Winning the 31st running of the FEI World Cup Finals in either Show Jumping or Dressage is an immensely difficult task. One must ride into the the tightly-packed Thomas & Mack Center arena and tackle a course of bright and visually challenging jumps, battling not only the tricky course, but the sport’s best riders from around the world. Just making it to the Finals is an incredible acheivement in itself; winning is a fantastically sweet victory. Winning the Finals more than once suggests demigod status; and acheiving one victory aboard a new horse is a great laud to a rider’s horsemanship and skill. Both winners of the respective Finals overcame great odds to clinch their victories, and each win carried with it an extra sense of purpose and rightness.
Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum grew up among the sun-kissed, rolling hills of California. Although she initially pursued a career in political science amidst a successful riding career, she eventually devoted herself entirely to the sport, and, while in her early 20’s, moved to Germany. The rest, as they say, is history; she worked her way up and gradually become one of the best female show jumpers the world has seen, spending a formidable amount of time at the very top of the FEI rankings.
Perhaps Meredith’s best asset, beside her innate talent for riding, is her longtime partner Shutterfly. The 16 year-old Hanoverian gelding has been under Meredith’s expert tutelage since the age of 6, and is a veteran to the Finals, having won with her in 2005 and 2008. He was as fluid and precise as ever, answering every question asked of him over the three days of intense international jumping in Las Vegas.
Meredith and Shutterfly’s victory, however, was no cakewalk. USA’s McLain Ward was behind them every step of the way, pushing them to their limits and testing their precision and stamina. Ward’s mare, Sapphire, is an elegant fighter; a horse given to perfect rounds, and Ward is an equal partner, known for his wonderful equitation and ability to think through tough courses. Although the US superstars chased perfection, keeping all the poles up during each round of Finals competition, they were simply outclassed and had to settle for second.
Another fierce challenge to Meredith’s reign came from Swiss rider Christina Liebherr aboard LB No Mercy, who rode aggressively and smartly, consistently turning in good rounds and keeping the German pair on the ball. Her snappy riding earned her fourth, right behind the Netherlands’ anchor team of Albert Zoer and Oki Doki, an exceptional rider and mount who are consistently at the top in international competitions.
There’s little doubt that Meredith’s win was an emotional and hard-fought victory, one certainly deserved by the talented German and her plucky, almost supernaturally-talented mount. After performing only the 4th clean sweep in World Cup history, having won all three rounds of competition, Meredith commented on the immensity of the win, saying, “This was big for me, for several reasons. It was my most perfect win and it is something special to do that with the greatest horse ever while he is 16 years of age. I lost my father four weeks ago, this is also a big win for him.”
However, the dressage final was equally exciting, as Steffen Peters and his mount Ravel rode brilliantly to secure their spot in history.
Calling Steffen and Ravel the underdogs would be fairly true, but also a gross understatement; when a competitor like 9 time Finals winner Anky van Grunsven is riding for the cup, any challenger has a disadvantage. Another cause for concern was German powerhouse Isabel Werth, a two time champion herself.
Numerous titles and years of partnership and experience however, apparently meant nothing to Steffen and his new mount. The pair have been together for hardly a year, yet Steffen masterfully rode the 11 year old Dutch-bred horse to only the second American victory in the World Cup Dressage Finals. The first US winner of the Finals was Debbie McDonald and her mare Brentina, who was retired at a ceremony in Las Vegas on Friday. Steffen and Ravel’s triumph in the 2009 Finals seem to herald a new era in American dressage; although his win will only steel the German and Dutch riders’ will against us, this win should open up new opportunities and allow the US to work its way to the top of the dressage ranks.
Ironically, Steffen, acting as an apparent contrast to Meredith, was born in Germany and moved to California, settling in San Diego where he currently rides and trains.
Both riders showed that above all, pure horsemanship is the key to World Cup victories. In the end, such triumphs are heralded not by money and prestige, but by hours of training, devotion to the sport, and a deep knowledge of the sport. When these elements combine and are driven by the spark of passion for riding, victory is attainable.
As for those famous Rolex watches, there’s little doubt both victors will wear theirs proudly. Executive VP of Rolex USA was witty in his response to Meredith’s third win, stating, “We have to step up our production, in order to supply Meredith with watches.”