The Las Vegas bang and flash of lasers and fireworks that started last night's second leg of the Longines FEI World Cup Show Jumping final had nothing on the excitement of the competition itself.
Several scenarios that emerged in the opening speed round on Thursday drew to a conclusion or were accelerated in a memorable night for the sport, played out before a packed crowd at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Olympic individual gold medalist Steve Guerdat of Switzerland faces two old rivals, 2013 Cup winner Beezie Madden and 2012 winner Rich Fellers, both of the U.S., heading into tomorrow's two-rounder that wraps up the annual indoor championship.
He lost the Cup title to each of them in those years (as well as to world number one-ranked Daniel Deusser of Germany in 2014, though the defending champion stands 13th here and realistically is out of contention.)
While Steve won last night with the engaging chestnut mare Albfuehren's Paille, edging Beezie on Simon in the six-horse jump-off, he's tied in the overall standings with Rich, who was second in Thursday night's opener, when Steve was fifth. (The formula for computing the World Cup rankings is too complicated for me to explain, especially since I have trouble balancing my checkbook.)
Suffice to say that they'll have to rev up those lasers and fireworks for the last two rounds to beat the thrill of what will unfold over the fences on Sunday afternoon. Steve and Rich have zero penalties. Overnight leader Bertram Allen of Ireland is right behind them on 1 penalty. Further back, France's Penelope Leprevost has 5 to Beezie's 6, tying her in fifth place with Jos Verlooy of Belgium, at 19 the youngest rider in the competition (Bertram also is 19, but was born earlier) and Martin Fuchs of Switzerland.
The USA's Lucy Davis and McLain Ward are tied for eighth on 7 penalties with the Netherlands' Jur Vrieling.
Course designer Anthony D'Ambrosio is in one of the photos that I put with this postcard, and rightfully so, standing beside Beezie, Steve and third-place Lucy (Lucy and Beezie were half of the USA's bronze medal-winning team at the World Equestrian Games last year.)
Anthony's oxer/oxer/vertical triple combination of yellow and white rails along one wall, a real test before the last of 13 numbered obstacles, was a heartbreaker throughout the class. Those who were too careful lost impulsion; those who went for it too often found their plan didn't work out either. The triple kept Bertram out of the six-horse jump-off when Molly Malone V had a rail at the vertical.
"I thought it was a great course, it was a riding course," said U.S. coach Robert Ridland (who incidentally ran the World Cup show jumping here before taking his current job.)
"Anthony's done a wonderful job of doing a little of the unexpected. We're so used to everything in our sport being so conventional," continued Robert.
"The ride to the triple was hard, but there were so many ways that you could do it right. You could do it in the five, you could do it in the six, you could do it in the seven. Because of the configuration of the rails, the color (it is said yellow is difficult for horses to see) and where it was (off a difficult turn), you saw some real riding out there. Our riders rode; it was great to see."
Robert calls Anthony "one of the best in the world, and he's showing it here. Those were two incredibly brilliant courses, last night and tonight. To start with he's a horseman. He's a rider. To me, the great course designers set rider courses. Obviously, you need the horsepower under you, but it was a rider's course out there." By that, he meant competitors "had to think," rather than just "going by the numbers" as they counted strides.
During his competition days, Anthony was particularly celebrated for his puissance ability. As a teenager, he won the puissance at the National Horse Show on Sympatico in 1973, and set a record in Washington a decade later with Sweet 'n' Low. I was there, so long ago. Sometimes I feel as if I were there when dinosaurs walked the earth, too, but there are advantages in having a history with the sport, so I know what Robert is talking about when he cites Anthony's credentials.
Anthony (who incidentally accurately predicted six clear to qualify for the tiebreaker) uttered a masterpiece of understatement when he said getting to the triple offered "a difficult choice of distances" that demanded perfect accuracy in execution.
The most amazing story of this final so far is 19-year-old Flexible, who recovered from a Tuesday colic scare as he has overcome adversity so many times previously.
I can only think of cliches when talking about this Irish-bred stallion: "You're not getting older, you're getting better," or "You're only as old as you feel."
Flexi obviously doesn't feel his age, though Rich takes great care to husband his energy.
That may have been why, after getting a standing ovation for his beautiful clear trip in round one, he had the first obstacle--the Las Vegas vertical--down in the jump-off.
"That was a tough first fence, a tall vertical that was off a very short approach and okay, I was trying to strategize a little like everybody," Rich told me as we walked back up the ramp from the ring.
Thinking ahead to Sunday, he said, he decided not to jump in the warm-up ring before the jump-off. "Then I started thinking, `Maybe I should do one big vertical, just to make sure he's awake for that first fence.' " He didn't do it, of course, and paid the price.
"There's nothing I could do about it now. But I was still thrilled with him and saved him a little bit for Sunday," Rich commented.
He finished fourth. Only two riders, Steve and Beezie, had double-clears last night.
Steve's was in 32.87 seconds, while Beezie's clocking was 33.31. Beezie said Simon's strength is turns, but when he lost his footing at one point, she had to add a stride.
"He felt a little rattled after that" and he wasn't as fast as he could have been over the next fence, she noted.
Lucy dropped a pole with Barron at the final oxer. It wa a pity, because her 32.53-second clocking would have been good enough to win with a clear trip, and her brave five-stride approach to the triple in the first round showed the extent of what she could do with her scopey horse.
The roughest ride in the tiebreaker belonged to McLain. Rothchild started shaking his head at the third fence, then stopped suddenly. Restarting, McLain next faced the double that had been made from the triple and dropped a pole at the oxer element to finish sixth.
The biggest comeback belonged to Norway's Geir Gulliksen on the bay stallion Edesa S Banjan. He was 34th coming into the class and a fifth-place finish in the jump-off moved him up to 18th.
Today, we're focusing on the dressage freestyle and the Reem Acra title. Tonight is the CP Grand Prix for non-World Cup horses and those who have dropped out of the final.
We'll have the dressage postcard on line tonight, and you can read all about the jumpers tomorrow morning.