April 17, 2009--A day that started as a disaster for American riders at the Rolex FEI World Cup Finals turned into a real sparkler for the USA, as Steffen Peters made dressage history, while McLain Ward and Rich Fellers ended the night well-positioned for their own shot at history in the show jumping competition.
The action was practically non-stop from yesterday afternoon into the evening, amid the razzle dazzle of fireworks and acrobats that are key parts of the way horse sports are presented at the Thomas & Mack Center, where the show biz approach offers an extra edge of excitement.
Okay, I'll get the bad news out of the way first. Californian Jan Ebeling, who led off the dressage Grand Prix on Rafalca, had his hands full with the spooky mare, who immediately took umbrage as she headed toward C after the halt, which was not square. Her half-passes were resistant, she took too many steps backing up, etc. You get the idea. Poor Jan was marked at 53.830 to finish last, and his score was so low he can't compete tomorrow in the freestyle that determines the Cup title. Ouch. We were still reeling from that when Leslie Morse, another California resident, rode Kingston into the arena and was excused only moments after starting her test. The horse was "not even," as judge Maribel Alonso de Quinanos tactfully put it when I questioned her. Leslie started to ride out of the ring, then dismounted and walked out with her stallion, who had looked fabulous in Wednesday's warm-up. The horse was, of course, going to undergo a major veterinary examination, but it's a shame that he's out, since he can put on a very powerful performance.
All this was on top of a few other dressage mishaps. I only got a glimpse of Parzival, who I was eager to see in action, when he walked around in the warm-up on Wednesday but never broke into a trot. This talented chestnut is the ride of the Netherlands' Adelinde Cornelissen, and has been a sensation when he is not spooking. But he suffered a tendon problem and was withdrawn after the warm-up.
And Maribel, who started out the week as the assistant technical delegate, found herself at the judge's table when she was asked to replace Vincenzo Truppa, who was on a flight from Italy that had to make an emergency landing in the Atlantic (Ireland or Iceland, it wasn't clear) because the pilot had a heart attack.
"It's one possibility in a million that something like this happens," she said, still amazed.
"I was shocked. But it's always lovely to judge these kind of horses."
Now on to the good news, starting with Steffen. He had the ride of his life to win the Grand Prix on Ravel, who never should have missed out on the bronze medal at the Olympics. There was no disagreement among the judges; all of them marked him first, and gave Steffen 9's for his seat and use of the aids (no one else got that honor.)
For his part, Steffen said, "I need to give all credit to Ravel. He made me look good. I didn't have to push him that hard. He offered the movements. It really felt like he wanted to be there, wanted to do it."
That ride was a partnership of great harmony, a demonstration of what dressage is supposed to be about; supple, effortless, completely correct; smooth as a spool of silk thread unwinding or Ginger and Fred dancing.
Anky van Grunsven and Isabell Werth were relatively close to each other, in second and third places, but Steffen's 77.915 percent score left them in the dust. It was a personal best for him, and the only time an American rider has won the Grand Prix at the World Cup Finals.
Jubilant as he rode around the arena after his test, pumping his fist, giving a thumbs-up and grinning ear to ear, Steffen's mood changed during the awards ceremony when The Star-Spangled Banner was sung. He wiped tears from his eyes while gazing at the flag and taking in the whole scene.
"There was no doubt I got very emotional about it," he conceded. Steffen is a native of Germany who is a naturalized citizen, so I can only imagine the Germans wish they had him back now!
Steffen and I talked about what this performance means, a change in the long-running world order of dressage.
I asked judge Linda Zang about the significance of Steffen's achievement, and she said, "For the U.S., I think it gives everyone hope that we'll climb back up on the ladder after the Olympics. It also gives people the feeling that there's going to be more opportunity to come above some of the riders that are winning now, because Anky and Isabell are always winning. Steffen breaking that barrier a little bit gives hope to a lot of riders all over that it is possible."
It must be noted that nine-time Cup winner Anky is defending her title on her second-string mount, IPS Painted Black, rather than her top horse, Salinero. He didn't qualify because she has not been able to show him twice this season as required (she had back problems.) But she took her 74.170 percent mark in stride as the true sportswoman she is, always doing her best to promote dressage, even though she was hoarse from a throat problem she believes stemmed from the hotel air conditioning.
Isabell's 73.745 percent on Satchmo was the result of several mistakes. One, a weak first pirouette, came after the click, click, click of motor-drive cameras proved to be a distraction, and she asked photographers to restrain themselves. But she was quick to acknowledge that her problems extended beyond the pirouette or shutterbugs.
"Too many mistakes," she said, and they included extra one-tempis; 17 instead of 15.
Satchmo, who famously bucked in the Olympics, triggering a storm of controversy over Isabell's individual silver medal, seemed more restrained than usual.
