Las Vegas, Nev., April 22, 2007 -- The 2007 Jumping World Cup Finals that has become the graveyard of champions claimed a final victim today, as Meredith Michaels Beerbaum--tied for the lead going into this afternoon's finale--took a flukey fall that ended the German rider's quest for her second Cup title in three years.
I couldn't believe it as I saw her clear a liverpool two fences from the end of the first-round course, lose her balance and then part company with Shutterfly after he landed.
It was a case of "he went left and she went right," stunning the crowd of more than 9,000 who watched in disbelief.
The fall, which eliminated Meredith from contention, happened so quickly she was on the ground before she knew it.
"I didn't even have a second to think about staying on," she said.
"It was a huge disappointment because the horse is in fabulous form and I felt like he could do it today," she added, noting she was fine despite the tumble.
"It's more my ego bruised than anything," she told me wistfully.
I've attended 19 World Cup finals and never experienced anything quite like the series of "casualties" at this one. It started when Beezie Madden, as good a shot to win the Cup as Meredith, fell at the fifth fence in Thursday's opening round, when Authentic dropped his legs into the middle of the oxer. Then Britain's Michael Whitaker, who coincidentally has been to as many World Cups (as a competitor, of course) as I have, was eliminated for two refusals in the first round. And Olympic champ Rodrigo Pessoa started near the bottom of the standings and stayed there. He didn't even ride today.
But the absence of all these stars is not to say that the victor was anything less than masterful.
Switzerland's Beat Mandli, who has been third twice and second twice since 1996, came from just a little bit behind to win. He stood third with 1 penalty going into today's class, while his training partner and former student, Steve Guerdat, was tied with Meredith for the lead on 0 penalties.
Meredith's sudden departure elevated Beat to second, again just a single penalty behind Steve. But then they separated. While Beat, who had 4 faults in the first round, produced a clear second round, Steve (who'd had a rail in the first round) dropped two fences in the second round and his placing as well, finishing tied for third on a tired Tresor with Meredith's husband, Markus, aboard Leena. Each had a total of 12 penalties, to Beat's 5.
When Beat entered the ring for his final trip on Ideo du Thot, he had no concern over whether it would be Steve or himself who won.
"It was okay," Beat explained, "because if he wins, he is also Swiss."
The feeling was mutual.
"There was never any question of 'I want to beat him, I want to be in front of him,'" said Steve.
"We tried our best and I'm really he pleased he won. Of course, it would have been absolutely perfect if we ended up first and second, but still, it's good and he really deserves his win. I'm really excited for him. He's the greatest rider ever."
Beat was just bursting with pride over his Frenchbred mount.
"He's always very careful, very good in the mind, he's always good on the job. He's just an unbelievable horse," he enthused.
Second went to the only rider with a double-clear this afternoon, Germany's Daniel Deusser aboard the aptly named Air Jordan.
Daniel had been 15th on the first day, but his consistency shone through and elevated him as he finished on 11 penalties. He's quite a remarkable rider, I think, and since he's only 25, he'll be a star for a long time. His mentor was former world champion Franke Sloothaak, and he now rides for Jan Tops in Holland.
McLain Ward finished as the best-placed American, but understandably wasn't satisfied with a tie for eighth after winning the Thursday class on Sapphire and having a shot at seeing his name on the silver and rock crystal Rolex FEI World Cup.
"The sum of the whole weekend was disappointing. I thought I had a shot when I came here," he said ruefully. "We're not going to change our program. We'll just do better the next time."
The courses by Brazil's Guilherme Jorge (who is also building for the Pan Am Games) were amazing. He does incredible things in a very small, rather awkward space; I'd like to see him decorate a studio apartment!
He explained his philosophy this way: "I like to have the best ones on top but also feel the horses can go back home and jump in a week or two. That was my goal."
His routes were always interesting, and in the case of the last one today, deceiving. It looked simple when the riders walked it, but as Marcus pointed out, "The horses were always sighting in on the wrong jumps; the course was set a little hectic." What counted "wasn't really the size or the distances." What mattered was "the way you had to get to the jumps."
Guilherme got kudos from Sven Holmberg, the FEI's first vice president.
"It's difficult to build championship courses," Sven explained.
"The first leg of a competition like this has a very wide variety of experience as far as the riders are concerned, since some are coming from the smaller leagues. He succeeded in making courses that gave us the right winners in the end without any bad accidents." (Yes, both Beezie and Meredith walked away from their debacles without a hitch.)
The competition today was terrific, but the fact that it came on the heels of Saturday night's dressage finals made it even more special. Though I thought the freestyle was a hard act to follow, the jumping certainly went beyond all our expectations, with its unexpected twists and turns.
That is not to take anything away from the dressage. Like all the Americans, I was rooting for Steffen Peters on Floriano, who had an uphill battle trying to beat Isabell Werth of Germany, the odds-on favorite and the eventual winner with Warum Nicht.
Steffen knows how to deal with pressure, and he talks about it in this sound byte.
Because Floriano tired at the end of his performance, Steffen wound up with third place, unable to repeat the second place he earned in the Grand Prix on Thursday.
Second went to Imke Schellekens-Bartels, the daughter of a Dutch Olympian, who had some difficulties dealing with Sunrise but handled the situation like a champion.
I could go on and on about all I saw and experienced this week, but this is becoming more of a book than a postcard.
Just one or two other things though: The Americans triumphed over the Europeans in the hunter challenge, getting revenge for their defeat last year by those intrepid jumper riders. This could be a prelude to the hunters becoming an international discipline, something the various hunter groups are working on.
And I want to add that Michael Whitaker had the comeback of the weekend, winning the $75,000 Las Vegas Grand Prix on Saturday with a contrite Sun Cal Portofino, whose victory then made up for her World Cup failure to at least some extent.
I'll wrap up by saying that Sven feels Las Vegas is a good venue for the Cup, noting the "show business touch" is "quite unique."
Yes, at what other horse show could you meet up with Elvis or Liberace (the opening acts on two different nights)? Not to mention Chinese acrobats and Lusitanos decked out in lights doing a quadrille in a pitch black arena?
And what other show attracts more than 85,000 people over five days? I hope we're coming back here in 2009. I think we will; Las Vegas Events President Pat Christenson told me when he sends his bid to the FEI, "I'm going to make them an offer they can't refuse." Book your room now.
Viva Las Vegas!