Las Vegas changed the image of the FEI World Cup™ forever when it hosted the final in 2000 for the first time, ratcheting up the excitement with a fast-moving program that was as much show biz as show jumping.
Las Vegas Events put on a dazzling presentation to mark a new era. From the opening notes of the show’s theme song, “Viva Las Vegas,” through the zinging lasers until the sparkle of the final fireworks, each session offered an experience unique to the sport at that time.
Two decades later, the FEI World Cup™ Finals in Las Vegas—dressage joined show jumping in 2005—are eagerly awaited, not only for the April 15–19 competition, but also for the entertainment that is the city’s art form.
Vegas has grown and changed dramatically since the final debuted there, and this year, Pat Christenson, the president of Las Vegas Events, says, “We’re looking to take the World Cups to an even higher level.”
Gone this time around will be the high-kicking showgirls and Elvis impersonators who were part of earlier finals in Vegas, which hosted the show jumping for the second time in 2003. It then held joint finals, also offering dressage in 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2015.
The new, more sophisticated Las Vegas has a professional hockey team, a football team in the offing, a state-of-the-art entertainment venue going up and a completely different skyline and culture from the year 2000.
For the World Cup finals, Christenson said, “We’ve reinvented the pace and the focus. We like to think of ourselves as innovators, always.”
The centerpiece of change stems from a major renovation of the Thomas & Mack Center, the World Cup venue, including a new sound system. Space around the ring for the dressage judges, previously an issue, has been improved. In 2015, the VIP tent was outside the building, some distance from the action. VIPs now will be in the Taylor Harris Club, just across the concourse from the seating for the ring. The atmosphere for VIPs will be elevated with celebrity chefs doing the honors and a special wine program.
Whatever the embellishments, the heart of the week is competition. The Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ Final could well shape up as a battle between two Swiss riders, Steve Guerdat and Martin Fuchs, who have alternated between being world No. 1 and No. 2 this year in the Longines FEI Jumping Rankings.
Fuchs, whose uncle, Markus Fuchs, won the 2001 finals after finishing second in Vegas the previous year, said the fixture is more than a family tradition to him. “Las Vegas is a great, special venue. … I’m very excited to be there,” said the European champion. He rode there in the 2015 final and has experience in what U.S. Olympic gold medalist McLain Ward calls “the funny-shaped ring” with an outline that looks a bit like an oven mitt rather than the conventional rectangle. The shape also is sometimes described as a keyhole.
Robert Ridland, the Vegas World Cup Finals’ jumping manager from 2000 to 2009, noted that in this areana, a course designer has less than 200 feet on the long side to work with because the entrance is wider than the rest of the ring. To set a straight line of 200 feet or a little more, the designer has to build it along the diagonal after the turn; otherwise, he won’t have anything but broken lines along his route. Ridland says the ring’s configuration is “definitely a factor” in the difficulty of the final at Thomas & Mack.
Fuchs is up for the challenge. He plans to ride The Sinner in Vegas. “I won with him in the leg in London, which gives me confidence for the finals, since [the London International Horse Show at Olympia] also is a small indoor. It’s definitely a big goal for myself.”
He added, however, “I don’t know if I’m as competitive with The Sinner as I would be with Clooney,” speaking of the long-striding gray who was his European Championships mount. “The goal is to be in the top ten,” Fuchs said modestly.
While the rivalry between the Swiss riders is a headliner, Fuchs noted those assessing the odds shouldn’t ignore Germans Daniel Deusser, No. 3 in the rankings early in the year, and Marcus Ehning. Both Guerdat and Ehning are in the running to make history as the first four-time winner of the final if they take the prize this year.
As qualifying in North America wound down with only the Ocala qualifier left at press time, No. 1 in the Western Sub-League was Karl Cook while Beezie Madden, a two-time final winner, was leading the Eastern Sub-League and plans to ride Breitling LS in Vegas. She is followed in the Eastern standings by Brian Moggre, the teen sensation who wowed the crowd when he won the $225,000 Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ Lexington at the National Horse Show last November.
Moggre was a spectator at the 2015 final in Vegas and dreamed of riding in it. The dream will become reality this year with MTM Vivre Le Reve. “To be able to do it so young and be back in Vegas is incredible. I couldn’t be more excited about it,” Moggre said.
