Las Vegas, April 19, 2003 -- The Budweiser World Cup finals started with a bang -- literally - as fireworks popped and lit up the ring on opening night, waking up anyone who had fallen into a pre-competition snooze in the darkened arena.
The sparkle was followed by green laser beams streaking around madly, serving notice that this was going to be a event to remember. And few of us have forgotten the Cup's Vegas debut three years ago, as we eagerly waited for its return. The topcoat of glitz that Vegas applies to show jumping is fun and refreshing, heightening the inherent excitement of the indoor championship.
It started out even better for the home team, because it looked as if America could be closing in on the title. McLain Ward had a stunning round Thursday to take the lead in that one-round speed contest. But things change fast in this indoor championship, run over three days, and McLain sank to a tie for 15th last night after his mount, Viktor, dropped three rails in the first round and ended up lame. Viktor is out for tomorrow's finale, and McLain will be aboard a relative unknown, Onyx, instead.
If I gave you a list of the 41 people who started in the Cup, and asked you to pick your top 10 choices for who would hold the lead after two segments were completed, you might have said Rodrigo Pessoa of Brazil, or Ludger Beerbaum of Germany, Peter Wylde of the USA or McLain. You probably would not have named Malin Baryard of Sweden.
But the slim, attractive, self-confident blonde, who has done some modeling (don't you hate her?) wasn't shocked to find herself on top of the standings aboard Butterfly Flip, and hopes to stay there.
"I know my horse can do it and I know I can do it," she said coolly. Appearing to have little in the way of jitters, she said she is eager for the challenges course designer Conrad Homfeld will pose tomorrow in the two-rounder that wraps up the Cup.
"I'm looking forward to it," she said. "It's not very often that you're in the lead. But we could also have two down in the first round and drop down to tenth."
A model (did I also mention she's done some TV reporting?), a terrific rider and a level head. She'd be quite a champion, and the first woman to hold the title since 1987. Coincidentally, that is also the last year that an American won the Cup, and hopes were high after the first night that a U.S. rider could regain the honor, since there were five Americans in the top 10. But the Germans showed why they have so often dominated the sport with a win last night in the jump-off class by Markus Merschformann on Camirez B.
Markus, who was a disaster on Thursday to finish 31st after taking too many risks, considered his sins at length and motivated himself to do what he should have done the first night. He had a controlled, beautiful clear round to lead-off the nine-horse tiebreaker in a time of 31.60 seconds. Malin just wanted to be clean and better than Rodrigo, a three-time Cup winner who's shooting for a record fourth victory. Since she was second the first night, winding up second last night in a clocking of 33.25 elevated her to the number one spot. Rodrigo, who was playing it cool and conservative yesterday with Baloubet du Rouet, is 2 penalties back of Malin, tied with Germany's Marcus Ehning for second. The best American at this point is quite formidable, Olympic bronze medalist Norman Dello Joio, a former Cup winner who is tied with another German (they're everywhere, these guys), Lars Nieberg, four penalties behind Rodrigo and Marcus. Got that?
It really gets complicated, because you have the results of the individual classes, and then the overall totals to figure out. You literally can't tell where the players stand without a scorecard.
The Cup is a whole lot more than numbers, of course. It's produced by Shawn Davis, who also handles one of my favorite events, the National Finals Rodeo, another fixture at the Thomas & Mack Center here. He was trying to gauge the taste of the show jumping crowd in 2000, not wanting to go too far for fans of a sport with conservative leanings. But this time around, he ramped up the entertainment level.
Every rider's entrance into the ring was marked by a burst of music and videos of them in action on the Jumbotron screen. And at intermission last night, spectators didn't just have to watch the jump crew raking the ring. Instead, they were fascinated by a two-fisted bullwhip expert who was also a mean hand at twirling a pistol, and a comic reining exhibition. I know that probably requires an explanation, but I don't have the time. Trust me, it was cute.
The jumps were a feast for the eyes, festooned with feathers and show girl-style feathers. Conrad added an artistic touch with an island featuring a fountain and the Eiffel Tower - a miniature of the one on Las Vegas Boulevard (better known as The Strip) that tops the Paris Hotel. I must say, it's quite something to have a pyramid (the Luxor Hotel), the Statue of Liberty (New York, New York) and the Eiffel Tower all within a few blocks of each other! Why fly around the world when you can drive for five minutes and see everything here?
There are so many pluses to having the Cup in Las Vegas that I hate to mention a minus, but the footing did cause some grumbling after opening night. Some riders said the ring surface was loose and horses couldn't get a grip. McLain saw things differently.
"It's become a bad habit in our sport, everyone complaining about the footing," he said.
A crew worked all night to water and compress the ground, which was better yesterday. Show manager Robert Ridland, who had stubble on his chin and looked as if he hadn't slept for days, took it all in stride. Plans for an improved footing from that used in 2000 had to be scrapped when the provider couldn't meet the time schedule, and they reverted to Plan B, the old stuff.
"In the history of this sport, footing is always an issue," Robert said. "It's only a problem when there's a fairness situation and it's different at the beginning of a class than at the end. If it's the same for everybody, it's not a problem. I'm not saying it's great, but at least it's not an unfair competition."