Eager show-jumping and dressage fans were more than ready for the first FEI World Cup Finals to be held in the United States since 2009. They were interactive, often not respecting the “shush” rule in dressage, as they roared and clapped their approval for performances they will always remember. And they hollered and hooted when T-shirts autographed by riders were thrown out during ring drags.
Ticket sales were up from the last time the World Cup came to Las Vegas. Attendance at the Thomas & Mack Center was 74,000-plus during the long-awaited glitzy world indoor championships as the legendary city renowned for its entertainment and gaming sparkled seductively in neon.
The lineup of competitors for the April fixture was stellar, led by the defending champions—and not coincidentally the world’s number-1-ranked riders—in their respective disciplines.
Show jumper Daniel Deusser of Germany could not hang on to the cup that he had held aloft in 2014’s title match, as Swiss Olympic individual gold medalist Steve Guerdat clambered to the top of the podium with Albfuehren’s Paille.
But there never was a question that Charlotte Dujardin of Great Britain would triumph again on dressage super-horse Valegro. The world record-holding pair didn’t disappoint, aweing everyone with their usual brilliant display of athleticism, harmony and showmanship to secure the trophy for the second year in a row.
While Valegro was a huge draw, and show-jumping aficionados had a smorgasbord of favorites, the incentive for some of those attending likely was that it would be their only chance for years to see a World Cup Final without going to Europe. Besides, Vegas has another lure—the extracurricular gambling, stylish dining, fabulous hotels and shows other than horse for noncompetition hours.
But 2015 may well have been just the first year in an unusual run for the prestigious competition on this side of the Atlantic. Omaha, Nebraska, won the 2017 edition, and Vegas was the lone bidder for 2018, though at press time, it had not yet gotten the formal nod from the FEI (International Equestrian Federation) to stage that competition. If all goes as expected, though, the finals will be in America an unprecedented three out of four years between now and 2018. (Next year, Gothenburg, Sweden, will host the finals.)
Las Vegas: Good Competition and More
Is three United States finals in four years too much, however?
“I don’t consider it oversaturation, particularly since Omaha is a different venue and city than has ever been on the world stage,” said U.S. Show Jumping Coach Robert Ridland, who formerly managed the show-jumping component of the Cup when it came to Vegas. “We found out early on that every other year in the same venue was probably too much. But every third year, which is what 2018 in Vegas would be, to me is perfect.”
There were discussions about relocating the 2018 Vegas World Cup to a new $375 million, 20,000-seat, state-of-the-art arena behind the New York–New York and Monte Carlo casino hotels on the city’s famed strip, but that seems unlikely. “We’re in the fortunate position to have the option, but T&M has pretty much stepped up and made the improvements that we felt were necessary to keep doing it there,” said Pat Christenson, president of Las Vegas Events, which produces the Cup. He was proud of this year’s innovations, including a VIP tent with gourmet food in front of the main entrance to Thomas & Mack, more activity outside the building and on the concourse as well as a stellar party to draw orders of go for both dressage and jumping at a top-flight nightclub in the MGM Grand casino hotel.
The show-jumping final has been held in the United States only nine times since its inception in 1979. The majority were in Europe with the exception of the 2006 edition in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The dressage final made its U.S. debut as a stand-alone in California in 1995 and joined show jumping in Vegas in 2005, 2007, 2009 and this year.
Vegas set a new standard for World Cups when show jumping was first held there in 2000 and again when dressage and show jumping shared the stage five years later. Acts and performers from casino hotels added spice to the competition, a tradition that continues today. This year’s event included an Elvis impersonator backed up by showgirls and flames that shot up periodically during his act. A Lady Gaga imitator put in an appearance. Producer Shawn Davis and his team ensured there was never a minute of unfilled time with acrobats, fireworks, laser shows and exhibitions that included Western riding. On the other side of the coin, although new footing is planned for 2018, the surface this year was “subpar … it was not dangerous” in the view of Ridland, who added, however, it was “not a good excuse for the riders” who failed to execute.
