hoevenaars (AUS) at B.
Proceedings opened with Iran’s Litta Soheila Sohi, who continues to make history with every competition she contests, with Air FK and the duo produced a safe test to post 60.76%. Next was an eagerly awaited debut...that of Carl Hester’s newest star, Hawtins Delicato. Charlotte Dujardin has ridden ‘Del’ competitively until recently when Carl did a few ‘low key’ Grand Prix classes to get the Diamond Hit sired gelding qualified to come to Windsor. In competing was already a small victory for Hawtins Stud, based not too far from Carl, who bred him as he was the every horse to carry the stud name down the centre line in an international Grand Prix.
Carl really rates this horse but he’s hot, very hot and is light on competition experience so it was clear he had a task on his hands to contain the natural exuberance but produce work which impressed the judges. Tension crept in which showed in the contact at times and there were a few green mistakes but what a debut. The expression was incredible, the trot work impressive and there’s a passage worth a ten waiting to come out and the judges rewarded a beautiful produced test with 75.71%. Carl told Windsor TV, “I’m ecstatic. In the arena walk last night I couldn’t get him to walk or halt! He’s a big wobbly baby having a go at Grand Prix and just got better and better as the test went on. I went out to get a good score and as we do more, his trust will build.” He later added; “He has such a talent for the difficult stuff and so much promise for the future. I’m pleased the judges are willing to give those marks when they know there’s more to come.”
Irish challenger Kate Dwyer was next with Snowdon Faberge, in just their fifth international start. A polished test with plenty of potential was rewarded with 66.34%, a new personal GP best for the duo. Then on to Singapore in the shape of Caroline Chew and Dr M Chew’s Tribiani, who are trained by Matt Frost. This pair have gained in confidence as their partnership grows with each outing and today they looked in touch but tension just crept in as the test went on to prevent the top marks but 65.3% was a more than respectable score in this company.
Our FEI World Cup finallists were next, Hayley Watson-Greaves and Rubins Nite, or Squeaks. The Rubin Royal gelding set off on a mission with his partypiece extended trot and was a ball of energy throughout the test. They rode one of the best canter zig zags of the night with great symmetry and correct changes. High quality, crisp transitions were also a highlight – not to be underestimated at this level. 69.02% was their score.
Next in were former Young Rider European gold medallists for Germany, Juliette Piotrowski and the Sandro Hit gelding, Sir Diamond. They’re still finding their way at Grand Prix but were impressive and with more match practice, will soon be making a loud noise in the senior ranks. 68.37% was the score. The Contango sired mare Asther De Jeu, produced to small tour level by Edward Gal, was in next with Tosca Visser van der Meulen. They’re only in their second season of Grand Prix and a few errors gave them 66.43%.
It was then the next home side rider, Gareth Hughes with Anne Keen’s Don Carissimo. This duo have had a testing 12 months since we saw them here last year. It was a nervy performance packed full of potential but it set them on the road to selection for the European Championships only for ‘Darcy’ to go lame moments before the first horse inspection. They were back for Olympia where some nerves got to him in the intense atmosphere but they clearly wintered well with a great performance this evening. It was a confident start with an effortless but impressive first diagonal of extended trot followed later by a lovely first piaffe, a movement which can fluster Darcy, but not tonight. The final centre line piaffe-passage-piaffe was a pleasure to watch and finished with a four square immobile halt. 70.73% replied the judges.
It was then the turn of Oxfordshire based Dane Ulrik Moelgaard riding Claus Munkedal’s Michigan. With five years at Grand Prix together, this was the most experienced pairing in the competition but ‘Mickey’ finds the big occasion daunting and there was some great work, particularly the final extended trot, which left the judges divided. One had him fifth, one 11th, but 66.95% was the score.
On to Richard Davison and the homebred Bubblingh, owned by Gwendolyn Meyer. This was another horse which showed much improvement in his ability to cope with the big stage from last year’s nervy performance. He looked much more at home under Windsor’s lights and Richard was really able to ride him and show him off. There was great ‘sit’ in the piaffe and no one showed tighter, rhythmical canter pirouettes. A final good halt and a large exhale of breath brought a smile to Richard's face – as did a score of 70.82%.
Then for Britain was Sarah Millis with the super sensitive Hofjuwel, owned by Katja Kuistila. It was a nervy start and the levels crept up and he became quite a tricky ride for Sarah, not really accepting the contact or leg as she’d have liked. There were moments where he was on side and picked up marks but a difference of opinion in the one time canter changes, double marked, cost them and prevented a top score. They posted 63.87%.
Dutch rider Thamar Zweistra made her first trip back to Britain since 2007 with Stal Hexagon’s Hexagon’s Double Dutch to compete in their ninth Grand Prix together. The ten year old stallion impressed for 67.87%.
The final rider was perhaps the most anticipated, Charlotte Dujardin. Her new star, Mount St John Freestyle has just completed just two Grands Prix previously but such is the promise of Mount St John’s Fidermark x Donnerhall mare, she was the red hot favourite the win. This is a horse with wow factor, natural talent and an overwhelming desire to please her rider. The opening extended trot earned eights and nines from the judges and set the tone for things to come. Every question Charlotte asked, Freestyle answered. Beautifully on the aids, an effortless passage/piaffe which incredible elevation and impressive canter pirouettes followed. There were some green mistakes, only to be expected of a nine year old at this stage of her career; at times she almost tried too hard and Charlotte had to do her best to contain her. 78.5% was the final score for a unanimous victory, over 3% more than on her international debut just a month ago.
“I’m really pleased with her!” exclaimed Charlotte. “There were little blips but it’s just going to get better and better the more test riding she does as she can do it all at home. She’s just brilliant, she has no fear and really wants to please and get everything right. She tried so hard and gave it everything.” Charlotte explained that Freestyle has been feeling a bit tight through the back as she came into season a day ago but it didn’t affect the performance tonight. “She never says no!” said Charlotte.
So it was a British domination of the top five places – a top five brimming with promise and excitement for the home fans. Carl Hester summed up the performances from his view; “Both our horses have now done three Grands Prix and we know what’s to come as we know what they can produce at home. They’re world class horses and we have the World Championships in our sights.”