Las Vegas, Nev., April 20, 2005 -- The first American in 18 years to win the Budweiser World Cup show jumping finals could be a German. Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, a Californian who changed her citizenship after marrying Marcus Beerbaum, has a great shot to take the title this week at the Thomas & Mack Center.
But she's probably as close as we'll get to the first U.S. victory in the competition that was dominated by Americans from 1980 through 1987.
Meredith could have a bit of an ax to grind. She was second in the 2004 World Cup, but the FEI (international equestrian federation) said her mount, Shutterfly, tested positive for acepromazine, a tranquilizer. With that hanging over Meredith's head, the Germans declined to put her on their Olympic team last summer. Just recently, however, the FEI dropped the whole case, saying the way the test sample was handled violated her "due process" rights.
While Meredith would coincidentally also be the first female Cup champ since 1987 (Katherine Burdsall on The Natural), the favorite to lead the round of honor has to be Nick Skelton of Great Britain. He led the European league with Arko III and is a former Cup champ. That was before he broke his neck and was told he would never ride again. Amazingly, he's just as good since his comeback.
Another threat is three-time Cup winner Rodrigo Pessoa of Brazil, who will be crowned the Olympic individual gold medalist as soon as the FEI and the International Olympic Committee get their act together and redistribute the prizes. (In case you hadn't heard, Ireland's individual gold medalist, Cian O'Connor, decided not to appeal his disqualification after his horse tested positive for forbidden substances.)
Anyway, Rodrigo certainly could pull it off here, though I'm always wary of Baloubet because I've seen him display inconsistency in the past. That being said, the chestnut with the swanlike neck seems to be staying in stride these days.
Marcus Ehning of Germany, who took the Cup honors in 2003, the last time it was in Las Vegas, may just be able to do it again, though his current mount, Gitania, is a mystery to me. I asked him about her, and he said she has won three grands prix recently. But I wouldn't bet my mortgage on him at this point.
So what about the Americans, the ones who still live here? The best bet among them has to be McLain Ward, who told me he geared Sapphire to peak for the Cup, which he is desperate to win. I'm impressed by McLain's determination and Sapphire's talent, but the mare lacks the experience of a Shutterfly or an Arko. The narrow confines of the arena at Thomas & Mack pose quite a challenge, especially since the Americans have spent most of their time this winter outdoors on big grand prix fields.
Laura Kraut is No. 1 on the U.S. Equestrian Federation computer list. She's a terrific rider (and a terrific person) but I've seen Anthem throw in clinkers here and there, so I don't have the confidence he can come through for her here.
The only other U.S. rider who has a real hope, in my opinion, is Anne Kursinski on the svelte mare Roxana. When I say a hope, though, I mean top 10. This combination sizzles, but it hasn't been together long enough to finish at the head of the Cup pack. Also fresh in my mind is the big chip Roxana put in during the Budweiser American Invitational at the weird viaduct fence. To me, that was an example of how lack of mileage can throw a monkey wrench into horse/rider communications. I'm thinking Anne will get the time she needs with Roxana on the Super League tour this summer to make her a real contender for the 2006 World Equestrian Games.
Our coverage of the Cup will be up on the site starting Friday morning, but don't be fooled by those results. The Cup's first leg Thursday night is a speed test. While it's important to place well there, that's no guarantee that a horse and rider can hold onto (or improve) their placing in the next two grueling segments of the indoor championship.
Enough about the jumping. Now for the dressage. It's a little more predictable, since there's no variable of different courses to contend with, and horses often go true to form.
So the Netherlands' Anky van Grunsven would have to get the call from most people for being center stage in another trophy presentation photo. After all, she's a six-time Cup champ and the reigning Olympic gold medalist. But Salinero, her Games mount and her 2004 Cup ride, is not yet as dependable as her previous star, Bonfire. A bit of temperament in the electricity of Thomas & Mack just might throw him for a loop. The question is, will the judges notice? They love the Ankster (that's what I call her, but not to her face!) and it takes quite a lot to move her down in the rankings.
The U.S. has an unprecedented four riders trying for the Cup, which an American has never won outright. Our best hope, of course, is Debbie McDonald and her longtime partner, Brentina. Her new freestyle, unveiled earlier this month, is jazzier than her previous dance to Gershwin tunes. This one has the central theme of R-E-S-P-E-C-T (the old Aretha Franklin song) so we'll see if the judges get the message.
Debbie is the only American ever to win the Cup. But she did it in 2003 when she was the runner-up who got the nod after winner Ulla Salzgeber of Germany was disqualified. Her number was taken down because her horse, Rusty, tested positive for drugs. (How many times have I mentioned drugs in this piece? Let's hope the FEI's new initiative to reform its medications protocol can straighten things out.)
The only other American with a shot at the title is Robert Dover, making what will probably be his last appearance with Kennedy--though after writing several Robert retirement stories in the past, I've vowed not to dwell on the subject any more, lest he change his mind again. He's a long shot, but then, this is a town for long shots. Even as much as I like this dynamic combination, I personally wouldn't put first place money on it, but I think he could make it up to third or fourth place.
Our other two American contenders, Guenter Seidel (Aragon) and Leslie Morse (Kingston) will get good experience in the competition.
Someone else to look at carefully for a title shot is Anky's student, Edward Gal with Lingh, second in the 2004 Cup. He missed the Olympics when Lingh was injured in a van accident, but the horse is back in form. Still, I think it's a two-woman race, Anky and Debbie, with all the rest settling for lesser placings.
I can't wait to see what happens. Las Vegas is such a great venue for the Cups, which have never been staged together before. So come back to Equisearch Friday to start reading about what happens. I'll try to make sure you don't miss a thing.