“Was it a factor? Yes. Isn’t that part of the test to some degree, to figure out what the footing is, to figure out your horse’s balance, to make the appropriate adjustments in pace, balance and … studs?” he asked.
Also, there are $70 million in renovations underway at Thomas & Mack, which include widening the concourse and other additions and improvements, such as new escalators for the front of the building.
While holding the finals in Vegas seems like a natural, the winning Omaha bid was a jaw-dropping surprise—especially since it edged out Hong Kong, which wanted to feature show jumping, and ’s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands, which sought only an encore of its previous dressage final. The joint finals of the disciplines, it seems, enjoy the most traction.
Europeans generally have little idea of where Omaha is on the map. Not many realize it’s nearly in the center of the United States, a three-hour flight from New York to the east and Vegas to the west.
True, the city of more than 434,000 is not a hotbed of either major-league show jumping or dressage. But the April International Omaha two-star show-jumping competition is successful at its level and the CenturyLink Center, where it is staged, is a shining, 12-year-old facility that has a big reputation for many events, including the 2008 and 2012 U.S. Olympic swim team trials. (The pools are put in only for the trials and removed afterward.)
It is so big that stabling, warm-up and competition all can be held under one roof, unlike the situation at Thomas & Mack, where stables and warm-up are under tents. The Hilton hotel across the street from CenturyLink has a skywalk, so its guests going to the arena never have to step outside in inclement weather. There are 2,700 hotel rooms within a mile of the venue. “If you’ve got a roof over your head, it’s logistically a whole lot easier. It’s a dream situation,” said Ridland, who runs a Cup qualifier at the South Point hotel and casino in Vegas, which also is all under one roof.
“Probably venue-wise, it’s going to be superior,” said U.S. Dressage Coach Robert Dover, who has never been to Omaha but has heard good reports. “There’s a definite advantage for being all inside. That’s a lovely situation for riders and horses, where the footing, the ground, the environment, the air temperature are going to be the same.”
Introduction of the Midwest site also presents another chance for the FEI to break new ground in finding different venues for its featured competitions. “Equestrian sport is Europe-based,” said U.S. Equestrian Federation Director of Sport Will Connell, citing the continent for its breeding operations and the fact that “the sport grew up there.” But he noted that universality is important to the FEI as well as to the International Olympic Committee, and more U.S. finals are a step in that direction. Demonstrating equestrian sport’s popularity around the world is a key factor in keeping it in the Olympics, which is the ultimate goal for show-jumping, dressage and eventing competitors.
“Having major events in the U.S. is vital,” Connell said, noting that other benefits are an opportunity to educate officials and bring “busloads of kids in, even if it’s only for 10 minutes to have a look.” If Europeans complain, “‘Hang on, we’re doing three trips to America for World Cup and we’ve got WEG [in Canada] in 2018,’ then they need to step up and bid, and that will drive the standard of the sport up.”
Ridland, meanwhile, pointed out that the last five World Cup show-jumping finals before 2015 were in Europe.
Vegas’ attractions and reputation speak for themselves. It’s a destination that is alluring even without the bonus of the World Cup finals, which is just one option among a legion of entertainment choices.
But Omaha? Turns out, it’s a friendly yet sophisticated city with three major museums, plenty of dining and shopping choices in the Old Market area within walking distance of the arena, a top-flight zoo, an aquarium and a botanical garden. For those attracted to slots and poker, gambling is available a 10-minute drive across the Iowa state line with some downtown hotels offering shuttles to the casinos. As with Thomas & Mack, the airport is minutes from the venue.
There’s also plenty of entertainment available, though naturally not on the same scale as Vegas. Broadway road-show companies come to town; concerts have included Garth Brooks, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen and other big names; and college sports are popular. Chip Davis, creator and founder of Mannheim Steamroller, already has gotten on board as Omaha’s World Cup entertainment advisor.
Dover said that Vegas and Omaha each display “its own flair and what it brings, but it’s hard to replicate the show-business feeling and the destination of Las Vegas. It’s an adult theme park. How much Omaha can do to make it an experience for everyone to enjoy, that will certainly be the defining difference.”
