Aachen, Germany, September 3, 2006 -- The excitement of the World Equestrian Games (WEG) continued until the last moments of competition today, followed by fireworks and displays that marked a brilliant end to the most successful compilation of world championships ever held.
In show jumping, the individual gold medalist wasn't decided until the final fence came down, while in reining, a rare run-off was necessary to break a tie between two stars of the sport (go to the separate reining story for the details on that battle.)
The first time I saw the Final Four was in 1982 in Dublin, when the show jumping championship was a stand-alone affair. (The WEG didn't start until 1990.) I still remember the tension and thrills of watching four riders changing horses to tackle a tough course, how each animal had quirks and the way the competitors tried to cope with them. Little Malcolm Pyrah of Britain was quite descriptive in discussing his trouble with Norbert Koof's big German horse, Fire, and the class certainly kept everyone entertained.
Now, nearly a quarter-century later, I think the Final Four concept has had its day. The riders who make it into this round are all so skilled, and their horses are all so wonderful, that they are neatly interchangeable.
Only one of the four, longshot Edwina Alexander--a Netherlands-based Australian--had a rail down during her four rounds. She was riding Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum's mount, Shutterfly, when it happened. Not a disaster, but sufficient to put her fourth.
Since neither Meredith, a German; the USA's Beezie Madden nor Jos Lansink of Belgium made a mistake in the original rounds, it was necessary to go to a jump-off. Just what the horses needed, an extra go over the fences after putting in nine rounds since Tuesday.
Back on their own horses, the riders were racing against the clock. Jos left out some strides so that Cavalor Cumano, the snowy Holsteiner stallion he rides, could make up for his lack of natural speed. He thought his clocking of 45.01 might push his rivals to make a mistake.
And Meredith did, dropping a rail with Shutterfly while finishing slower than Jos in 45.40 seconds. Part of her problem may have stemmed from the fact that Shutterfly, who hates noise, was undone by the cheering of the spectators and started rearing in the pen where the riders change saddles and go over the two practice jumps they are allowed.
The unflappable Beezie was going neatly at a nice clip without mishap on Authentic until the Rolex oxer at the end of the course. A rail rolled there, giving the title to Jos and putting Beezie second in 43.74 seconds after she had led all the way through the WEG. Cumano also displaced Authentic as the Best Horse of the finals, a title for which Beezie's mount had been headed all week.
Beezie Madden discusses what happened at the oxer.
I asked Jos whether he thought the Final Four format should continue as it is, and he agreed with me that it should not. Even though he wouldn't have earned the gold if the medals had been handed out after the two rounds for the top 25 riders on Saturday, he thought that was the way it should have been done. Beezie would have been the deserving winner under that scenario, and Authentic the best horse. Jos noted that dressage has extra medals for the Special, so show jumping could go the same way and maybe have special medals for a Final Three horsemanship prize after the individual medals are handed out the previous day. (He doesn't like the idea of four riders competing).
Well, they have four years to figure that out, and we were all thinking about the next WEG today because the Kentucky 2010 people gave a press conference.
They had more than 100 folks here assessing what is needed for their own WEG. And I have to tell you, they have a hard act to follow. This WEG attracted approximately 600,000 visitors during its run, 100,000 more than was anticipated.
I asked the energetic Frank Kemperman, who ran this show, if he would have changed anything.
"The weather," he said with a smile.
But it will be difficult to beat Aachen in terms of great sport, beautiful horses performing safely in well-designed venues, terrific shopping and good food (especially in the VIP area, where $30,000 for two weeks bought, as it should, the ultimate in comfort and luxury).
Kentucky made a presentation in the closing ceremonies, bringing in a giant Macy's Parade-style Pegasus balloon that frankly, I thought looked rather threatening. You certainly couldn't ignore it, though, or the parade of American breeds, spinning reiners, carriages and a procession of kids to tout 2010.
After that, there was the traditional Aachen farewell, with people waving white handkerchiefs (or in some cases, Kleenex) to say a fond goodbye to the show. But even that wasn't quite the end. The champions, who had been brought into the arena in carriages for the ceremonies, went to celebrate downtown, where more fireworks were scheduled.
As I was leaving, I stopped by a television screen to watch a video montage of the last two weeks. There were so many impressive performances that I smiled just thinking about all I was privileged to see.
If you want the same experience, you better start thinking about reservations for Kentucky 2010.
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