Charlotte Dujardin retained her individual grand prix dressage medal at Rio’s Olympic equestrian centre with a stunning round on Valegro. Her winning score of 93.857 was the third highest of all time, beaten only by herself. Still, though, a high‑quality competition boiled down a thrilling last ditch finish in the baking Rio sun.
Dujardin rode out 14th of 18 competitors in dressage’s ultimate event, performing a secretive new routine seen only once in public shortly before the Games. She produced a stunning display of conjoined, expressive homo-equine balletics, drawing whoops and cheers from a healthy crowd and riding from the arena in tears after her final competitive ride on a horse that has been a constant companion.
Then came the wait as her main rival, the formidable six-times Olympic gold medallist Isabell Werth of Germany, rode last. Werth, who has a chequered doping past having served a six-month suspension from the sport in 2009 after a banned substance was found in her horse, had finished with the top score in the team event last week. Here she produced a fine ride of her own but could only slip into second place.
For Dujardin the result is the culmination of four years of transformative dressage during which she has raised the bar for the sport and confirmed her status as its great innovator and current all-round superstar. Valegro will now retire, severing a career-long partnership.
“I’ve been riding him since he was five years old,” Dujardin said. “He’s literally unbeatable and won everything there is to win. I want people to remember him as the most amazing horse that he is.”
It was a thoroughly dramatic day all round, with some very minor crowd unrest at one stage as a group of Spanish fans booed the judges over a perceived scoring injustice and briefly seemed to become involved with a German section.
Riding shortly after Dujardin, Severo Jesús Jurado had been marked a huge 10 points off the lead despite a flashy, showy routine, later politely played down by Britain’s Carl Hester as something of a crowd-pleaser, with its one-handed finish, its elements of rather ragged flamenco style flourish. The Spanish continued to boo at the end, then were booed in turn by the Germans around them. Happily the disturbance did not escalate but these are not scenes dressage will want to see.
There was drama of a more domestic nature for Dujardin after the competition had finished as her fiancé, Dean Wyatt Golding, a former marathon runner and triathlete, unveiled a T-shirt with the slogan “Can we get married now?” Dujardin later confirmed this was not actually a proposal as they are already engaged, simply an expression of mild impatience.
She will now have time for such things after gold here confirmed her own progression from novice champion in 2012 to the sport’s outstanding star, the Usain Bolt of dressage, a game-changing performer who has embraced as her own the freestyle.
“It was an amazing feeling in there,” Dujardin said. “I’ve had a really lovely time. I thought this could be the last [with Valegro], so I had to go in there and enjoy it. I think he knew I was thinking that because he really looked after me and helped me.”
Hester, Dujardin’s mentor and stable-mate, laid down an early marker, riding out seventh and posting a solid 82.482 on his beloved Nip And Tuck to lead from the front. Steadily he was hauled in. Tinne Silfven-Wilhelmsson on Don Aurelio produced a flashy ride to an orchestral Beach Boys medley to snatch second. Kristina Bröring-Sprehe went top of the leader board with a fine, expressive 87.14 that would keep her in bronze medal position at the end.
Then came the big guns. First up was Dujardin on the wonderful Valegro, a powerful and elegant black gelding, miraculously responsive to the promptings of her heels and fingertips. “Come on Charlotte, we’re all riding with you,” trilled the voice of the BBC’s dressage commentary, as Dujardin emerged to a samba-ish drum rhythm, composed by Tom Hunt specially for the competition.
She began with a perfectly measured prance across the ring, an immaculately raked beige sandpit, with floral grass arrangements and scattered judging pagodas. Valegro’s trot was immaculate, his turns tight, Dujardin erect beneath her controversial crash helmet, replacement for the traditional top hat in part as a move to encourage more young riders to wear protection.
Was the pirouette a little loose, the finish a little skittish? Frankly, who knows, beyond the inner technical circle of this thrillingly refined connoisseur’s sport. It was, though, a lovely, stirring spectacle, tribute to Dujardin’s own driving part in the making-over of this ailing discipline from doomed Euro-aristo pastime to bravura Olympic display sport. The freestyle may have troubled the purists at first but it has also thoroughly rebooted the sport since it first appeared in Atlanta, the most vivid and punkishly expressive of all the dressage forms.
Dujardin and Valegro left nothing out there on the sand, exiting to rolling cheers from the British sections of the crowd. There was huge tension as the judges conferred. And then there it was: 93.85, a sensational score but enough to put Dujardin way out in top spot and en route to a complete destruction of an elite field.
Dorothee Schneider of Germany came and went, Brian May’s squealing guitar stylings soundtracking an oddly sombre routine. Jurado produced that oddly jarring round, all wild, showy turns, drawing shrill cheers from the dressage incognoscenti for a technically loose flamenco style prance at the death.
It was enough for third place but not for long as Laura Graves of the US bettered it with a nerveless ride. And so it came to the final turn and Werth. As her score flashed up there were cheers and more boos. Dujardin appeared to take the acclaim before an intimate medal ceremony close to the stands; followed by an informal finish as Dujardin trotted round the edge of the arena waving to the crowd, a great champion in her sport and now the 16th British gold medallist of these Games.
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