Carl Hester pipped his super-star protégé, fellow-Olympian and world no. 1 rider Charlotte Dujardin for victory in tonight’s spell-binding sixth leg of the Reem Acra FEI World Cup™ Dressage 2015/2016 Western European League at Olympia in London (GBR). Riding Nip Tuck, the 11-year-old gelding with which he helped clinch team silver at this summer’s FEI European Championships in Aachen, Germany, the 48-year-old rider delivered a performance that simply demonstrated why he has long been a legend in this sport.
Winner of the third leg of the series in Stockholm, Sweden last month, Hans Peter Minderhoud from The Netherlands lined up third with Glock’s Flirt while, on a great night for the home-country contenders, Lara Griffith claimed fourth spot with Rubin Al Asad.
Ground Jury President, Great Britain’s Stephen Clarke, put tonight’s competition into perspective when he said, “it was fantastic, the whole level was really high with all the riders going for it. Hans Peter and Charlotte both did great tests, but then Carl came in with a degree of difficulty that was just amazing. He spent the first five minutes on the centre line! It was a test with a great degree of difficulty that worked, and that’s why he won.”
Hester’s influence on tonight’s competition even extended to the rider who held pole position until after the halfway stage. Trainer and rider, 32-year-old Hayley Watson-Greaves, is coached by the man who joined Dujardin on the British gold medal winning side at the London 2012 Olympic Games. And she sparkled when second to go with the fabulous black gelding Rubins Nite, taking all the risks to post a mark of 75.075.
It was fellow-countrywoman Griffith who demoted her from the top of the order, showing rhythm and relaxation as her 13-year-old gelding strutted his stuff to a rousing Scottish-themed musical score. Posting 78.025 for a test the judges described as “close to perfection technically”, this 27-year-old rider was always going to finish well in the frame, but Dujardin created a whole new parameter when next into the arena with Uthopia.
The 14-year-old stallion has not shown for the last two years and Dujardin has only competed him “seven or eight times” during her sensational career which has principally been dominated by her extraordinary partnership with the amazing gelding Valegro. But she stormed to victory in yesterday’s Grand Prix, pinning Hester and Nip Tuck into runner-up spot ahead of Minderhoud and Glock’s Flirt, and a repeat performance seemed very much on the cards this evening.
The pair produced breathtaking extended trot and fabulous tempi changes, and although their final few movements didn’t come together they stamped 82.550 on their calling card, leaving it up to the rest to chase that. Minderhoud followed with a great effort that earned 80.975, but, second last to go, it was clear that Hester wasn’t riding for runner-up spot this time out.
“I just chucked everything at it to see what I could do! I know the degree of difficulty is being stepped up so I took every movement that was difficult and just rode it one day, wrote it down and then did it again the next day. With this horse I have no choice, if I want to be in the top lot I have to do something that showcases that” he said after posting the winning mark of 83.750.
Stephen Clarke said at the post-competition press conference, “this man (Hester) just keeps opening all sorts of chapters! It was certainly a very exciting test and the music also worked beautifully. It wasn’t just that it was a difficult test, but that he managed to make it look easy. Pirouettes on centre line, both of the them were really really good, he kept adding to the degree of difficulty and it really worked,” he added.
Never say never
Hester said that Nip Tuck has taught him to “never say never!” He had a long history of runner-up placings at Olympia since he first competed at the hugely popular Christmas fixture back in 2003, so this result was particularly satisfying. “I’m very proud of Nip Tuck, I’ve had him since he was a year old and he’s still only 11. He’s over 18 hands high, not a traditional dressage horse, not really made to do dressage, but in his head he is a gold medallist and that’s why his body gets better and better”, he explained.
Dujardin, who affectionately calls Hester “grandad”, said she didn’t mind having to settle for second place tonight. “If there’s one person to be beaten by it’s granddad, he inspires me every day”, she said. “Watching him made me have goose-pimples. He said he was going to nail his floorplan tonight and he did such a cracking job, he made it look effortless. I’m so thrilled for him because he’s always wanted to win here and he’s done it at last!” said the rider who, with her no. 1 horse Valegro, holds every record and every title in the sport.
Today’s third placing has now promoted Hans Peter Minderhoud to the top of the Reem Acra FEI World Cup™ Dressage Western European League table. I’m very lucky that I have three fantastic horses”, the Dutchman said tonight. “I did two qualifiers with Glock’s Romanov and two with Flirt, and I will do two next year with Johnson and then decide which one to ride in the Final” he explained.
“Yesterday it was quite close in the Grand Prix, I knew it would be hard to beat one of the Brit superstars, but they are great friends and I’m very happy for them!” he insisted.
Hester meanwhile mused about how much better he can do with tonight’s winning horse. “I missed my canter passage, I didn’t nail the transition and the walk isn’t relaxed. The halt was very difficult at end because he’s so used to everyone clapping, so there are still more points I can work on but I need to keep competing in this sort of atmosphere” he said.
For the moment however Nip Tuck won’t be under any pressure. “He will have until the new year off, he’s very energetic and keeps himself very fit and is quite happy living out in field. So he will do that until January.”
He hopes that Uthopia, whose previous achievements include European team gold in Rotterdam (NED) in 2011 and Olympic team gold at London 2012 will be a reserve horse for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. “Charlotte will hopefully qualify him in Amsterdam” Hester said tonight. So there is every incentive to look forward to the next leg of the Reem Acra series at the Dutch fixture at the end of January.
Photos: FEI/Jon Stroud