The quirky ring doesn’t faze him. “My horse has competed in many different venues. So as long as I can step up to the plate, I don’t have too much concern on his behalf. He knows his job,” Moggre said.
The Olympic Effect
Ward, the last American to win the final on U.S. soil when he took the 2017 trophy in Omaha, is focusing this year on his student and 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games gold medal teammate, Adrienne Sternlicht, because he’s not competing.
Las Vegas Events at one time did not want to host the finals in an Olympic or World Championships year, but in 2020 it is being held four months before the Tokyo Olympics. With a crowded calendar, there often is no choice of scheduling, so that can cause conflict for riders, who must decide their priorities.
“Maybe every year it isn’t for every top rider the right plan,” said Ward, explaining, “There are so many big events in the world now, the sport has grown so much in the last 15 years, you have to find balance.
“For me this year, it was never really on my radar. I was thinking more about the Olympic Games, particularly last year, when I had several injuries [to horses’]. To qualify was going to be a strain.”
He appreciates the finals, however, noting, “It’s still a great indoor championship. America has been a great producer of the final.”
Ridland, now the U.S. show jumping coach, noted that while the World Cup is always a priority for American riders, in team championship years it tends to be slightly less so.
“On the flip side it’s a home World Cup Final and, in that sense, it’s important. There are certainly going to be some riders who will skip the World Cup this year because it doesn’t quite fit in, and for others, it is actually part of their plan.”
Dressage, Vegas Style
The dressage World Cup is likely to be a battle between perennial victor Isabell Werth of Germany on Weihegold OLD and Great Britain’s Charlotte Dujardin, a past winner with the legendary Olympic champion Valegro, now retired. With her current ride, Mount St John Freestyle, Dujardin narrowly missed victory against Werth in a January qualifier in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, earning 89.50 percent, a new personal best for the duo, behind Werth, who scored 90.28.
The top American to watch will be Steffen Peters, winner of the 2009 Vegas final with Ravel.
Vegas naturally has special meaning to Peters, and he is looking forward to returning with his current mount, Suppenkasper, on whom he scored a personal best of 83.495 percent in February when he won the freestyle at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival and clinched his ticket to Vegas.
Peters’ 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games silver medal teammates, Kasey Perry-Glass with Dublet and Adrienne Lyle with Salvino, did not try for the World Cup because they are conserving their horses with an eye toward the Tokyo Olympics. The requirement to do three freestyles to qualify for the World Cup and three Grand Prix Specials to qualify for the Olympics (the Special is the team medal test for Tokyo) make it hard for every rider to accomplish both.
Peters, however, feels participation in the final plays well with his plan for Tokyo and that his horse can handle it.
His 2009 World Cup victory was a special moment for him. “You always remember your first major championship win as the most important one,” he said, recalling how the stadium was alive with cheering fans. “I wanted to give a high five to every person out there.”
Competing again in Vegas “will mean the world to me. I’m still so hungry out there for doing well,” he said, noting there are no better fans than the ones who watch the World Cup there.
America’s first World Cup winner, Debbie McDonald, will be on hand in Vegas as U.S. dressage technical advisor. She has “so many wonderful, fond memories of the Thomas & Mack Arena and the World Cup—so many it’s overwhelming.”
McDonald and Brentina performed a brief freestyle at the 2000 jumping final, a demonstration that was enthusiastically accepted by the crowd and a forerunner of the involvement dressage would have at the Vegas World Cup five years later.
The “Thomas” in the arena’s name refers to Parry Thomas, the banker who loaned money to expand casinos and helped shape modern Las Vegas in many other ways. He was McDonald’s sponsor and with his wife, Peggy, the owner of Brentina.
In 2009, the mare retired in an emotional ceremony during the final at Thomas & Mack. “When they put the spotlight on us and we walked out [into the arena], I was bawling my eyes out,” McDonald recalled.
The finals are emotional, and as the 2020 edition approaches, excitement is revving up. Ridland has a unique perspective, since he was part of the Vegas effort from the beginning. “We’ve had some great competitions there,” he mused. “Vegas of course is Vegas, and it adds that allure to it. It seems to be getting better every time it’s there.”
World Cup Coverage
Practical Horseman and Dressage Today will bring you the latest leading up to and during the event. For updates, photos, results and behind-the-scenes access, go to PracticalHorsemanMag.com and DressageToday.com, and follow coverage on social media.