Las Vegas, NV-April 19, 2009-Defending champion Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum secured her third Rolex FEI World Cup Jumping title with consummate ease at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas Sunday where America's McLain Ward finished second ahead of The Netherlands' Albert Zoer in third.
The sheer class of the German winner's 16 year old gelding determined the result on a day when Anthony D'Ambrosio's course building tested many to the very limit. For Shutterfly however limits don't seem to exist. No fence is too high or too wide, and the clinching second-round run from this partnership was an exhibition of near-perfection.
Stamina and concentration played a major role in the closing stages, but most of the leading contenders proved equal to the challenge and none of the top three finishers lowered a pole throughout three days of world-class jumping. Lying fourth however, America's Rich Fellers and Flexible slipped two places with a double-error and then disappeared from the reckoning when adding another 22 faults second time out.
Switzerland's Christina Liebherr produced a career-defining performance when anchoring the runaway No Mercy to great effect in both rounds and this moved her up from fifth to fourth in the final analysis, but the real battle was played out among three great proponents of the sport. Perhaps Ward and Zoer are a little unlucky that their two heroic mounts are at the top of their game at the same time as Michaels-Beerbaum's extraordinary horse. The American rider's mare Sapphire and the Dutchman's great gelding Oki Doki are exceptional by any measure, but Shutterfly has once again shown that he is in a class of his own.
Ward said afterwards that if he had the chance to do it all again he wouldn't do it any differently - "my horse and I gave everything we had" he pointed out.
Having established the advantage in Thursday's opening speed leg, Michaels-Beerbaum then reinforced her position with another definitive victory in Friday's two-rounder and sealed the result with clinical efficiency in Sunday's decider. The first-round track was plenty demanding but D'Ambrosio stretched them even further in round two, the double of massive oxers on entry to the triple combination and the final 1.85m-wide spread asking for everything, and more.
Liebherr had ensured fourth position with a second action-packed clear before Zoer returned to follow suit with Oki Doki and when Ward and Sapphire were foot-perfect once again the only thing that could change the orders was a mistake from the leading partnership. A tiny tap at the opening vertical however was the only thing to be heard in an otherwise flawless tour of the track by the winners who mesmerised the crowd with their sheer brilliance.
"Horses like Shutterfly only come along once in a lifetime" the 39 year old German rider said, "and I'm very lucky to have such a great team. Shutterfly has the same groom for 10 years now and he and I are like an old married couple, we know each other so well. He won't take too much work in the warm-up, he's a bit fragile in there, but we are a great example of how the partnership between the horse and rider plays its role in success" she added.
Ward agreed, pointing out that Sapphire is cared for by staff who have been working for his family for 23 years while Zoer never hides the enormous affection he feels for the horse that has secured his position at the top end of the sport. "Oki Doki fights for me every time he goes into the ring - I really love him" he simply said.
Michaels-Beerbaum talked about her preparation before going into the ring which is also a team effort. "Because Shutterfly doesn't like to do too much its a nerve-control thing for me - its not easy to do very little before going in to jump at a big championship" she said. "I try to keep him happy, my husband Markus tries to keep me calm and my groom also keeps a rein on me" she explained.
With Geneva, Switzerland selected for the Rolex FEI World Cup Jumping Finals next year and Leipzig, Germany, 's Hertogenbosch in The Netherlands and Goteborg in Sweden scheduled for the following three seasons while the Dressage will go to 's Hertogenbosch in 2010 there has been much speculation about the equestrian highlight returning to Las Vegas. FEI First Vice-President, Sven Holmberg, said "it's really not good for world events to be held too often in Europe" and then Las Vegas World Cup Show Jumping Manager Robert Ridland announced a strong bid to bring the 2014 Finals back to the US city which has injected such energy, showmanship and excitement into the series which has become so popular over the last 31 years.
"This show is too good to give it up" he pointed out. No-one disagrees about that, and Holmberg added that the US 2014 bid would be "very well received".
All photos courtsey of Kit Houghton/FEI