April 12, 2009 -- There are those who swear by the adage, "Never bet on the home team," and the results thus far of World Cup finals held in the U.S. seemingly would support that assertion. Aside from Conrad Homfeld's 1980 Cup victory in Baltimore, no American has won either the jumping or dressage finals staged in this country.
But this could be the time to take a gamble in Las Vegas on an American earning the show jumping title and perhaps, with a lot of luck, an American could be in the running for top dressage honors as well.
The last U.S. show jumper to capture the Cup was Katherine Burdsall, riding The Natural in Paris, 22 years ago. Debbie McDonald is the only American ever to win the dressage World Cup. She did it after the fact, moving up to first from second with Brentina after the original 2003 winner in Gothenburg, Sweden, Ulla Salzgeber of Germany, was deposed by a positive medication test on her horse, Rusty.
The Rolex FEI World Cup final, the ninth to be held in the U.S., gets under way Thursday at the Thomas & Mack Center. It is likely to be the only chance for years to show a home crowd that America has what it takes to win the international indoor championships.
Las Vegas Events (LVE), which puts on the Cup in Nevada, withdrew its bid for the 2011 joint jumping/dressage finals as this edition's ticket sales lagged. No surprise there; major league baseball fell 1 million tickets short on sales before opening day of that season. You may have heard there's a problem with the economy...
The FEI (international equestrian federation) wanted a commitment from bidders before this year's competition was held, and that didn't work with LVE's time frame, giving the organization no opportunity to evaluate its financial footing from the 2009 final. It seems unlikely that it will get the 85,000 spectators who made the 2007 Cup so successful when attendance was up 10,000 from 2005. As the date of the show approached, it seemed likely only 65,000 people would buy tickets for the $6.5 million production.
While LVE President Pat Christenson noted that 65,000 "is a pretty darn good crowd," he added, "when you consider all the costs it isn't enough. We need to get back to 75,000.''
He explained, "The concern was, if the trend were to stay the same, it would be difficult for us to meet a budget. It was a difficult decision for us with the timing of the bid process, because we were asked to make a commitment even before we were going to see the results of our 2009 event.''
He noted, "We'll consider anything that has a viable economic model. We're not out of the World Cup business. We needed to put our involvement on hold to evaluate how we get involved. Maybe every two years is too much.''
Pat isn't ruling out a bid for the dressage finals without jumping. But that's dicey (as they'd say in Vegas) conjecture at the moment, so figure that if you aren't on hand for this Cup, it will be a long time until you can make such an easy trip to see one again.
Now, getting back to prognostications about who the winners could be, McLain Ward is among the favorites for show jumping with Sapphire, the Belgian warmblood mare he rode to two Olympic team gold medals and a silver in the World Equestrian Games. They were three-for-three in grands prix at the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival, but had their first rails of the season down at the Budweiser American Invitational, where they finished fifth.
To McLain, that's just a blip that perhaps makes him even hungrier for a Cup victory. He was first after the initial round of the Cup in 2007, the last time it was held in Vegas, but wound up tied for eighth.
He has vowed that the title is "not going to slip away" this time.
"If we're in a good position going into the end, I think the horse and myself are in a great place to get it done," he said before leaving for Vegas.
"The horse obviously is in the form of her life. We're both very confident; I think we have as good a chance as anybody."
The riders he has to beat are the usual suspects; defending champ Meredith Michaels Beerbaum with the amazing Shutterfly, who also has a Vegas win to his credit; Albert Zoer of the Netherlands, who missed the Olympics because of an injury but is back in form with Okidoki (though Albert thinks the small arena won't suit his mount) and another former champ, Ludger Beerbaum of Germany, who has Coup de Coeur. Ludger recently was demoted to the German "B" team, but McLain thinks he "is going to be quite difficult. It was sort of a snub to take him off the A team; he started winning right away after that. It may have inspired him a little bit."
But it's a strong field, which can mean surprises.
"You never know, there are a lot of good riders and good horses," McLain said when asked who else might have a chance at the crown.
"It's never a shock to see one come up you haven't thought of." That's what happened last year, when West Coast rider Rich Fellers--who got a wild card berth for this year's competition--finished second on Flexible.
Also taking part is Kent Farrington with Up Chiqui, the 2008 U.S. Equestrian Federation Horse of the Year in show jumping. It remains to be seen if the format will suit Up Chiqui, but the speedy chestnut Belgian warmblood could do well in the first round, the speed leg, because going fast is his forte. The same can be said of Pavarotti, Todd Minikus' game ride, and Todd is a very tough competitor who may well have a shot at a top-10 placing.
