Las Vegas, Nev., April 22, 2005 -- Opening day of the World Cup double-header--dressage and show jumping staged together for the first time--was all we had dreamed it would be.
There was international flair, riveting competition and of course, plenty of glitter. From fireworks and lasers to rhinestone browbands, it felt right in tune with the Elvis number that opened the show: "Viva Las Vegas."
Dressage was in the afternoon, and the fact that 8,584 people came out on a Thursday to the Thomas & Mack Center made it obvious America was very hungry to see the foreign stars of the sport and cheer on its national favorites.
I can tell you that no one was disappointed with the Grand Prix. Olympic gold medalist Anky van Grunsven sparkled, but not quite as much as usual. She admitted to making a mistake in the one-tempis, which resulted in Keltec Salinero getting some 4's, a mark one doesn't associate with that dynamic horse and a woman who's a six-time World Cup winner.
That meant Anky wound up with a score of 78 percent. Not so bad, but she couldn't overtake her countryman and student, Edward Gal, a charming fellow with a dynamic head of blond hair, which he tossed back in triumph after making his final salute on Geldnet Lingh. Even before his score of 78.625 percent was posted, he knew he had turned in a pretty spectacular test. Lingh's consistency is amazing. He doesn't have the fire of Salinero, but he's elegant and refined, completely obedient and in marvelous sync with his rider.
Talk about the luck of the draw. Anky wound up with the coveted last position on the roster, while Debbie McDonald had to ride second on Brentina.
"She tried so hard for me," Debbie said, adding she knew that going as early as she did in the class, she wasn't going to win it. The judges have to see what they've got before they start handing out the really big numbers.
But the fans knew who they were rooting for, and it was Debbie. After her final halt, they erupted into a love fest. She waved, blew a kiss and gave a thumbs-up to her admirers.
"The crowd is so unbelievable. The atmosphere here is phenomenal," said Debbie, who wound up third on 75.958 percent, a very respectable mark.
Brentina looked even better than she was in the Olympics, much more supple and "through," as the dressage mavens say.
Her good form is the result of good health, finally.
"I can work her. I went to the Olympics walking," said Debbie. Brentina injured herself at Dortmund in 2004 and missed last year's World Cup because of that. A long time recovering, she could be used very little until Aachen, just a short while before the Olympics.
"She's back in top form and stronger than ever," said Debbie, who was pleased the mare didn't tire despite the great effort she made.
Anky was funny and gracious about her defeat by her student, the first time Lingh has ever beaten Salinero.
"I'm very upset," she said with a mock pout. "I think it's the most impolite thing to do. He asked me to help. I helped. Normally I do it for free. The next thing, he beats me. I told him he's going to get a bill."
Anky thinks Salinero will do better in the freestyle tomorrow night. The Grand Prix scores don't count, except in determining the order of go for the freestyle and reassuring those who had success. "Mentally, it's a bonus," said Debbie.
A spectacular test was turned in by Robert Dover on Kennedy, scored at 75.625 to be fourth. It appears the Cup is going to be Robert's last ride on his Olympic partner. But Robert has retired several times and come back, so we're not going to be singing "Auld Lang Syne" for him until we know whether he's serious.
The other two Americans here also made the top 12 that will be competing for the title (the other six will have a consolation freestyle today). Leslie Morse rode Kingston more confidently than I have ever seen her, and she wound up seventh with a score of 72.792. She seems to have ironed out some of the wrinkles I saw when she was in Florida this winter.
Guenter Seidel flubbed the one-tempis with Aragon, getting a string of 4's that tied him for 11th on 71.125 percent. Disappointing, because that horse can be really dynamic.
The dressage would have been the perfect event to discuss over dinner and a drink, but not when there's show jumping less than two hours later.
So we switched gears, going from ballet to NASCAR with the one-round speed test that always kicks off the show jumping World Cup. The course was set by Guilherme Nogueira, a charming, forthright Brazilian doing his first World Cup finals.
Everyone thought the route might be too easy when Germany's Marcus Beerbaum set the pace artfully on Constantin with a fast, clear round that held the top spot until the 27th rider, his countryman, 2003 World Cup winner Marcus Ehning who went ahead of him with Gitania.
But it seemed there were more problems than successes. The U.S. contingent fell by the wayside fast. Georgina Bloomberg had a refusal with Nadia, and Lauren Hough logged two with Clasiko, making it only halfway around the course before she was eliminated. I won't tell you what happened to everyone, but Laura Kraut (No. 1 on the U.S. Equestrian Federation computer list) fell off at the third fence when Anthem refused, scuttling her chances. That green jump was dubbed the "bogey fence" or "key jump" (depending on how the rider speaking handled the course). It was approached going away from the ingate, and riders had to clear it just right to be in the proper place to take the fourth fence, an airy wall three strides away.
The highly regarded entry of McLain Ward and Sapphire, the horse he rode to a team silver in the Olympics, had knockdowns at the fifth and ninth fences, putting them 30th and out of contention, even if they do well in tonight's second leg. It's a hole that's just too deep to climb out of and into the winner's circle.
But the good news for America is our lone ranger, the only U.S. rider in the top 10, Kimberly Frey with Marlou, who stands fourth. She's in good company. Marcus Ehning is second on Gitania, and Markus Beerbaum is third. (His wife, Meredith, one of the favorites, is sixth.) First, however, went to Ludo Philippaerts from Belgium riding the gray stallion Parco. You can't miss Ludo, he's wearing an electric blue jacket with a yellow satin collar. Riders are going to great lengths these days to be standouts for their sponsors.
Ludo also did some standout riding to thrill the crowd of 9,420 that showed up for the evening class. He took quite a turn to the last line, the Budweiser triple combination (Budweiser is the show jumping Cup's sponsor), and he thinks that little shortcut is what got him first place.
Kimberly seemed a bit awed at being surrounded by some of the icons of the sport, and ahead of others, like Nick Skelton (a surprising 16th) and Rodrigo Pessoa (seventh). She has no company from her compatriots; the next-highest-placed American is Schuyler Riley, 12th on Ilian, and then it's a long way down to Candice King, 20th on Coco Cabana.
The trick for Kimberly will be staying cool and focused for the next two legs as she carries the flag, but this gutsy rider thinks she's ready.
"This is my first finals, so yes, I was a little nervous, but I believe 100 percent in my horse," she said. "Each day, she comes out like a new horse. She has the most competitive spirit of any animal I've ever met."
Covering two Cup competitions in the same day has worn me out. But I come out every day like a new horse too (well sort of, anyway), so I'll be back with you tomorrow morning to tell you all about how today went.