I asked Isabell if she had been riding conservatively, and she responded that indeed, she wasn't taking "the last risk," waiting instead "to see how he's reacting in the atmosphere."
She did get a 10 on one of her half-passes, while Anky got a 10 for her extended trot. Steffen didn't get any 10s, but his consistent 8s and 9s paid off.
Now he has to maintain his momentum tomorrow night. The Grand Prix doesn't count toward the title; it's in effect a qualifier to get there. You can bet Anky and Isabell will be cleaning up their acts as much as possible, but Steffen has learned the hard way not to worry about what they do.
In January at the Exquis World Dressage Masters Show, he knew Anky had a high score in the freestyle, so he varied from his usual routine and tried to catch up.
"It was one of the biggest mistakes I ever made," Steffen admitted. He lost when Ravel resisted the pressure and reared up in the first piaffe.
So he'll definitely be more sensitive to his horse.
"If he offers the same as he did today, we could be in good shape...but we certainly can't rest on this work," Steffen said.
Show jumping kicked off a few hours later with a one-round speed test, in which knockdowns were penalized by the addition of 4 seconds to a rider's time.
Rich Fellers, the surprise runner-up in last year's Cup, had the unenviable honor of being the lead-off entry over Tony D'Ambrosio's course, which was full of options that could cut seconds off the time in exchange for the appropriate risk.
Actually, Rich didn't originally qualify for the Cup. But fellow Californians Will Simpson and Jill Humphrey, who were ahead of him in line, bowed out so he could compete. He is very grateful, and did them proud with a clean round in 58.50 seconds.
Five horses later, Christina Leibherr, an Olympian from Switzerland making her Cup debut on L.B. No Mercy, bettered his mark with a time of 57.47 seconds.
But the real excitement came near the end of the class, when McLain Ward -- who won this leg the last time the Cup was in Vegas, in 2007 -- made a daring turn to the 11th of 12 fences with Sapphire and turned in a time of 57.73. He didn't quite catch Christina, but the turn to the Bellagio oxer paid off for him when so many riders before him had tried it and failed.
McLain, 36th to go, was followed four horses later by the lethal combination of defending champion Meredith Michaels Beerbaum and Shutterfly. The bad part is that the bay gelding is 16; the good part is that the duo has been together so long that they move as one over the fences.
In designing the course, Tony's thinking was to offer enough possibilities "so a rider could tailor a particular track...to suit their horses' strength. There was more than one way to be successful." I think riders had to do a lot of thinking to come up with a plan. Meredith chose an option that only one other rider tried, in order to set herself up for an inside turn to the Rolex double, fences 7A and B.
"Anthony presented us options where we could take a really short turn, add a stride and still be fast enough," said Meredith.
"That's unique in course designing. Often they force you to leave out a stride to keep up the pace. I thought it was a brilliant course." Of course she did; she went to the top of the leaderboard with a 56.48-second round that had the crowd cheering.
Still, McLain and Rich, in third and fourth place respectively, are well-positioned for a good run at becoming the first American since 1987 to win the Cup. I'd say anyone in the top 10 has a good shot at the big prize, since there are four more rounds to come through Sunday.
"For sure, my focus is the whole week," said McLain.
"You have to take it one day at a time." He noted that in planning what to do on the course, "You had to be careful not to get trapped into doing all the options. This is an event with a little bit of stamina. It's a long week, and I'm just gong to take it one day at a time."
The rest of the Americans are further back and will have to struggle just to break the top 10. Mandy Porter of California (another one! Seems to be their show) is next-closest, 15th with San Diego, while Christine McCrea with the aptly named Vegas is 17th. For me, the biggest disappointment was Up Chiqui, who can be a speedball. But he and Kent Farrington took 60.96 seconds to get around, and dropping a rail at the red and white Swiss Cross fence put them 20th at 64.96 seconds with the penalty added.
Like so many of the riders, Meredith, a native of California who married a German and took that citizenship, was effusive about the way Vegas presents the Cup.
"It's a great event every time it's been here," said Meredith, the 2005 Cup winner at Thomas & Mack.
Thus, it's a real shame to think that this is the last time for years, or maybe forever, that the Cup will be held in Vegas. For me, it has cast a pall over the fifth Cup renewal here. This city has so much to offer, and its role as a destination makes it more exciting to have an equestrian event here.
Consider that more than 6,000 people showed up on a Thursday afternoon to watch dressage during a recession. It's pretty impressive, but even so, ticket sales have lagged behind 2007, the last time the Cup was here. So citing the economy, the folks at Las Vegas Events, which puts on the Cup, withdrew their bids for 2011 and 2013 (they only wanted the Cup on non-Olympic and World Equestrian Games years.)
I asked McLain how he felt about the situation.
I'll be back with you later this evening with a postcard from Brentina's retirement ceremony. That should be a real tear-jerker for all involved. She is one special horse.