Others from the East Coast who are competing are Christine McCrea (Vegas/Promised Land), Beezie Madden on the inexperienced Danny Boy (her Olympic ride, Authentic, spent most of the winter resting); wild card recipient Danielle Torano (Vancouver D'Auvrey) and Cup newcomers Hillary Dobbs (Quincy B) and Michelle Spadone (Melisimo), co-winner (with Californian Ashlee Bond) of the Maxine Beard award for riders with potential for international competition.
Ashlee (Cadett 7/Chivas), also will be making her Cup debut. Other West Coast participants are the well-traveled Richard Spooner (Ace/Cristallo) and Mandy Porter (San Diego).
Dressage seems a bit more open than usual. Ordinarily, one would expect it to be a battle between Olympic gold medalist Anky van Grunsven of the Netherlands, the 2005 winner in Vegas with Salinero, and Isabell Werth of Germany, who won in 2007 on Warum Nicht when Anky stayed home after the birth of her daughter, Ava.
This time, however, it's Salinero--the defending champion--who's staying home, because he wasn't able to fulfill the requirement (ironically pushed by Anky's husband, Sjef Janssen) to have competed in two qualifiers. Anky, the reigning Olympic, world championships and World Cup champ, had planned to do so, but she hurt her back and missed one show. So the nine-time Cup winner is riding her number two horse, the black stallion IPS Painted Black, putting her ostensibly at a bit of a disadvantage. Isabell, a two-time Cup winner, will be aboard Satchmo, the horse who made headlines during the Olympics when he bucked and balked in the Grand Prix Special and Freestyle, but still finished second to Anky and Salinero there.
Another key contender is the Dutch Olympic alternate, Parzival, ridden by Adelinde Cornelissen. This is a very special horse, but he's also spooky, and at one show this year wasn't even able to finish the Grand Prix because he was so hot and bothered.
Okay, let's see what we have here: I like Painted Black, he's got a lot going for him, but he doesn't have Salinero's rep or cachet. Satchmo has been behaving recently, but suppose he reverts to his old ways in Vegas? And Parzival could spook himself out of a top placing.
Who's left? Ta da--Steffen Peters and Ravel, the combo that narrowly missed an individual medal in the Olympics. Yes, Steffen and Ravel have the right stuff and they could rule in an upset, though things probably would have to go a bit wrong for the other key players if he is to prevail. You know, the halo effect in dressage and all that. But after the fallout from Isabell winning Olympic silver despite Satchmo's behavior in Hong Kong, I think the judges might penalize misbehavior more seriously.
Okay, it's only pie in the sky, but can you imagine if Americans won both the jumping and dressage? What a Vegas World Cup finale that would be (and maybe it could inspire LVE to try again.)
Other Americans competing are Jan Ebeling (Rafalca) and Leslie Morse (Kingston). But two foreigners based in Wellington (so they are practically family) also made the cut. Ashley Holzer from Canada can be expected to deliver a flashy freestyle with Pop Art, while Colombia's Marco Bernal will be representing the South American League on Diamore.
LVE really knows how to put on a show, and we're not just talking about competition. There are always featured acts and other fun moments. What will really be a huge attraction is the retirement of Brentina on Friday afternoon. One of her finest moments was her bravura third-place performance in the same arena four years ago (remember "Respect"?), and there's special significance, because the Thomas in Thomas & Mack is Parry Thomas, who owns Brentina with his wife, Peggy.
Debbie's already retired from competition, but she'll be taking part in a pas de deux before the retirement ceremony, so it should be quite an afternoon. Debbie, one of the most beloved figures in the dressage world, is gearing up for a flood of emotion.
"It's going to be fun," she said.
"It's going to be very hard and sad and lots of tears will fall. But it's not a funeral; it's a retirement."
So as you can see, there will be an amazing amount of things happening in Vegas this week. I don't want you to miss any of it. There's still time to buy tickets and catch a flight, should you decide to watch firsthand. If that doesn't work for you, come along with me by reading my postcards. My first will be up on the site Friday morning, April 17, after Thursday night's opening jumper round. Next will be coverage of Brentina's retirement and the second jumping leg, followed by the Grand Prix of Las Vegas and the dressage final. We'll wrap up with the last segment of the show jumping, which is going to be on the site Sunday evening. So you can follow the action--in the ring and behind the scenes--with just a short trip to EquiSearch.com.