Lisa Roskens, who came up with the idea of having her hometown of Omaha bid for the finals, has an answer. “Omaha is home to Oscar, Tony and Grammy award-winning artists, so we will not lack for talent,” she emphasized. The chairman of the Omaha Equestrian Foundation, which puts on The International Omaha, Roskens said, “We have a very robust performing-arts scene from the indie music world with Saddle Creek Records to classical with the $100 million state-of-the-art Holland Performing Arts Center. One of the advantages of Omaha is that we are of a size where we can work with all of the arts groups in cooperation to promote them and yet not conflict with the World Cup Finals, which will be the focus.
“All of the arts/entertainment
organizations and family attractions in town have agreed to work with us to create a unique experience for visitors that will provide special opportunities to enjoy all Omaha has to offer outside of the competition. We want Omaha in 2017 to be more than just an outstanding finals. We want it to be a surprisingly great vacation, too.” –
Two Cities at a Glance
The tale of two World Cup cities is a study in contrasts, but the differences demonstrate that there is more than one way to produce the finals.
• Gift show facility: The Cox Pavilion (upstairs), where the show was held, is 23,000 square feet. There also were booths on the concourse. In 2018, there is consideration of putting an annex to the gift show in the Mendenhall Center, a few steps from the Cox Pavilion.
• VIP area: Outdoors in a tent in 2015, but for 2018 it might be in a new 50,000-square-foot addition that would be attached to the main building for easy access to the arena.
• Vendor village: Proposed for the foyer and grand ballroom upstairs in the convention center. Over 38,000 square feet combined. While there could be concourse space for vendors in the arena, the preference is to keep vendor booths to the minimum in the arena to permit easier and safer spectator traffic.
• VIP area: An open area on the concourse with a view of the arena, where VIP receptions are held during The International Omaha. There could be similar VIP facilities for the World Cup.
Attracting the World’s Best
Some people expressed concern at the Longines FEI World Cup Show Jumping Final that several big names—including current World Number One Scott Brash—were missing from the lineup, while other competitors brought what were viewed as their number-two horses. Has the appeal of the annual indoor championship lessened since its inception 36 years ago, they wondered.
“Not all the highest-ranked riders on their highest-ranked horses end up in any championship competition, including the Olympic Games,” said U.S. Show Jumping Coach Robert Ridland. “But it was an incredibly high level of talent both in riders and horses over real championships courses, and it was what it was supposed to be.”
Will Connell, the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s director of sport, agreed. “Not every product will appeal to every rider/owner.” He also pointed out that every rider has a different string of horses and a variety of priorities, some of which are the product of the owners’ preferences.
Ridland said the FEI’s scheduling of World Cup qualifiers makes things difficult for North American riders who have been in a summer championship, such as WEG. This year, the European qualifiers begin in mid-October. In North America, where the Pan American Games are in July, the West Coast qualifiers begin in August and the East Coast qualifiers start in mid-September.
While the Olympics and WEG are held every four years, the World Cup Finals are an annual event. With the proliferation of the Global Champions Tour, the Masters series and other major grands prix, “we now have a number of [show-jumping] products that are seeing sport at the highest level all around the world,” Connell said. “We’ve got such a plethora of different competitions that attract the world’s best. I think that’s very healthy for the sport.”
Dressage is a different situation, Connell said. There are not as many big-money options for dressage, and while some major players can be missing from the lineup at the Cup final, there are only 18 places. Show jumping has nearly three times that number of slots.
U.S. Dressage Coach Robert Dover felt that spots should be allocated for more than two North American riders. “This is something I think the FEI needs to take up and reconsider,” he said.
For his part, however, Connell observed, “We get over 10 percent of the placings. I don’t think we’re being intentionally discriminated against.”
But Dover contended, “When America is not allowed to have as many riders as Sweden or Denmark, and we’re showing reports that we can contend as strongly as we can, it shows again how strongly Eurocentric the FEI and the sport still are. It’s inappropriate we’re not given the same kind of respect as Sweden [and] Denmark … among others. We need to lobby for at least having the number of three [riders], like these other countries.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.