Las Vegas, Nev., April 23, 2005 -- Remember how I told you to keep an eye on Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum in the Budweiser World Cup show jumping finals?
Well, I hope you were paying attention. Now I am reporting that after a slow start on Thursday, when she was sixth, the Californian-turned-German won last night's timed first jump-off class, the second leg of the three-part Cup.
It was a great climax for a well-choreographed evening of excitement that started with fireworks (the usual noisy variety) and ended with fireworks of another kind in a jump-off so brisk it practically set off sparks.
Course designer Guilherme Jorge of Brazil does an admirable job with limited space at the Thomas & Mack Center. At one end of the ring, he grouped four fences rather tightly, and there were lots of twisty turns as well as several narrow jumps. They don't take up much room and have the added benefit of being a good accuracy test. My favorite fence was the one that had replicas of the famous "Welcome to fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada sign" that greets you on The Strip, the nickname for Las Vegas Boulevard, home to all the fabulous hotels that make the city glitter.
Spectators who didn't know about show jumping must have thought the course was brutal, because four of the first six to go withdrew or were eliminated. But the competition went in reverse order of merit, so these were the folks who had trouble during the first leg, too. The USA's Lauren Hough and Laura Kraut didn't even bother to show last night after failing to finish in the opener.
We had 39 starters from 19 countries. Show jumping at the top level is branching out around the globe. There were riders from as far away as Japan, Jordan and New Zealand, and representatives of Poland, Estonia and the Czech Republic, as well as the usual cast of characters from Europe and the Western Hemisphere.
The U.S. has been struggling here, with only Kimberly Frey as our bright light on Marlou, having finished fourth Thursday. So it was disappointing when she dropped the second part of a double yesterday, which put her in a 10-way tie for 10th in this competition, and a two-way tie for 10th overall after the Cup's first two legs. The next-best-placed U.S. rider is Schuyler Riley on Ilian, 17th.
The Germans are taking over this competition. It almost seemed like all Beerbaums, all the time, with Meredith, her husband, Marcus, and his brother, Ludger, participating.
Marcus didn't make the jump-off, but Meredith and Ludger did, along with their countrymen, Alois Pollman-Schweckhorst and Lars Nieberg. The tiebreaker read like a who's who of show jumping, because it also included Great Britain's Nick Skelton, originally favored to win this competition; his compatriot, Michael Whitaker, and three-time Cup champ Rodrigo Pessoa of Brazil.
But none of them were any match for the mighty Meredith, the first woman to achieve a No. 1 world ranking. Going last, she knew exactly what was required of her and Shutterfly, her fabulous bay Hanoverian partner. They were trying to beat a time of 32.62 seconds for the seven-fence tiebreaker, set by Alois aboard Candy. Meredith shaved just close enough, coming home in 32.56 seconds.
She seems quite cool and certainly is not fretting as she heads toward the finale tomorrow, with confidence born of being atop the incomparable Shutterfly.
"He's in the form of his life, no question about that," she said. "He's a fabulous horse, he has all the ability in the world. So I'm not going to lose any sleep about what our course designer is going to build. But anything can happen and I'm just going to go in and do my personal best and see where the chips fall."
Ah, a good metaphor for Vegas. Where would you put your money? In the complicated World Cup ranking system, Meredith has 0 penalties, while Alois and Lars on Lucie stand tied for second with 3. Right behind them with 4 penalties in fourth place on Baloubet du Rouet is Rodrigo , a guy who certainly knows how to win this competition.
Rodrigo's tied with the winner of the first leg, Belgium's Ludo Philippaerts on Parco, who didn't make the jump-off. And Meredith probably can't take comfort in her family ties, either, since her own spouse, Marcus, is tied for sixth with his brother on 5 penalties, 2003 World Cup winner Marcus Ehning of Germany and Michael Whitaker. In other words, Meredith shouldn't be trying on that World Cup crown for size just yet, since Sunday's test is a muscular two-rounder that requires endurance as well as skill and scope.
But she gets extra oomph from being a crowd favorite. Having grown up on the West Coast, Meredith feels almost like a hometown girl here, even though she did change her citizenship after marrying Marcus in 1998.
"I have a tremendous amount of support from my oldest U.S. colleagues, friends and family," she told me.
Meredith, who has shown everywhere you can show, practically, loves riding in Vegas.
"I think it's great. It's something different for us coming from Europe. We don't have crowds like this who are cheering and yelling. We have big crowds and a lot of support, but it's different here," she observed.
Yes, this is a sassy show with all kinds of bells and whistles. There are fun exhibitions, like the Budweiser Clydesdales and a trick roper, jazzy announcing and plenty of bouncy music to go with those fireworks and lasers.
"The first year the Germans came here, I think they were a little shocked by all the loudness, but now everyone's getting use to it and appreciating it. It's quite fun," said Meredith.
The sunshine and the casinos don't hurt, either.
"All the Europeans spend all day long going from the Venetian to Caesar's Palace and then to the pool," said Meredith. Some may even spend a few minutes playing blackjack or feeding slot machines, but Meredith isn't one of them.
"I'm not a gambler; I like calculated risk," she insisted with a smile.
But in Vegas, you have to roll the dice, so I think Meredith is a good bet to be the first woman (and in a way, the first American) since 1987 to win the class.
But first things first. Tonight is the showdown in dressage, with a musical freestyle competition in the works that will be one to remember. Can six-time Cup champ Anky van Grunsven come back with Keltec Salinero and take the measure of her student, Edward Gal, who beat her in the Grand Prix Thursday aboard Geldnet Lingh? And I'm sure they're both worrying about the USA's Debbie McDonald on the fabulous Brentina and Robert Dover with Kennedy. The Americans are meeting the Dutch on equal footing, since the Grand Prix was only used to arrange the order of go for tonight, which means everyone starts with a clean slate.
Well, unlike Meredith, I'm not sleeping well, because I'm not sleeping at all, practically. Two Cups at once mean 18-hour days for me, so I'm going to try to catch a nap to be ready for today's excitement. I'll tell you all about it tomorrow.