Like many leaving Las Vegas, some of the world’s best equestrians came out on top — and some had empty pockets.
The glitz and the glamor seemed so bright on the approach to the FEI World Cup, with the top horses and riders from around the globe shipping in for a star-studded weekend that promised premier competition. But like so many others heading out of Vegas when the sparkle’s faded, some turned home from Sin City with empty pockets, while others hit the jackpot.
The Thomas & Mack Arena is a remarkably versatile space that’s often used as a concert hall, and perhaps best-known in the western world for hosting the National Finals Rodeo annually. But despite best efforts by designers and grounds crew, nothing changed the fact that the arena was very, very small. Defending world champion dressage rider Charlotte Dujardin compared it to “a huge lunge-pen” and indeed the space looked cramped once it was filled with a dressage ring. When the fences came in, the space looked almost laughably small.
Veterinary inspections took place on April 15 and provided their own form of entertainment, as expressed by Spanish dressage rider Morgan Barbancon Mestre (the below photo was taken just moments before Painted Black broke free completely and took a few hot laps around the arena in good spirits.) The draw for order of go in the jumping took place on Thursday at the Hakkasan nightclub at the MGM hotel, which had to bend its 21-year-old age restriction to allow jumpers Jos Verlooy and Bertram Allen, both 19 years old, to participate.
Eighteen riders competed in the Reem Acra FEI World Cup Dressage Final, which consisted of a Grand Prix on Thursday and a Freestyle on Saturday. A minimum score of 60% in the Grand Prix was required to proceed to the Freestyle phase, and all eighteen riders scored well above.
American rider Laura Graves came in much-touted to pressure the favorites, but Verdades had other thoughts, thanks in large part to the snugness of the arena and the overall electricity of show day. The pair still performed well, winding up with a 74.314 for fifth. Edward Gal and Glock’s Undercover had similar moments of tension but scraped a very respectable 79.057%. Steffen Peters and Legolas surpassed expectations to place third with a 76.843%, but all eyes were on Dujardin and Valegro, especially since Dujardin had concerns about the stallion wilting in the Nevada desert heat (as well as the unusual arena setup.) As it turned out, she needn’t have worried: ever the performer, Valegro stepped forth to take a commanding lead with a 85.414%.
The crowds for the Freestyle reached new levels of excitement; thankfully, most of the horses had adjusted well with the Grand Prix under their belt and were ready to put on a show. Ironically, the new trophy designed by Reem Acra seemed to create problems for some of the horses as it sat in the spotlight in all its silver-shining glory, startling Isabell Werth’s El Santo. Werth, being the outstanding professional that she is, kept the horse together to lead temporarily with a 77.875%.
Graves and Verdades (the latter being much, much more relaxed in the arena) raised the Freestyle bar to 79.125. And then came Dujardin and Valegro, whose performance elicited audible emotions from the excited crowd including a huge roar of approval at the final halt. With an outrageous but every-inch-deserved score of 94.196%, they took a wide lead.
With a tough act to follow, Gal and Glock’s Undercover earned a respectable 84.696%, followed by Peters and Legolas with a 80.286%. Shockingly, the mandatory post-competition vet check found a small spot of blood on the horse’s side, which meant that Peters’ score had to be thrown out. Peters is known for his outstanding horsemanship and excellent care in training, and those involved in the decision were as empathetic as they could be while upholding the rules.
Final results through tenth:
First: Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro
Second: Edward Gal and Glock’s Undercover
Third: Jessica von Bredow-Werndl and Unee BB
Fourth: Laura Graves and Verdades
Fifth: Hans Peter Minderhoud and Glock’s Flirt
Sixth: Isabell Werth and El Santo
Seventh: Inessa Merkulova and Mister X
Eighth: Morgan Barbancon Mestre and Painted Black
Ninth: Mikala Münter Gunderson and My Lady
Tenth: Fabienne Lütkemeier and Qui Vincit Dynamis
Show jumpers were definitely not immune to the limits of the arena space either, with many qualified riders making their final horse decisions based on who was handiest indoors. Jumping competition included three phases: the first speed round with time added for rails, the second round against the clock plus a jump-off, and the third round consisting of two courses (3o riders qualify for the first course, with the top 20 from that course returning for the second.) Courses were designed by Anthony D’Ambrosio.
The speed round started off the competition with excitement, and Ireland’s young Bertram Allen gave spectators a flashback to the 2014 World Equestrian Games, where he and Molly Malone galloped out of nowhere to grab the lead. Allen demonstrated guts but also maturity as he stuck to his plan and piloted “Molly” to a fast, clean round. Second place went to American Rich Fellers, whose miracle horse Flexible didn’t show any signs of his age (Fellers claims the horse’s back rises every time the crowd cheers.) Fun fact: Flexible is the same age as Bertram Allen.
On the second night of competition, D’Ambrosio’s 13-fence course proved to be a big challenge with 16 horses picking up faults at the triple combination. While Allen and Molly Malone didn’t go clear to make the jump-off, they were the fastest with 4 faults, which would prove to work out better in the end by saving the mare another trip to the ring. Switzerland’s Steve Guerdat, who took the lead after a clear round and a fast, clean jump-off, emphasized that stamina would prove to be important for the final leg. Beezie Madden and Simon were also double-clear to take second, just ahead of fellow Americans Lucy Davis on Barron in third and Fellers and Flexible in fourth. Mclain Ward and Rothchild sat in sixth after “Bongo” stopped at the skinny.
Guerdat, who had not yet won a World Cup jumping title despite being an Olympic champion, proved to be prophetic for the third round: only six horse-and-rider pairs went clear out of 29 starters. The demanding courses were clearly taking their toll on the field as rails fells all over; Fellers dropped two fences to move out of second place allowing French rider Penelope Leprevost to move up to tie Allen. When both of those riders dropped additional rails in the jump-off, it appeared that Guerdat was bulletproof – but after the grueling marathon of tough rounds, Guerdat and Albfuehren’s Paille picked up four faults and then dramatically knocked down the final fence, hanging on to the number-one position by a headlong gallop to the finish. In the end, Guerdat made time by a mere quarter of a second, allowing him to hang on to the lead.
While the arena size and close proximity of a lively crowd had definitely affected the dressage, the show jumpers were much more vocal about the pressures of the small indoor space combined with the taxing courses. Marcus Ehning, in an interview for NoelleFloyd.com, stated that “I was not really happy with [the courses … ] on Thursday, even if you were a really top, top rider it was a bit of luck to catch the vertical just right, and then it was impossible to get to the triple very straight, and I think that was a bit unfair.”
Mclain Ward posted the following thoughts to Facebook, which was a fairly uncharacteristic move for the top-class always-professional rider, suggesting that he feels pretty passionately about how things went:
Final results through tenth:
First: Steve Guerdat
Second: Penelope Leprevost
Third: Bertram Allen
Fourth: Beezie Madden
Fifth: Jos Verlooy
Sixth: Mikael Van Der Vleuten
Seventh: Richard Fellers
Eighth: Douglas Lindelöw
Ninth: Lucy Davis
Tenth: Jur Vrieling
Videos and interviews are available via FEI YouTube to catch up on all of your favorite athletes!