April 18, 2009 -- Happily for the people who bought tickets to tomorrow's Rolex FEI World Cup Show Jumping finale, the sport mandates against foregone conclusions. But Meredith Michaels Beerbaum, the world's number one ranked rider, is giving quite an impression of being a sure thing to take her third Cup title.
Last night, she won her second consecutive leg of the competition at the Thomas & Mack Center with the amazing Shutterfly. The two are so effective together that as someone appropriately suggested (considering the sponsor), their partnership looked like clockwork.
McLain Ward pushed Sapphire as hard as he could in the jump-off, but his 33.77-second mark still fell short when Meredith crossed the finish line in an amazing 32.77 seconds, a full second faster. It may not sound like much, but it was hard to figure how McLain's performance could be improved on until she demonstrated that so effectively.
Naturally, being the competitor that he is, McLain isn't giving up hope, although Meredith's form is daunting.
"You don't want to wish a mistake on anybody, but anything could happen," McLain observed. And actually, we've seen the perfect example of that right here with Meredith herself.
Two years ago, in the last edition of the Cup to be held in Las Vegas, Meredith was tied for the lead going into the final day. She and Shutterfly were motoring around the course when she lost her balance as the horse went left and she went right. Meredith hit the ground, stunning both the crowd and herself, ending her shot at the title.
So she is anything but complacent heading into the two-rounder that will decide her fate.
McLain graciously offered some advice to her for the last day: "Stay on."
The time first jump-off class didn't work out exactly the way course designer Tony D'Ambrosio had planned it. He had expected eight or 10 horses to qualify; instead, he got 13, which actually turned out to be a terrific treat that kept the crowd of more than 7,000 on the edge of their seats.
"Maybe I was being a little bit conservative...maybe a little too conservative. Maybe I held back just a little bit too much," mused Tony, who was considering the fact that the horses have two big rounds to jump tomorrow when he drew up his plans.
But whatever, he really hit the nail on the head as far as the key players go. When I talked to McLain a few weeks before the Cup, he had touted Meredith and the Netherlands' Albert Zoer as his big competition. So guess who was third? Albert wound up in that spot with a clean trip in 34.72 seconds on Oki Doki, who, as his rider noted, is "a slow galloper." But he added, "My horse is in very good shape and I look forward to Sunday," when, it should be said, power jumping is more important than speed. That plays to Oki Doki's strength, and if Albert won the Cup, it would go a long way toward making up for having to miss last year's Olympics after he broke his leg.
McLain is on a quest to reclaim the Cup for the U.S., which hasn't owned it since 1987. but other also Americans are in a position that could give them that honor. Meredith is first with zero World Cup penalties under the competition's complicated scoring system. McLain is second with 2 penalties, while Albert is third with 4 and the USA's Rich Feller's on Flexible--the runner-up last year to Shutterfly--is fourth with 6 penalties. Beezie Madden on the rapidly improving Danny Boy, who was very impressive yesterday, is in a three-way tie for eighth with 14 penalties, behind three-time Cup champ Rodrigo Pessoa of Brazil on Rufus (8 penalties). Ahead of him and behind Fellers is Christina Liebherr of Switzerland with L.B. No Mercy, who refused the second fence off a tight turn in the jump-off. Tied with Christina for fifth place is Denmark's Thomas Velin with Grim St. Clair. Richard Spooner of the U.S. is tied for 11th on Cristallo. It should be mentioned that another American, Cup first-timer Hillary Dobbs, is tied for 14th with Quincy B after a convincing performance that got her into the jump-off, where she had one rail down.
There are some, however, who count Meredith--a native of California who trained with George Morris, now the U.S. coach--as the first American winner since Katherine Burdsall took the title 22 years ago. I don't see it that way. Meredith became a German citizen when she married Marcus Beerbaum (brother of former Cup winner Ludger Beerbaum)and that wasn't The Star-Spangled Banner they were playing in a salute to her victory heralded by Sabine Schutt-Kerry bringing in Germany's flag aboard her statuesque Friesian.
Meredith is glad for a chance to be back in America, however, explaining, "I compete most of the year in Europe. It's great to come here and see friends and family and have people cheering for you who don't get to see you week-in and week-out."
I talked to Tony about what he's planning for Sunday, and he was, as usual, affable but rather tight-lipped. For sure the courses will be more challenging than yesterday's, as they should be, but I didn't get many details. Here's what he said.
For me, the biggest surprise of yesterday's class was seeing the usually reliable Up Chiqui balk and and buck before the first fence. He finally cleared it, knocked down the second fence and then started balking at the third fence, a triple bar, before rider Kent Farrington wisely called it a day. He is scheduled to compete in this afternoon's Grand Prix of Las Vegas, generally considered a consolation class for those who don't make the cut to the final Cup rounds, but it also includes a variety of other competitors, some with their second horses, as well as those who are here only for this class and didn't take part in the Cup.
As always, this venue continues to produce the highest production and entertainment values. These folks really know how to put on a show. The evening starts with a bang as fireworks go off and we're treated to a replay of the previous day's competition, done to the tune of Elvis' "Viva Las Vegas" (which has never been the same for me since it became the themesong for a Viagra commercial.) Then there are different acts to fill in the gaps during the session, so there isn't a moment to get bored. Last night, the singer of the national anthem was backed up by showgirls in feathers. You'll never think you're anyplace but Vegas when you see something like that. Two amazingly bendable acrobats kept fans riveted while the ring was cleared for the awards ceremony.
And what would a show in Vegas be without an Elvis impersonator in a white jumpsuit and cape? We had one this afternoon, but actually it was a bit disconcerting because this version, riding into the arena on a buckskin reining horse, was obviously female.
Riders love the way things are done here, but no one has gotten into the spirit of it like Jeanette Haazen, a dressage competitor from the Netherlands. I was startled by the sparkle when she came into the ring for the warm-up on Wednesday. Her horse, Nartan, had pink leg wraps and a saddlepad to match that glittered with rhinestones. Jeannette herself was wearing multi-colored striped breeches; I've never seen anything like them. I figured she'd tone it down for her first competition on Thursday, but the glitter was still evident, though quite a bit more subtle, edging the collar of her tailcoat and even the top of her boots, while her saddlepad shimmered with sequins.
I couldn't wait to ask her about her choice of style.
I'll have a shot of Jeannette in all her glory in the World Cup photo gallery, which is going up next week. Tomorrow, however, check back during the morning for my postcard on the dressage finals and a reining exhibition involving the jumpers and dressage riders.