By KENNETH J. BRADDICK
Fifteen weeks of sanctioned dressage competitions–five of them CDIs, including three World Cup qualifiers–begin in Palm Beach in Florida this weekend, kicking off one of the most intense show schedules in the world.
The hundreds of dressage riders in South Florida for the Palm Beach competitions include a large contingent of foreign riders, from Sweden’s five-time Olympian Tinne Wilhelmson-Silfven to a host of riders from throughout the Americas hoping to gain a place on their national teams at the quadrennial Pan American Games later this year.
In addition to the competitions at three different show grounds no more than 30 minutes drive time from sub tropical Wellington that is the heart of horse sports in South Florida (and temperatures of 75-48F/24-9C this weekend), a new unrated Young Horse series of three shows is scheduled for the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center with more prize money and lower entry fees than many of the officially sanctioned competitions.
In addition to the shows in Palm Beach, another 16 sanctioned competitions are scheduled throughout Florida during the same four months of the year, most of them within five hours of Wellington.
At stake for international level competitors is the chance to represent their nation at the World Cup Final in Leipzig, Germany at the end of April and the Pan American Games that is held at small tour level scheduled for Guadalajara, Mexico, in mid-October and, for some, the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships.
For Americans, they will also be competing for a place on a funded squad to compete at some top European shows this summer, Developing and Young Horse national championships, Grand Prix Championships and the Pan Am Games selection trials and possibly an Under-25 team competition inaugurated at the World Equestrian Festival in Aachen, Germany in 2010.
However, the jampacked dressage schedule that in terms of duration matches the lineup of hunter-jumper competitions at the Wellington PBIEC and the international polo series a mile (1.6km) down the road is without a showcase centerpiece.
The Exquis World Dressage Masters was the jewel of the season, staged in the glamorous PBIEC International Arena in 2009 and 2010 that saw the world’s top dressage combinations rub shoulders with jumper riders from 30 nations, dozens of them Olympic, world championship and World Cup champions.
But this year riders already planning to be in the U.S. were the only ones ranked within the world’s top 30 combinations to make a firm commitment to WDM in Palm Beach. Without big name stars from Europe like Anky van Grunsven, Edward Gal and Hans Peter Minderhoud from the Netherlands and Germany’s Isabell Werth and Ulla Salzgeber who came to Wellington for at least one of the two previous events, the organizers could not hope to attract enough spectators or sponsors to offset about US$250,000 (€190,000) in costs.
None of the three venues outside of PBIEC haa the atmosphere or the quality of footing of PBIEC whose competition arenas are identical to the 2008 Olympic surfaces provided by Bart Poels of Belgium, but dyed a distinctive coral color to reduce sun glare.
As a result of canceling WDM, organizes of the events at PBIEC will not stage any dressage competitions in the 12 weeks of the Winter Equestrian Festival and its more than US$6 million in prize money, although it has rights to some dressage competition dates.
This year will see another major shift in Palm Beach dressage.
The Palm Beach Dressage Derby, the first international dressage competition in South Florida and almost three decades ago the world’s richest dressage show with US$25,000 in prize money, has seen a change in management. A group including former Danish Olympic, World Cup and WEG competitor Lars Petersen has taken over the show grounds in Loxahatchee 30 minutes from Wellington with promises to create European-style competitions in the midst of a rural area with no hotels or restaurants. The shows will be run by the same team that operates the dressage competitions at the taxpayer-funded Jim Brandon Center 10 minutes from Wellington, popular for its covered main arena and about 200 permanent stables.
A side effect of the growth of high performance dressage in South Florida has been much larger international level classes, and a reduction in national classes. The higher level, many in the dressage community say, has been an evolution of the sport as Florida has grown from a winter circuit for riders fleeing snow and freezing temperatures in the north for a few weeks to a season expanded from November through April and spawning almost nonstop competitions.
(Southern California has long had a year-round schedule, and has 16 competitions during the same four-month period, but spread over an area from north of Los Angeles to San Diego about 150 miles (240km) south. Several of the top riders, including Steffen Peters, Guenter Seidel and Leslie Morse compete while Debbie McDonald, now retired from competition, trains there in winter.)
The first 2011 South Florida dressage competition which is at national level, for example, has more than 200 entries including Katherine Bateson-Chandler on her U.S. 2010 WEG team mount, Nartan; Shawna Harding and her 2010 U.S. Developing Horse champion Rigo; 2007 Pan American Games team and individual gold medalist Christopher Hickey, Florida-based Lars Petersen of Denmark, 2002 WEG silver medalist Lisa Wilcox and 2010 FEI Rising Star Caroline Roffman.
“One of the biggest changes over the years has been the size of the classes and the number of upper level riders,” said Evelyn O’Sullivan who is in semi-retirement after managing the Palm Beach Dressage Derby and associated shows since moving to the Horse Park at Equestrian Estates from its original home a few years ago.
“In the early years, the Grand Prix classes were small, as there were not that many upper level riders or international caliber horses. Recently, the Derby set a record with over 50 entries in the Grand Prix class alone. Another change has been a huge increase in the quality of horses competing, with many being bred right here in the U.S.”
Evelyn was a scribe for judges for many years at the original Derby site at the nearby White Fences Equestrian Center that this year will host recognized competitions in three weeks of the winter circuit.
The Derby has a loyal fan base due partly to being different than the average competition, Evelyn said, and “people from all over the world base their travel plans around the Derby dates.”
Janne Rumbaugh, one of the organizers of the inaugural Palm Beach Derby with its top prize money who maintains a fulltime training and competition schedule, recalled when the Florida circuit was so small that it emulated the hunter-jumper riders of moving from show to show the length of Florida–340 miles (550km) from Jacksonville to Miami. One of the first dressage competition in Wellington was at Palm Beach Polo Club’s Field 1.
She promoted dressage one year by taking her horse to a television station in West Palm Beach. There were so few high level competitors that the organizers paid a Prix St. Georges rider to come from New York on one occasion.
“I love to show and I love that there are so many choices,” Janne said. “It’s incredible. But now you need eight horses to be able to compete at all the shows we have, two for each one of the shows each month. We need a string of horses just like the polo players,” she joked.
The CDI schedule for Palm Beach:
– Jan. 20-23 Gold Coast Dressage Opener CDI-W, Brandon Center, West Palm Beach;
– Feb. 11-13 Wellington Classic Dressage Challenge CDI-W, Brandon, Center, West Palm Beach;
– Mar. 3-6 Palm Beach Dressage Derby CDI-W, Loxahatchee;
– Mar. 10-13 Wellington Classic Dressage Challenge II CDI1*, Brandon Center, West Palm Beach;
– Mar. 23-27 International Horse Sport Champions Cup CDI3*, Loxahatchee.