October 16, 2005 -- Olympic gold medalist, former world champion and three-time World Cup titleist Rodrigo Pessoa held all the aces at the inaugural Las Vegas World Invitational this weekend, winning the $750,000 featured grand prix last night on Baloubet du Rouet, just 24 hours after taking the show's other grand prix, a $75,000 fixture.
No wonder he was the 3-1 favorite in the betting -- yes, they had betting on show jumping here, though only $4,000 was floated in what many punters must have thought was an impossibly exotic wager.
Rodrigo ably demonstrated why he is at the top of the sport with a perfectly calculated campaign that began Friday morning. After winning a prize with another horse in a speed class, the canny Brazilian rode the temperamental Baloubet in for the ribbon presentation instead. Rodrigo took the opportunity to show his regal chestnut stallion the unusual fences in the ring at the Thomas & Mack Center, particularly a jump whose right standard held a full-size motorcycle.
Thus familiarized with the ring, Baloubet didn't require further exposure to the arena before going straight to the top in the $75,000 Martin Collins Let It Ride competition Friday night.
"He's 16 and he's been here three times. He knows what he's doing," Rodrigo told me, adding that he doesn't want to jump his only top horse any more than he has to, and is pointing him toward the World Equestrian Games next year.
He earned $250,000 from the LVWI grand prix -- by far the richest such competition in the U.S. Rodrigo can use part of the money to cover his gambling losses from the casino, the only place this weekend where he wasn't winning.
The class was a thrilling battle of champions, with the legendary Nick Skelton of Great Britain on the stallion Arko finishing second ("bloody close," sighed the man who was second in the betting pool as well at 4-1). Germany's Meredith Michaels Beerbum (who won the World Cup finals on Shutterfly here in April) came in third on Checkmate. She was 5-1. The Americans were basically nowhere in the big class, failing to make the six-horse jump-off as their indoor jinx continued to plague them. They just don't ride enough indoors, Meredith concluded. It was too bad, for it turned out to be a great occasion.
"This was one of the events in the year when you get clammy hands and your heart goes quicker than normal," said course designer Olaf Petersen, who also produced the fabulous fences that included a deck of cards peeling off the side of a jump standard and rails flanked by a giant slot machine.
"Normally, grand prixs can't excite me," said the man who has designed for two Olympics and got the right riders into yesterday's jump-off. "But this one excited me a lot," he confessed.
Show jumping may have taken a great leap forward with the $1 million two-day show, featuring many of the top riders from Europe and the U.S. in a made-for-TV fixture geared to popularizing the discipline. With fun classes like a match race and a ride-and-drive (involving participants jumping a course, then hopping into a Cadillac to negotiate an obstacle route at speed) the show attempted to find a way to reach a new audience.
Sadly, that audience didn't respond. Only a few thousand people turned up to watch the show ably produced by Britain's Simon Brooks-Ward, who is responsible for London's Olympia and a host of other major productions, both equestrian and non-horsey. His nickname is Harry Potter, and he does work magic.
The problem was, though, there weren't a lot of folks who believed the Invitational would happen. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me, they must have figured. The competition had been scheduled for 2003 and 2004, only to be scrapped because of difficulty getting it sanctioned. As a result, few people put the LVWI on their calendars or planned a vacation around it, the way they did with the World Cup.
But I realized I'd have to be here if America's first 5-star-rated show jumping actually happened, and believe me, it happened. After all, how often do we get to see Rodrigo, Meredith, Nick, Michael Whitaker, Marcus Ehning etc. competing on our home turf?
This year, actually, the answer was twice, and I certainly didn't want to miss watching so many of the competitors I enjoyed following at the World Cup finals.
The show was dreamed up by Fairlie Arrow, an Australian-born equestrian enthusiast who has done TV commentating for the "Toughman World Championship" series on Fox and is a three-time world lightweight kickboxing champion. Her fiancee, David Shriner, a high-powered businessman, served as chairman.
I asked Simon why he stuck with the show through "the long and tortuous process" to get it approved by the U.S. Equestrian Federation and the FEI (international equestrian federation).
"One reason I was glad to do it was because they were tenacious," said Simon of Fairlie and David. Simon won the Order of the British Empire for his service in Iraq a few years back. After that, even handling something as big as the LVWI couldn't faze him.
David told me the show cost between $3.5 million and $4 million to put on, declining to name his backers. It's obvious that this first LVWI lost money big time, but when I asked David if it would be held again next year, he instantly replied, "absolutely."
If you want to get a glimpse of how it went, tune in to CBS at 2 p.m. New Year's Eve Day. That's a pretty impressive time slot for show jumping.
The riders were thrilled with the show, particularly commenting on the amazing fences and springy footing. No one I talked to had any complaints, and you know how unusual that is!
"They did a first-class job," said McLain Ward, who like the other riders is planning to return in 2006. The LVWI should draw more of a crowd then because: 1) People will know what it's all about, through good word of mouth and media coverage and 2) There's no World Cup final in Vegas next year.
David mentioned he might consider including dressage in the program, the way the World Cup did this year, and expanding the show to four days. They'll also do something different in the way of non-equestrian entertainment. An aerialist duo turned out to be fine; a motorcycle demonstration, a last-minute fill-in for a cancelled act, was obnoxiously noisy and the fumes weren't any fun either. David promises they'll do better next time.
It took the World Cup three tries to perfect its offering, and the LVWI deserves some time as well. It can't hurt to offer a format that has traditional grands prix for dyed-in-the-wool fans while presenting fun classes that might lure some other people to horse sports. It's all about getting a bigger fan base and thinking outside the box to give show jumping the attention it deserves in an era when competition for the spectator dollar is tougher than ever.
Oh, this is off the subject, but I wanted to tell you about Rodrigo's stirrups. They look conventional on the inside edge, but on the outside edge, they have just a lip and nothing more. It's sort of similar to a bike pedal. The foot is held in by a catch on the boot that Rodrigo says lets go if you fall off. But you can't lose the stirrup while you're riding. The outfit that makes it is called Free Jump. Anyway, it was interesting. There's always something new to buy these days, it seems.
Let's see what else I can find for you when I wander among the many vendor booths at the Washington International Horse Show. That's my next stop--I'll tell you all about it in two weeks.