April 15, 2015--For 120 seconds, show jumpers had a chance to do their own thing this morning as they warmed up in the arena where they will compete tomorrow. Each rider could jump a schooling course, improvising with circles or jumping some fences twice within their time limit.
Some opted to simply work on the flat instead, so I didn't think much of it when 2012 Cup winner Rich Fellers just trotted and cantered Flexible around the fences.
But talking to Rich later, I learned the reason for taking it easy with the 19-year-old stallion, the oldest horse in the competition.
Yesterday, shortly after the horse inspection, Flexible colicked for the first time in his life. I asked Rich if the impending dust storm may have had something to do with it; horses sense weather changes and it can cause trouble. He didn't know, but said U.S. team veterinarian Tim Ober was able to put things to rights.
It looked very serious: "We could hardly get him to walk, he was crumpling, trying to lie down."
But with Tim's "magic" Flexible was comfortable and Rich didn't have to scratch him.
"He was great this morning, he was perfect. He just keeps giving. I don't have any explanation for it," said Rich.
"It's just the type of horse he is. Any time he has a problem, I just think he's going to overcome it, because he always does."
I wondered if he dwells on the fact that his horse is 19.
"It's hard not to think about it," Rich said.
"He's been old for a few years now, so I've kind of gotten over it. His 17-year-old year, the year after the World Cup and the Olympics, we diagnosed him with this giant blood clot in his right hind leg. A lot of people were saying, `Give it up Rich. He's been a great horse, retire him.'"
Rich didn't bite.
"I don't think he wants to retire, he loves what he does. Age is just a reference number, and he feels great. I truly believe he could win this this week. I don't think he's handicapped with his age."
Todd Minikus, who led the qualifiers from the North American East Coast League, also is optimistic about his chances with Babalou, who doesn't have tons of experience, but makes up for it with tons of talent.
"She jumped well in the warm-up and seemed quite comfortable. I wouldn't have shown up unless I thought I was going to be okay," Todd said.
Although Thomas & Mack can be so electric that it upsets some horses, he noted Babalou jumped two clear rounds under the lights in the Nations' Cup in Wellington, Fla. While that is held outdoors in a big ring, being surround by a huge crowd to some extent replicates what she'll encounter in Thomas & Mack for tomorrow night's opener, the speed class.
McLain Ward, second with the late, great Sapphire in 2009 -- the last time the Cup was held in Las Vegas -- called the ring a "little bit funky." The entrance is a key shape and "horses are jumping into the wall here a lot, which is always a factor." But he isn't bothered.
"That's something you know coming in. I don't think the arena is going to be an issue for me this week."
He has a game plan he hopes to execute with the fiery Rothchild.
"Sapphire was a much bigger, heavier horse" he pointed out, and "certainly fatigue was a factor at the end of the competition. Rothchild starts to round into form the more he goes and to that point, you have to watch the first day he's not too quick and fresh.
"That speed leg is always a little bit throwing the dart against the wall. We're going to go into that with an aggressive approach, but maybe not all for broke, and go from there."
The Cup has gotten much harder to win over the years. McLain pointed out that the sport has so many good riders, being in the top 10 the first day is "not good enough to win in the end." So he's shooting for "the top five the first night; hopefully on the higher end of that."
He noted the World Cup is third in prestige behind only the Olympics and the world championships, and toward that end, it would mean a lot for him to win, despite having two Olympic team gold medals.
"A personal championship is one thing that eludes me in my career," he observed.
"Hopefully, if I do this long enough, I might get one."
Check back early Friday morning to read about first leg of the jumping (it finishes after midnight East Coast time, so we won’t be putting it on line until the next day.)