By Louise Parkes
Fresh from her glorious triple-gold medal-winning triumph at the Longines FEI European Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden in August, defending series champion and Rio 2016 Olympic team champion, Germany’s Isabell Werth, gallops back onto centre stage this weekend when she lines out at the opening leg of the FEI World Cup™ Dressage 2017/2018 Western European League at Herning in Denmark.
This world-class annual indoor series brings Dressage, nick-named “the sport of the dancing horses” during the London 2012 Olympic Games, up close and personal to audiences at venues across three continents, with a total of 37 qualifiers taking place in Western and Central Europe, North America and the Pacific region. The world’s best athletes and horses compete to qualify for the grand final in Paris next April and the chance to win the most coveted individual title in the sport, FEI World Cup™ Dressage champion.
The nine-leg Western European qualifying League is particularly competitive and 48-year-old Werth, the most decorated equestrian athlete of all time, will be aiming to clinch the FEI World Cup™ Dressage title for the fourth time at the end of this 33rd season. She won her first in Gothenburg, (SWE) way back in 1992 and claimed the top step of the podium again in Las Vegas (USA) in 2007 before coming back to do it one more time in Omaha (USA) earlier this year. This brought the number of German victories to nine, but the Dutch still head the roll of honour with 13.
The sport of Dressage has continued to enjoy an explosion in popularity throughout the last decade as spectators have been spellbound by spine-tingling performances from the best horse-and-rider combinations. The Netherlands’ Edward Gal and the fabulous black stallion Totilas were just one of those who touched their hearts, and then along came Great Britain’s Charlotte Dujardin with the amazing Valegro who broke every record in the book. In 2014 the British pair scored 94.300 to win the FEI World Cup™ Dressage qualifier at Olympia in London (GBR), beating their own previous world record of 93.975 set at the same venue a year earlier. Whether any combination can improve on that remains to be seen as this new season rolls along, but it’s certainly going to take something pretty special to do it.
Werth’s 2016 Olympic and 2017 European successes were all recorded with the lovely mare Weihegold, but it is the 16-year-old gelding Don Johnson that she brings to Herning, where she will be joined by fellow-German Jessica Von Bredow-Werndl (Zaire-E). The Netherlands will be represented by double FEI World Cup™ Dressage champion Adelinde Cornelissen (Aqiedo), Patrick van der Meer (Zippo) and Katja Gevers (Thriller), while the Swedish contingent includes Tinne Vilhelmson Silfven (Paridon Magi), Rose Mathisen (Zuidenwind) and that ultimate showman, Patrik Kittel, with Delaunay. However it is the Danes they may well all have to watch out for.
Anna Zibrandtsen showed formidable form with Arlando at the European Championships even though the 23-year-old rider and the former Dutch team horse are only a very new partnership, while Agnete Kirk Thinggaard and Jojo Az can always be relied upon to pull out all the stops. But the biggest threat of all should be the European triple-bronze medal-winning duo of Cathrine Dufour and Atterupgaards Cassidy.
They simply sparkled in Gothenburg and can be expected to make a big impression as the season moves on to Lyon (FRA), Stuttgart (GER), Salzburg (AUT), London (GBR), Amsterdam (NED), Neumunster (GER), Gothenburg (SWE) and ’s-Hertogenbosch (NED) before the Final returns to Paris (FRA) for only the second time in its history. More than a quarter of a century has passed since Finland’s Kyra Kyrklund and Matador were crowned champions at Paris-Bercy in 1991 and so much has happened since then.
The FEI World Cup™ Dressage series has gone from strength to strength, and when the Final returns to the “City of Lights” next year it’s going to be glorious!