Las Vegas, Nev., April 19, 2007 -- No place does the Rolex FEI World Cup Finals better than Las Vegas, with its glitter adding extra excitement to a competition whose name alone quickens the pulse of riders and fans alike.
In show jumping and dressage, this is the biggest international event of the year. The other major championships of 2007 are regional, the Europeans and the Pan Ams, so this is the only place where the best from around the globe are meeting in these disciplines.
Even though yesterday offered just warm-up classes, the anticipation was generating sparks. That seems natural in this dazzling city. You could see it in the competitors' faces and feel it in the cheers and applause of the crowd.
I have to be a little more specific about that statement, though. Only a few hundred people were sprinkled through the stands to watch the jumpers go through their paces, and that was a good thing. A number of the riders didn't even jump ("They were the smart ones," U.S. Coach George Morris told me.) They simply did some serpentines, a little extension and collection, making sure their horses were in gear. So the morning jumper warm-up was kind of a yawn, except for the fact that it's always nice to see top-class combinations, no matter what they're doing.
But it was a whole different story for the dressage, and that illustrated once again the wisdom of event-organizer Las Vegas Events in making its 2005 finals the first to include both disciplines.
Thousands of dressage devotees came to cheer on their favorites yesterday afternoon. They moaned in disappointment when announcer Brian O'Connor informed them that the brilliant Blue Hors Matine had been withdrawn. (See our bulletin of yesterday.) They gave U.S. rider Catherine Haddad on Maximus JSS a resounding round of applause after being told the German-based competitor was riding for America for the first time at home. She in turn saluted them, reaching both arms into the air, then pointing down to her chestnut partner, in effect saying, "He's the one you need to clap for."
The warm-up felt really intimate. Horses were unbraided (some looked much better that way, I thought) and riders wore informal outfits, with polo shirts predominating. You get much more of a feeling of what they are all about that way.
There generally were two or three horses in the ring at the same time, and the way their paths crossed, it often looked like a creative pas de deux as music played soothingly in the background (everything from classical to "What a Feeling").
"You've been practicing," Brian quipped after noticing that Daniel Pinto of Portugal on the dark brown Lusitano Galopin de la Font and Isabell Werth of Germany on Warum Nicht, the chestnut Hanoverian, were practically in perfect sync as they crisscrossed the arena. Of course they hadn't been practicing, but their impromptu performance was lovely to watch.
Isabell, favored to win the Cup, gave a bit of a riding lesson for those ready to absorb it. She really let Hannes, as Warum Nicht is called around the barn, stretch after all his work, and finished with a strong posting trot around the ring, surely a treat after all the collected work the horse had been doing during the 20-minute appearance.
(Wondering where eight-time World Cup champion Anky van Grunsven is? She bowed out of the final after giving birth to a daughter in March.)
Perhaps the most dynamic spectator reaction was triggered by the appearance of the dramatic Edward Gal on Group 4 Securicor IPS Gribaldi. There is no doubt much of the audience was returning from 2005, the last time the Cup was held here, when Edward finished second on Lingh. He definitely has an established fan base here.
Although Gribaldi is a far different type of horse, his power and black beauty struck a chord with those watching (as does Edward's fabulous head of blond hair). They called out to their idol and obviously appreciated every moment they shared with him in the ring.
Wayne Channon of Great Britain, making his Cup debut, felt the presence of the fans as soon as his dark brown Dutchbred stallion, Lorenzo CH, stepped into the arena at the Thomas & Mack Center. It suddenly was all too easy to get distracted.
"I tried hard not to, but here it was very difficult not to think about it, because they're so enthusiastic," he said of the audience.
"When you have a reception like that, it takes your mind away, you're slightly shocked. Then you say, 'I've got to refocus on what I'm doing.'" But he also realized he was center stage before a crowd that more than hinted at what he'll encounter in the seats during today's Grand Prix. So he, like the others, put on a bit of a show.
Speaking of shows, many of the riders--who have been here since Sunday--are taking advantage of one of the perks of Vegas. They're going to the shows along the Strip, as everyone calls the casino-lined main drag Las Vegas Boulevard.
America's Steffen Peters went with Courtney King and her fiancee, Jason Dye, to watch a hypnotist's act, and he was so fascinated, he bought a hypnosis DVD. Steffen figured it would be good for relaxation, but he got more than he bargained for.
"I feel asleep and nearly strangled myself in the cord from my earphones," he laughed.
The big question now is where the 2009 renewal of the Cups will be. Las Vegas had options on 2003, 2005 and this year, but the options have run out. Cities in the Netherlands and Germany already have bid for the Cup, so I asked Las Vegas Events President Pat Christenson whether his organization was going to try again for the competition two years from now.
"Absolutely," he said. "The uniqueness of what we have done in the past has demonstrated that like being on a golf course, we're competing with ourselves. We'd like to think it isn't about how we beat out other destinations; it's about how we make the competition better. Period."
He talked about Las Vegas' phenomenal growth and with construction all over the place, it's true that as he put it, "Every time you come, you see a different city."
Pat and I were chatting at the draw party, the affair where the order of go is drawn for the competition. Riders are called upon to do the honors, and it was fun to watch Beezie Madden interact with two-time show jumping Cup champ Marcus Ehning of Germany.
The bash was held at Mix, a club 64 stories up in The Hotel, part of the Mandalay Bay resort. They were pouring Krug champagne at the door (nothing but the best!) and serving such enticing tidbits as mini crab cakes, ham bruschetta and wild mushrooms spread on crostini. It was quite crowded, so you found yourself coming literally face to face with practically all the riders.
Well, so much for partying. Today the real work starts. I'll give you an update on the Grand Prix tonight, so be sure to come back to EquiSearch.com as we follow your favorites' fortunes in the Cup through the weekend.