Las Vegas, Nev., April 24, 2005 -- It was raining superlatives at the rockin' World Cup dressage final, which has now been officially designated the best ever.
The rides were great and the nearly 12,000 fans who were packed to the rafters of a sold-out Thomas & Mack Center didn't mind showing they were into it. Forget the silence that is supposed to be sacrosanct to dressage. They just couldn't seem to help themselves, clapping and cheering as records were set and the horses danced as they never danced before.
"I thought the crowd was awesome, and I laughed and had fun," said Debbie McDonald, who gave Brentina the ride of her life. She completely abandoned any semblance of caution, asking the crowd to applaud as she piaffed before going up the centerline.
"The mare liked it, it was really good. She tried to stay with me, she just said, 'Okay mom, I'll do it if you ask me, but they're awfully loud,'" Debbie chuckled.
So you're probably wondering who won. I haven't told you yet, because winning wasn't the point, the way it usually is. This was about excellence and excitement. The top three horses really showed what those words mean. As judge Axel Steiner told me, they were so even that if they all did their freestyles again today, the result might have been different.
But (and you probably guessed) six-time World Cup winner Anky van Grunsven of the Netherlands became a seven-time winner aboard Keltec Salinero. The Olympic gold medalist's score was a record 86.725 percent, and she was placed first by four of the five judges. Axel had her third; he was critical of her pirouettes, which are an important movement. But all the judges except FEI dressage committee chairman Mariette Withages gave her more than 90 percent for the artistic segment of her performance. In fact, both Anky's compatriot, runner-up Edward Gal on Geldnet Lingh, and Debbie, who finished third, got some 90s or above on their artistic component.
"I think it's very important a lot of riders are on a very high level," said Anky, who added, "We all keep pushing each other."
Anky's music was the French-themed piece I heard at the Olympics last year, and judge Uwe Mechlem gave it a 10.
"I think the combination between the horse and the music you cannot make better," he said.
Edward, whose score was 85.225, used an eerie blend of Irish melodies and Japanese pop viola music, but said he is getting something else ready for this summer's European championships, which I'm sure will show off his bay stallion even better.
Debbie, whose ride got an 83.450 and a standing ovation from the spectators, rode to a jazzy beat that revolved around Aretha Franklin's "Respect," which is what Debbie wants from the judges.
I think she got it; her marks were certainly good. All the judges had her third, however, except for Axel, who put her second behind his winner, Edward.
"That's okay. It was a fabulous competition tonight," said Debbie, who was riding with a painful right knee from an old injury. "I'm ecstatic. I'll always have this ride in my head."
Dressage certainly took a great step forward with the finals, which proved the sport is fun and can really draw a crowd.
"I think it was the best public ever; the loudest public ever. It was a super final," said Mariette.
"For the judges, it was very difficult to make great differences and find the winner," said Uwe. "The level...was so unbelievably high, you always said when one finished, and the choreography has such a high standard, and the music, you say, 'No, this can't be beaten anymore,' but then the next did it, and the next did it.' This was fascinating for us, but also very exciting."
Robert Dover, who finished fourth with 80.100 percent in what is supposed to be his last ride on the 16-year-old Kennedy, was just as enthusiastic.
"I think we've seen here in Las Vegas a breakthrough for our sport, not just in our country, but in the world," he said. "I think that dressage proved itself to be a sport worthy of being viewed by millions of people all over the world on television. And when they see it for what it is, they're going to realize it's a lot of fun to watch. We'll get into the living rooms and family rooms of families all over the world and they'll want our sport on TV, and that's what's going to take us to the next level."
"We're just going to keep this ball rolling," said Karen Reid Offield, who sponsored the dressage here and wants to see the word go forth that this is a sport that deserves an audience wherever it is. Citing the slogan, "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas," she said, "not anymore. We're changing that."
Not only was it quite a night, it was also quite a day. We had the $50,000 Las Vegas grand prix, kind of a consolation competition for those who are not going forward to this afternoon's final two rounds of the FEI Budweiser Jumping World Cup Final.
The five-horse jump-off started disappointingly when Richard Spooner, who won the class here in 2003 with Robinson, had a refusal after cutting too sharply to a fence with the gray gelding. At 17, this was the horse's last competition in Thomas & Mack.
The class went to Audi's Jikke ridden by Eric van der Vleuten, making it a completely great day for the Dutch. Right behind him was Anne Kursinski on Roxana. Anne felt the class was a perfect prep as she gets ready to embark on the U.S. Nations' Cup tour with the mare, and didn't want to risk going in today's final. There was no reason to; she was 27th, and she wasn't going to win, so why make the mare jump two big rounds?
After the grand prix's first round, the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation's Lionel-Guerrand Hermes Memorial trophy was presented in the arena to Brianne Goutal, who won the U.S. Equestrian Federation Talent Search at USET headquarters last fall.
Bill Whitehead of Hermes presented her with a saddle; I'm sure this busy young rider will get a lot of use out of it. Several previous winners were also on hand, including Kim Keenan, Molly Bliss, Marilyn Little and Gaby Salick, who is riding in the Cup.
The other competition of the afternoon was a U.S. vs. Europe hunter match-up. The U.S. hasn't had much luck at these finals and true to form, the Europeans won--though they've had little or no experience riding hunters. Rodrigo Pessoa of Brazil didn't look like he needed any practice, though, and Germany's Marcus Ehning said he had studied a videotape about what to do (he's a real quick study, obviously). Nick Skelton of Great Britain had some problems, but his countryman Michael Whitaker, who practiced in Tampa, generally looked pretty smooth.
Everyone was aboard horses they had never ridden before, and there was great commentary from Olympic gold medalist Melanie Smith Taylor and hunter trainer Don Stewart, who has been told by Monty Python's John Cleese that he should go into comedy. And yes, it was entertaining.
I'm running out of room on this postcard and I haven't even told you about the fabulous aerialists who were the entertainment last night, or the costumed "Phantom of the Opera" vaulting routine choreographed by Devon Maitozo. Everything here was done just right, from the pace of the show to the little extra flourishes that made you realize you were in Vegas, but didn't overdo it.
If Las Vegas hosts the Cups (or even just show jumping) again in 2007, you'll have to come and see it all for yourself. It's worth it, as 100,000 tickets sold for these five days definitely prove.
I'll be back with you tomorrow morning for the last time from here with a rundown on the show jumping finals.