April 17, 2015--Luck is a big thing in Vegas, so it's not surprising that the luck of the Irish prevailed last night in the first segment of the Cup's three-part show jumping final.
Bertram Allen, a 19-year-old from the Emerald Isle on the appropriately named Molly Malone V, won the speed leg here just as he did at last year's World Equestrian Games to put him firmly on the global stage. His time of 65.45 seconds in the one-round class was nearly caught by the USA's Rich Fellers on another 19-year-old, his longtime Irishbred partner, Flexible, clocked in 66.11 seconds.
Rich rode the stallion as if he were a racehorse, bringing his body parallel to the blaze-faced chestnut's neck around the turns as he never let up for an instant along Anthony D'Ambrosio's clever course.
The crowd of more than 7,800 greeted Rich and his mount with exuberance, then practically shook the arena with their approval as he and Flexible sped triumphantly through the timers.
The real miracle is that Flexible competed at all. As you'll doubtless remember from my Wednesday postcard, Flexible suffered a severe bout of colic on Tuesday after the horse inspection. Intervention from the U.S. squad's vet, Tim Ober, and his team saved the stallion.
The son of famed Irish sire Cruising bounced back from adversity once again, as he has so many times, and you never would have guessed from his performance that anything had gone wrong just two days earlier.
Flexible, who is owned by Mollie and Harry Chapman, is like a member of Rich's family, inextricably entwined with his whole life. Having the stallion here for another try at the Cup is "a dream," Rich said. There are those who may have said it was an impossible dream since it involves an athlete on the brink of being an equine senior citizen, but the way Flexible went last night, it appears as if he might be in the hunt to capture the prize one more time.
While some were amazed (or even incredulous) at how well he jumped, Rich is a believer.
"I have to say I wasn't so surprised," he said.
"He feels as good as he ever felt to me. I think the crowd took four or five years off his age. He loves crowds, and they gave quite a cheer when he came in the ring and I just felt his back, which has been dropping down (a sign of age), rise up, and off we went."
At this point, U.S. hopes for a Cup victory rest mainly on Rich, who won in 2012.
McLain Ward, who was faster (65.35 seconds) on a determined Rothchild, received a penalty for a dropped rail in the faults-converted-into-seconds format, adding up to a total of 69.35 that put him in 13th place as the second-best American. He had some prestigious company. Defending champion Daniel Deusser of Germany, produced the fastest round, in 65.09 seconds, but with 4 faults added on, wound up with 69.09 for 10th place aboard the lovely gray, Cornet d'Amour.
First- through ninth-place riders, which included Olympic individual gold medalist Steve Guerdat of Switzerland in fifth on Albfuehren's Paille, had no added faults. Unusually, France's Patrice Delaveau on Orient Express and the Netherlands' Jur Vrieling (VDL Zirocco Blue NOP) were tied for third on the same time, 66.44 seconds.
The Frenchman commented that it is most important to be within the seventh- or eighth-placed riders at this point in order to have a good chance at the trophy that will be awarded on Sunday.
The next-best Americans were Beezie Madden on her 2013 Cup winner Simon, 15th, and Lucy Davis, who made her championship debut in the 2014 WEG, 16th on Barron.
A 19-year-old won it once before, in 1984, when Mario Deslauriers, then a Canadian (he has since taken American citizenship) became the competition's youngest champion.
Bertram, with his boyish looks, seems unlikely at first glance to be leading a pack of the world's best riders. If you saw him on the street, you'd take him for a high school student.
But he speaks with maturity, just the way he rides, and his partnership with Molly is impressive to behold.
"She's quite a strong character and I've had her for a long time. She has her own special ways and we know each other quite well," he offered.
She does, however, have her share of temperament.
"This morning, when I rode her in the arena, she was running away with me," he revealed.
"I wasn't happy with her at all and I was wondering, `What am I going to do?' But this evening, she knew not to light up."
Interestingly, Bertram is a protege of Germany's Marcus Ehning, who had a shot at becoming the first-ever four-time Cup champion until midway through the course. When the 9-year-old stallion, Singular LS la Silla, ran into trouble relatively early on, he retired and walked out of the ring.
The evening's energy was kick-started by a Vegas act, a Lady Gaga imitator, complete with showgirl sidekicks. I don't know much about Lady Gaga, so I figured it was the real thing and started shooting photos frantically. When the announcer revealed the singer was a fake, I went back into my camera and hit "delete, delete."
The afternoon's dressage began with an Elvis impersonator and flames shooting up toward the ceiling. Thomas & Mack is not the place to take a nap. And I should mention the contortionist who performed as the jumps were cleared from the ring.
There's plenty more excitement to come. This afternoon is a dressage showcase of non-Cup horses, and this evening, the jumpers return for their second leg, a time-first jump-off affair. I'll be writing about that, so come back tomorrow morning to read all about it. (We have a three-hour time difference from the East Coast, hence the next-day posting.)