Las Vegas, Nev., April 20, 2007 -- Elvis was in the building at the Rolex FEI World Cup Finals yesterday, and maybe that's why it was such a crazy night.
After a by-the-book afternoon in which dressage Cup favorite Isabell Werth of Germany won the Grand Prix as expected with Warum Nicht (while America's Steffen Peters was a close second aboard Floriano), everything turned upside down (in one case, literally so) a few hours later.
The first leg of the show jumping World Cup, held for the second time in conjunction with the dressage was full of startling moments that stunned the fans and turned some favorites into also-rans.
The evening began with dynamite Vegas showmanship as Elvis, in the white leather silver-studded uniform of his later life, took the stage with a bevy of plumed showgirls to sing what has become the city's theme song, "Viva Las Vegas."
The performance got the blood going for a speed test that was a bit smaller than the usual opener for other Cup finals, but no less effective. While most of the fences stood 1.5 meters (about 4 feet, 9 inches), course designer Guillherme Jorge of Brazil (who also did the routes here in 2005) made clever use of the tiny arena with which he had to work. He also wanted to make sure riders from as far away as Japan and Poland had a good experience as they embarked on the indoor international championship.
It is difficult to weave options into such a tight layout, but he did it, and the USA's McLain Ward made the most of them. Riding Sapphire, who is not known for being fleet, he knew he could not rely on foot speed alone. So McLain not only cut to the Rolex oxer at the end of the ring--where Olympic champion Rodrigo Pessoa had come to grief earlier--but he also did the second sharp turn to the next-to-last fence, a vertical. That gave him an amazing clocking of 63.78 seconds, beating the time of 65.29 seconds set much earlier in the class by Germany's Markus Beerbaum on Leena (who was called back on Wednesday for a second jog after failing to pass the first vet check.)
McLain admitted the turns, which everyone saw when they walked the course, were "risky."
"It didn't look like they were that possible," said McLain. "Then slowly, as we got to the stronger horse/rider combinations, I think they started showing the turns, I made a decision to try them and I've got a great horse."
Markus weighed the possibilities of taking the cuts, but decided it was better for him just to go full blast along the route, knowing his mare could cover the ground with the alacrity of a drag racer.
Markus said he wouldn't have tried the cuts even if he had gone after McLain and knew his clocking.
"You give a lot at this championship," he said. "I didn't want to take everything out today. I wanted to be right there, which obviously worked great."
A good placing in the first leg of the Cup's three classes is crucial to hopes of winning it, and McLain conceded it was the phase that scared him most. The power jumping to come is more Sapphire's strong suit.
But he had a secret weapon. He showed me a photo of his late mother, Kris, who died two years ago this month. McLain usually uses it as a bookmark, but his fiancee, Lauren Amsterdam, suggested that his mother should ride with him on this crucial night. So he put the photo in the pocket of his riding jacket, where I can guarantee it will stay for the rest of the competition.
The only other rider who tried both cuts (a number did one or the other) was Switzerland's Beat Mandli, but a knockdown by Ideo du Thot added 4 seconds to his time, leaving him ninth.
Beezie Madden, who was co-favored with McLain to be the best of the American contingent here, had a sudden end to her hopes at fence 5 of 13 obstacles, an oxer with adobe wall standards. Her mount, Authentic, cleared the previous jump, a double of a wall and an oxer, on an awkward stride. He must have been frazzled. At fence 5 five, Authentic's legs came down in the middle of the jump. Rails scattered and Beezie went headlong toward the ground. She later theorized he had been scared at the in-and-out, and the accident frightened him still further. He jumped fence six without his rider, then went back and cleared fence five, which was being reassembled. The bay gelding, who had taken Beezie to two silver medals at the 2006 World Equestrian Games, ran wildly around the ring until he was caught.
