March 29, 2017—Only one of the riders who will be in the ring for the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping and FEI World Cup™ Dressage Finals has ridden at CenturyLink in the past. That’s Christian Heineking, a Texas-based German show jumper, who was a regular at the annual International Omaha show in the facility.
For the others, the arena was terra incognita, or maybe terra trepidation. And Omaha itself? Most didn’t know what to expect. But after a couple of days at the arena, the verdict is unanimous.
“Marvelous,” is the way horse owner Madeline Winter-Schulze put it after watching Isabell Werth of Germany, favored to take the dressage title, getting her Wiehegold OLD used to the ring.
“If you build it, they will come,” said Jon Garner, director of sport for the competition. To which I added, “If you build it right, they will come,” and that is what has happened.
“What they lack in experience they make up for in enthusiasm,” Will Connell, the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s director of sport, said of the Omaha Equestrian Foundation, which is putting on the show.
Foundation chairman Lisa Roskens, who came up with the idea of hosting the Cup in her hometown and then followed through, is seeing her dream become reality this week. She’s going, going, going, from the crack of dawn until deep into the night, but the amateur show jumper stole a few minutes to talk with me about how her dream came true. Click on the right-pointing arrow to see the video)
Unlike Berlin, Paris, Las Vegas and Vienna, a few of the cities that have hosted the Cup in the past and which have loads of attractions daily, Omaha is focused on the first world championship to come to town. Stories about it are on TV, in the magazines and on the front page of the newspaper. It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t heard about it; even the person who checked out my order at the supermarket was eager to discuss it.
So what do all the Omaha newbies think of where they’ve landed for the world indoor championships in their disciplines? They are thrilled with the CenturyLink Center, where, unlike the case with some previous Cup venues, everything is under one roof. That’s the stabling, the warm-up, the vendors and the arena (of course). There’s also a sky bridge to the host hotel across the street, so today’s rain didn’t dampen any of the riders or officials.
I was chatting about Omaha with Carl Hester, who’s riding Nip Tuck in the dressage. He was the mastermind who engineered his country’s gold medals at the 2012 London Olympics. Carl is the part-owner of the great Valegro and the mentor of Charlotte Dujardin, that horse’s rider.
This was not our first Omaha discussion. The previous one took place a year or so ago in Florida at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival, where Carl said he wasn’t sure what he’d do for amusement in Omaha. Although he maintained his comments were tongue-in-cheek, he got a big response after people read my story.
“I had more emails and messages than you can possibly imagine. Really nice,” Carl reported. The gist, he said, was that “`We would like to assure you that you will have a great time in Omaha.’ I did thank them all. I’ve got a list as long as my arm of things to do while I’m here that people bothered to send me.”
He is among those who are incredibly impressed by what they’ve experienced at CenturyLink.
“It’s absolutely perfect. It reminds me very much of Olympia (the British Christmas show). I always think my horse is a pretty good test of an atmosphere. And I got slightly the shock of my life when he walked around the edge and didn’t look left or right.”
U.S. dressage coach Robert Dover was awed.
“It’s probably the finest facility in my life of going to World Cups that there’s ever been,” he said.
“The ease of being here, both for the athletes and everybody that’s part of this; it’s all under one roof and couldn’t be prettier.”
The U.S. show jumping coach, Robert Ridland, also had compliments for the venue. And he’s quite the judge, because he used to run the World Cup when it was in Las Vegas. Click on the right-pointing arrow to hear what Robert had to say.
Although the activity today was just jumping and dressage warm-ups, it was a ticketed event and people turned out to roam the marvelous trade fair, one of the biggest I’ve ever seen at a show. People could shop or dine and watch the horses warm up without even having bought a ticket.
For this morning’s dressage familiarization (a less formal one also took place yesterday) two or three riders were in the ring at a time for 30 minutes, getting their mounts used to the venue.
It was interesting to see the USA’s Laura Graves on Verdades and Germany’s Isabell in the arena as the final pairing: the former cosmetologist and the lawyer, the sensational relative newcomer and the most decorated equestrian in Olympic history. It was a compare and contrast experience.
Verdades’ expression was impressive, better even than what I saw in Florida last month. Meanwhile, Isabell did some impressive collected work with Wiehegold, doing what we used to call a “teacup canter,” though I don’t think that’s a technical dressage term!
Isabell is favored to win, but Laura might give her a run for her money. That makes it interesting, though one seasoned competitor who is a self-described “realist” believes everyone but Isabell is riding for second place. We shall see. The Grand Prix gets under way tomorrow, with the freestyle for the title on Saturday afternoon.
The jumpers also did their own thing with the 90 seconds they had in the ring. McLain Ward (HH Azur) and Todd Minikus (Babalou), two riders on whom I’m keeping my eye, just took a couple of fences and left. Laura Kraut jumped them all in great style with Zeremonie. Everyone had a plan to use their time to the best purpose for readying their horses, who will start in the speed leg tomorrow night, with more jumping Friday night and Sunday afternoon.
I talked with Dr. Jack Snyder, a veterinarian who is a part owner of Babalou. She’s his first World Cup horse, though he has been involved at World Cups previously. Click on the right-pointing arrow to watch the video of his comments.
Be sure to keep checking for my postcards. I’ll be back tomorrow with the latest.