Las Vegas, April 20, 2003--There was so much speculation about who would win today's Budweiser World Cup final; a great deal of poring over lists and conjecturing that centered on three people. We knew it would be one heck of an afternoon of show jumping. Could Malin Baryard, the attractive Swedish rider hold onto her lead with the fabulous H&M Butterfly Flip? Those of us who were wowed by her style and self-confidence felt she would not be swayed by nerves.
But proponents of Brazil's Rodrigo Pessoa, the only rider ever to win three Cups in a row, pointed out that he was poised for a record fourth victory aboard Baloubet du Rouet , since he was tied for second place just two penalties behind Malin. And those of us waiting for the first U.S. win since 1987 thought maybe Norman Dello Joio, sitting third on the impressive Glasgow, could come from behind and do the trick.
Somehow, however, all the experts with whom I chatted (and me as well!) completely ignored Marcus Ehning of Germany, who was tied for second with Rodrigo. Our brains just skipped over him, since he had never shown in this country before. He was a part of the 2000 German Olympic gold medal team, but I didn't have any time to talk to him in Sydney, so he didn't really make an impression on me.
But he did today, as one of only two riders to score double-clear in the two-round test set by Conrad Homfeld, and that performance brought him the Cup.
Riding Anka, a 12-year-old chestnut Oldenburg owned by his family and definitely not for sale, Marcus showed a sympathetic style with the very adjustable mare. He fell short of perfection only at the third fence in the second round.
"I was too steady,'' he said, and she faltered, as her hind legs headed toward the rails. One down would have put him in a tie with Rodrigo. But Anka yanked up her hooves and the jump stayed together. When he came home through the timers as the champion, we all were finally able to take a deep breath, and Rodrigo had to settle for being a runner-up for a change.
"I'm so happy and proud," said Marcus, beaming. It was nice to see a rider who was genuinely thrilled with his victory, instead of just taking it in stride in a blasé way, as too many competitors do. This slender fellow with strawberry blond hair and a quiet demeanor seems like a genuinely nice guy. I know this sounds silly, but I think it's indicative of what kind a person he is. World Cup Director Max Ammann had basically ended the press conference when I had a last-minute thought and put up my hand. Marcus spotted me and called me to Max's attention, so I got to ask my question. I'd dare say most riders wouldn't have done that.
Marcus is part of the group of riders sponsored by Sony Ericsson, along with the likes of former Cup champ Markus Fuchs, and they're aware that they have a duty to press and public.
I haven't quite unwound from the Cup yet, since there was a surplus of suspense crammed into two hours, as the course took its toll. Butterfly Flip turned out not to be immune to its challenges, and there were numerous "ohs" of sympathy as the mare toppled one rail in each round, putting Malin third.
"For sure, I feel a little bit disappointed," she said, having hoped to become the first female Cup winner since 1987, "but I'm happy as well. And for sure, Marcus was the best rider and he had the best horse."
So what about our hopes for a big American presence in the top 10, or maybe even the first U.S. victory in 16 years? Dashed, they were, on the rocks of reality.
I thought back to the excitement of Thursday night, when the Cup got under way with a speed class won by McLain Ward on Viktor, and half of the top 10 had the Stars and Stripes on their saddle pads. That all went south, slipping away gradually. The next night, only four Americans were in the top 10, and Viktor came up lame, forcing McLain to switch to Onyx, a horse he had never even ridden indoors. They withdrew halfway through yesterday's first round.
Still, our hopes were pinned on Norman, but Glasgow couldn't deliver, upset by the noise from the crowd of 8,900 at the Thomas & Mack Center, and unhappy with the footing. Katie Monahan Prudent, who helped Norman here, said, "it looked like the horse got a little tired at the end," when I asked for her opinion. "That's what a championship is all about, to see the horses that can go from start to finish and keep their energy level up."
America's best turned out to be Laura Kraut, nursing a cold but riding as well as ever.
"I wanted to finish in the top five," said Laura, who was happy to achieve her goal after coming from 11th place with Anthem, who dropped only one rail during the afternoon.
"I was a little bit disappointed, because I wanted to have a double-clear, but my horse jumped fantastic,".she said.
Norman was 11th, followed by Peter Wylde on Fein Cera, the mare who was the best horse at the 2002 WEG. There were high hopes at the start of the competition for Peter, and he analyzed for me what went wrong.
"I haven't been riding well this whole show. I don't know whether it was my nerves, but I just haven't gotten into a good rhythm here. I just haven't been able to get my act together here, but my horse jumped beautifully all week. I couldn't get myself into the right frame of mind, and that's part of the game."
Everyone gave a big hand to Conrad, who is brilliant. Period. His fences, whose colors and flowers were inspired by the movie Moulin Rouge that he saw many times, were laid out in a way that tested but did not harm those who attempted them.
"They were very precise, technical courses, but nothing over-demanding," said the number-one ranked rider in the world, Marcus' Sydney teammate, Ludger Beerbaum, tied for eighth here on Goldfever. "We didn't have a bad fall or a crash. We had exciting sport."
The Cup will be coming back to Las Vegas in 2005, and many of the riders can't wait. Neither can I. Maybe I'll have better luck picking a winner next time.