Las Vegas, Nev., April 21, 2007 -- One of my favorite lines from the movie "Patton" is spoken by the general as he recounts that it was the custom in ancient Rome for a slave to stand behind a conquering hero during a triumphal parade, whispering, "All glory is fleeting."
Yesterday, that phrase proved to be as true now as it was then for McLain Ward, the American hero of Thursday evening when he won the speed leg that opened the Rolex FEI Show Jumping World Cup Finals at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Saluted by U.S. coach George Morris and others in his contingent, McLain and his dynamic mare, Sapphire, did an incredible job besting a crew of speedy Europeans. But in the second phase last night, a single rail dropped him down to a tie for fifth place overall in the Cup standings. He didn't make the eight-horse jump-off after the pole toppled at an oxer I called the creamsicle, because it was several shades of orange, from pale to bright.
Going to the head of the class, as we all pretty much expected when we came here, was the world's number one-ranked rider, Meredith Michaels Beerbaum, formerly of California and now of Germany.
It was deja vu all over again as she won the time first jump-off competition on the spectacular Shutterfly. Meredith did the same on the second night of the 2005 finals, when she went on to take the title.
In this instance she, too, nearly came to grief at the creamsicle, the ninth of 17 jumping efforts, where it looked to me as if the back pole had slightly dislodged, but the height was not lowered.
Explaining what happened, Meredith said, "The issue started in the triple combination (fences 8ABC). Shutterfly was jumping a brilliant round and I came well into the triple combination and had the feeling he was backing off a little. I really gave him leg in the middle, which I don't do very often because I don't need to. I felt him (get) really, really strong and I lost his mouth a little bit getting to number nine.
"There I didn't have a good distance and he really had to back off the front part to jump it and kicked the back part. I was extremely lucky, as I well know, and luck is always a part of this game."
But it was her rapport with Shutterfly that won her the class when it came to the jump-off. She was shooting at a time of 30.89 seconds for a clean round produced by Beat Mandli of Switzerland on Ideo du Thot.
She said she really made her time on the turn back to the next-to-last fence, an airy gray oxer going away from the ingate.
"There I had a very, very forward stride and an extremely long distance where Shutterfly showed his class and his trust for me, leaving at that distance and sailing over that fence and managing also to jump the last one," she commented.
But her gallop to the last obstacle, a vertical of planks, was the drama that caught the attention of the crowd of more than 9,000 who were into the class as only fans at the World Cup in Vegas can be. Her clocking of 29.38 seconds drew a thunderous round of applause.
Meredith had been disappointed with her eighth-place finish in the speed round Thursday, saying the course didn't suit her horse and thus she couldn't make the optional turns that won McLain the class.
She was wondering if she had lost her title shot, but then noted her real goal here was to enable the public to see how much her relationship with the volatile Shutterfly has deepened since they last watched her ride here two years ago.
Of course, now she's poised to win, though she's tied for first place with Steve Guerdat of Switzerland. He was close to beating her time when he dropped a rail, putting him fourth with Tresor.
McLain still isn't out of the hunt, either. Meredith and Steve have no penalties, to one for Beat and two for Leopold van Asten of the Netherlands. McLain and Marco Kutscher of Germany are tied on three penalties. Since a knockdown is four penalties, you can see there isn't much room for error in the top group.
Schuyler Riley, who made the jump-off with Ilian, at 17 the oldest horse in the competition, is tied for ninth on six points, and Margie Engle, the only other American who qualified for the tiebreaker, where she rode Hidden Creek's Quervo Gold, is 12th with eight penalties.
It was quite an exciting night, I can tell you, and there will be more to come tomorrow, because World Cup Sunday is always tough and it's so easy for the standings to change with the rolling of a single rail.
This place has become the graveyard of champions this weekend. Beezie Madden had a fall that eliminated her Thursday night, and Michael Whitaker of Great Britain logged two uncharacteristic refusals that earned him the same fate.
Three-time Cup champ Rodrigo Pessoa crashed through a jump with Oasis on Thursday and with other knockdowns found himself almost at the bottom of the pile. He tried to work his way back up yesterday with Coeur, but even though he earned his way up to 22nd place with an 8-fault ride, he is calling it quits for this Cup.
I asked him how he assessed the situation for Meredith and company, and this is what he told me.
I don't expect the same drama from tonight's World Cup Dressage freestyle. This discipline, without the element of a course that is never the same twice, usually has little in the way of jolting surprises at this level.
Joking with my friend Max Ammann, the former director of the show jumping World Cup, I said I was going to go out to dinner and a show this evening, since I knew how the dressage final is going to come out.
"Isabell Werth will win," I said, adding, of course, that's only if nothing weird happens, like the ground opening up in front of Warum Nicht, or some form of natural disaster sweeping through the show.
Max begged to differ with me, so I'll tell you what he said. He believes several others have a chance including Imke Schellekens-Bartels with Sunrise (she also happens to be the daughter of one of his good friends, but I know that didn't influence him); the USA's Steffen Peters on Floriano and Kyra Kyrklund of Finland with Max.
Anyway, I wouldn't miss it for anything, even if it comes out just as I said, because it's such a treat to see the bond between Isabell, long one of the world's great riders, and the chestnut with the big ears.
We did have a little dressage today. There was an invitational for non-World Cup riders won by Californian Mette Rosenkrantz on Basquewille, and a freestyle for the riders who didn't make the Cup final.
That was won in grand style by Portugal's Daniel Pinto on the impressive Lusitano stallion, Galopin de la Font. Highlights included Daniel doing a pirouette and half-passes one-handed, which I'm told is allowed in four movements of a freestyle. It created quite an impression, and Daniel was proud to have brought an "exotic" breed to the finals.
Having two disciplines at the World Cup is great, but for someone who's writing about both (not to mention taking photos) it's non-stop. So to make sure I don't fall asleep at my desk again and get another crick in my neck, I'm going to call it quits for now.
But don't worry, we'll put up a bulletin tomorrow morning to tell you who won the Dressage World Cup. My money would be on Isabell Werth, as I told you, but sadly, it isn't true what most people believe about Vegas: You can't bet on everything here, and my efforts to find a sports book that would give me odds on Isabell were fruitless. These are serious horse racing/major sport places and they never heard of the World Cup finals. It's probably just as well; they wouldn't get a seat tonight if they wanted to come because I hear it's a sellout.