Other favorites also fared poorly. Great Britain's Michael Whitaker, a veteran of 19 World Cup finals, had one refusal at the sixth fence with the usually reliable Sun Cal Portofino, then another at the first element of a double, which put him out of the running. He left the ring shaking his head.
Rodrigo, a three-time Cup champ, finished the course after his crash through the Rolex oxer with Oasis. But three knockdowns and time penalties put him 37th of 38 finishers, just ahead of fellow Brazilian Denis Gouvea, a first-time Cup starter.
Another surprise was the way Markus Beerbaum's wife, the former Meredith Michaels, finished on Shutterfly. Her clocking was only good enough for eighth, surprising for the No. 1 rider in the world and the winner of the last World Cup finals held in Las Vegas two years ago.
After the placings were completed, riders were ranked by points. McLain has 42, to 40 for Markus and 39 for Markus' countryman, defending Cup champ Marcus Ehning, who rode the gray mare Gitania. Lauren Hough on Casadora is the only other American in the top 10. She broke her hand in the Nations' Cup last month, which has been a disadvantage in her preparation, but she was still able to put in a convincing round with Casadora. Schuyler Riley is 13th with Ilian, the oldest horse in the competition at 17, while Molly Ashe-Cawley stands 14th on her old pal, two-time American Invitational winner Kroon Gravin.
Molly, who married longtime love Chris Cawley earlier this month, has been reunited with Kroon, another great love of hers, after a long legal battle over the mare's ownership. She finally got control of the horse, and while she worried about fitness after the two were just getting back in the game together, her only penalty came at the flashy Las Vegas fence.
Although there was much excitement about the dressage Grand Prix, it turned out to be a tranquil class, certainly as compared to the jumping! Indeed, Mariette Withages, head of the FEI dressage committee, noted some of the horses looked tired. Others were not as "daring" as usual, she commented.
Since the Grand Prix counts only for the order of go in tomorrow night's freestyle, which determines the placings, some riders decided not to take risks and use up their horses.
Even Isabell said that she wasn't pushing Warum Nicht, who she agreed has a lot in common with her former champion, Gigolo. The chestnut Hanoverians both have the same "long lines," but it remains to be seen whether Hannes, as Warum Nicht is called, will become an Olympic champion like his predecessor, who left "very big footsteps."
Hannes got distracted briefly by a camera and there were some fumbles in the tempis, but he and Isabell are such a formidable duo that the overall picture can't be shaken by small mistakes.
Though Isabell's score was 74.792 and Steffen's a very respectable 72.875, he concedes he has a big task in trying to overtake Isabell.
If Steffen doesn't win, he certainly doesn't want to lose ground, and there will be pressure from both Kyra Kyrklund of Finland with the Swedish warmblood stallion Max and Imke Schellekens-Bartels of the Netherlands on the sensitive mare Sunrise. Both had the same score (71.708). The tie was broken in favor of Kyra because of her better collective marks.
Imke still seemed very pleased to have done as well as she did, beating such big names as Sweden's Jan Brink with Briar (fifth) and her countryman Edward Gal on the black stallion Group 4 Securicor IPS Gribaldi (all those words before Gribaldi are the sponsor's name). He was only seventh, a disappointment for the crowd of nearly 9,000 who remembered him from his second-place effort here in 2005 with his former ride, Lingh.
Asked what her last three thoughts were before entering the ring, Imke said, "Oh my God!" Despite the pressure, the daughter of another Dutch Olympian, Tineke Bartels and her husband, Joep, kept everything together admirably.
All four Americans will be in the top 12 who ride for the prize in the freestyle (four in the field of 16 are relegated to today's "B" final). Courtney King (Idocus) was eighth on 67.833 percent, followed by Catherine Haddad with Maximus JSS (66.750). Leslie Morse finished 11th on Tip Top (64).
Check back here tomorrow for an update on the second leg of the show jumping Cup and more on all the action here! In the meantime, catch up on all of my World Cup postcards here.
Visit worldcuplasvegas.com for starting order and results lists.