April 19, 2009 -- Too many anticipated showdowns wind up as letdowns. A key player is missing, conditions aren't right, whatever. You've seen it happen before.
But the last two rounds of the Rolex FEI Show Jumping World Cup were perfect head-to-head competition, pitting stars of the sport--human and equine--against each other.
In the end, both defending champion Meredith Michaels Beerbaum of Germany with Shutterfly and McLain Ward of the USA with Sapphire were perfect. Meredith was just a little more perfect.
She swept all three days of the finals, never marring her zero faults status and the lead she earned with her swift partner in the opening speed leg. That 1.25-second edge over McLain proved to be the difference in who got the Cup.
"I certainly would like to have won," said the two-time Olympic team gold medalist, who started planning his quest for the Cup a week after the Hong Kong Games ended last year.
"But I'm proud of what my team did," he emphasized.
"We did the best we could, and 99 percent of the time it would have won. Meredith was just a touch better."
There were two impressive rounds of power jumping over Anthony D'Ambrosio-designed courses this afternoon, and it suited all three horses at the top of the standings, which also included Oki Doki, the rangy bay ridden by the Netherlands' Albert Zoer. Albert is a top rider, though he is not as familiar to the American public as Meredith and McLain, in fact, I doubt most of the 7,497 folks in the stands had ever heard of him. But he's a real pro who held his third place status with two clear trips. Two other riders were fault-free in both rounds, Meredith's brother-in-law Ludger Beerbaum, who wound up sixth overall on Coupe de Couer, and Christina Liebherr of Switzerland, fourth on L.B. No Mercy.
After McLain rode, he headed toward the TV in the warm-up ring to watch Meredith. He saw her flying over the fences on a horse who knows his job and loves it. She cleared the last obstacle, the Bellagio oxer, galloped home, then raised her fist in triumph. After that, there were a few tears at the joy of being only the third rider since the Cup's inception in 1979 to win three titles. (The others are Rodrigo Pessoa of Brazil, who finished fifth today on Rufus, and Hugo Simon of Austria.)
McLain had fallen just short of his goal of being the first American to win the Cup since 1987, but he was a sportsman about it. As soon as Meredith came out of the ring, he gave her a hug and told her she deserved the victory.
Meredith, number one in the world rankings, talked about what an achievement it was to win this Cup.
The awards ceremony had a nice Vegas touch; the Cup made its entrance by descending from the ceiling, held by a babe on a wire who was wearing a bikini top and a very short skirt. Of course, she sparkled, as everything from the neon to the showgirls does around here.
Meredith rode into the ring wearing a black cowboy hat she nabbed from a flagbearer and riding a double for Shutterfly who was every bit as nervous as the real thing. Here's my question, though I didn't ask her (I'd pestered her enough)--if you're going to use a double, why not a quiet, calm horse?
As Meredith posed for the traditional photo of the victor raising the Cup skyward, the horse took offense and started bouncing around. Meredith made a quick decision and dropped the Cup. Ouch. I saw it later and it was listing to starboard. The German silver and gold trophy will be spending sometime in a jeweler's repair shop, I expect. It didn't stick around to be kissed by the winner, as was the case the last time Meredith won here, in 2005.
A native of California who became a German citizen after marrying rider Marcus Beerbaum, Meredith said once again how happy she was that friends from her youth and her family could be here to watch her, an unusual treat for her. She is leaving richer than she came, with $270,000 in prize money and three Rolex watches. Meredith joked that she has won so many Rolexes over the years that she should consider opening a jewelry store, but quickly added she doesn't want to compete with a company that is such a staunch supporter of the sport.
McLain and I chatted after the class about the magic of certain horse/rider combinations, especially Meredith and her 16-year-old boy and McLain and his 14-year-old mare.
Aside from McLain, America had a disappointing showing. The only other U.S. rider in the ribbons was Beezie Madden, 12th on Danny Boy, who passed his first major championship test. Rich Fellers, last year's runner-up to Meredith, was in with a shot at a top placing, standing fourth with Flexible before the start of this afternoon's action. But in the first round, he dropped fences one and two. In the second round, he had a disaster of 22 penalties, putting him 18th.
I asked U.S. Show Jumping Coach George Morris about what transpired here, and he had a great deal of insight, as usual.
Meredith's victory was, obviously, not a surprise. But we weren't deprived of a bombshell this afternoon: At the end of the day, we learned that the U.S. is going to put in a bid for the 2014 World Cup finals--here in Vegas!
Like so many others, I'd been sad that this was going to be the last World Cup finals here for a long time, or possibly forever. The team that puts on the Cup really knows what it's doing, and every time they've run the event, it gets better and better. But while I was talking up the idea of reviving it to everyone I saw, things were going on behind the scenes.
Robert Ridland, the Cup's show jumping manager, announced that his company, Blenheim Equisports, is going to put in a bid to hold the Cup in 2014. That was good news for all of us, and for FEI First Vice President Sven Holmberg, too, (he doesn't want the Cup to become just a European event) so it really could happen.
To recap the history of this, Las Vegas Events, which has put on the Cup here five times since 2000, rescinded its bid for 2011 and 2013, largely because of the economy and the fact that many people are reluctant to spend money on travel.
Ticket sales were flagging when the moment came to go forward with the bid or drop it, and estimates were that only 65,000 seats would be sold, compared to 85,000 the last time the Cup was held here in 2007. With a $6.5 million budget, 65,000 seats doesn't cut it. In the end, as it happened, the sales were even less. A total of 58,589 people attended over five days.
So Las Vegas Events officials believe taking a break will give them a chance to reflect on putting together the competition and improve it, while absence will make the heart grow fonder among potential ticket buyers.
"The interest with fans will skyrocket," predicted Tim Keener, event manager for Las Vegas Events.
Meanwhile, there's also scuttlebutt that something else might happen here before then, perhaps at a smaller arena, like those at South Point or the Orleans, and there's even some speculation about a joint dressage/reining Cup final here.
So we'll see what happens. In the meantime, don't forget to check out the gallery of my photos from here on EquiSearch.com this week.
I'm heading home tomorrow, doing the laundry and then flying south for Rolex Kentucky. My first postcard from there will be up Friday night.
Look for it!