Perhaps sometime in the next few days, Rich Fellers will have a few moments to spend quietly with Flexible, the horse he describes as his best friend and a pet. They’ll stand quietly and reminisce as good friends do about the fans stomping their feet, the thrilling dash to the finish line, and the glare of the spotlight as they galloped around gloriously.
For it’s finally happened. For the first time in 25 years, a U.S. rider has won the Rolex FEI World Cup Final.
When asked what it felt like to break the American drought at the World Cup Finals, Fellers just grinned and said, “Well, I think we were about due.”
Dutch fans gave Rich Fellers an emotional standing ovation as he walked back into the ring for the last time to claim his prize. His right to lift the historic cup aloft in front of thousands of applauding fans was hard-fought; after three days of intense jumping, the title came down to a gripping jump-off between Fellers and Swiss rider Steve Guerdat. And in the end, Flexible was just a little bit faster.
“It’s difficult to describe. It’s a unique, very special feeling,” Fellers said after his win. Over 10 years together, Fellers and Flexible, a 16-year-old stallion, have forged an incredible partnership. Fellers puts it in the simplest terms. “I love him, and he loves me,” he said. “We have a great relationship, and we know each other very well.”
Flexible doesn’t quite fit in with the large, powerful warmbloods that make up the majority of the European riders’ mounts. He’s a little thing, just barely 16 hands. And he’s got a bit of a frenetic style around the course, making the crowd gasp with incredibly tight turns and athletic jumping efforts. But he won the hearts of the European crowd filling the Brabanthallen for the World Cup. After he nipped over the final vertical of the jump-off almost a second faster than Guerdat, the spectators cheered mightily. Fellers flashed a quick salute to U.S. Chef d’Equipe George Morris, who gave him the thumbs-up.
Clear Round After Clear Round
Fellers started the week by winning the first leg—a speed round—on the incredibly catty Irish Sport Horse Flexible. The only rail the pair had all week came in the first round of the second leg. That rail kept them from the jump-off, but eighth place in that class kept them in the running, tied for second with Guerdat. They each had 1 fault to their name, but Pius Schwizer was in the lead with 0 faults.
Course designer Louis Konickx built testing tracks for the final day. Both Guerdat and Fellers jumped clean over Round 1 today, but Schwizer made things very interesting by picking up a time fault. The three of them headed into Round 2 tied for the lead with 1 fault each.
The sound of a rail hitting the ground during Schwizer’s round cut the tension a bit, but since Feller and Guerdat had both jumped clean yet again, they would have to jump off for the win. They were the only riders to turn in clear rounds over both courses.
Guerdat went first, and zoomed around on Nino des Buissonnets with daring efforts to each fence. He crossed the timers clean in 26.61 seconds, and left it all up to Fellers. “I thought I was going to take risks, but of course it’s in your head to not have a mistake,” Guerdat said.
“It was tough jumping. The chance that two horses are clear three times around [in both rounds and the jump-off today]—no one would ever expect it. My horse is also very fast, and I thought that without taking the risk [of doing one less stride to the last vertical], I felt like would be enough. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. I can only blame myself for that and try to do better next time.”
Fellers had hopped off Flexible and peeked through the in-gate curtains to watch Guerdat’s round. He saw him add a stride to the last jump, and knew what he could do. “I know Flexible very well and he’s quick across the ground. I just trusted that I could do the same strides and a very similar track and be safe with eight strides to the last jump and be faster,” he said.
And he was, as the scoreboard flashed 25.97 seconds after Fellers and Flexible dug in to the finish line.
Watch Fellers’ jump-off ride and an interview with him…
The unique partnership between Flexible (Cruising—Flex, Safari) and Fellers was obvious to the crowd, who all started cheering on the American. In 10 years, Fellers has nursed Flexible back from two injuries that veterinarians told him would be career-ending—a blocked vein in a front leg and a fractured shoulder. Despite the dramatic injuries in his younger years, Fellers thinks Flexible is at his fittest, soundest, and best this year.
Fellers, of Wilsonville, Ore., and Flexible have competed at five consecutive World Cup Finals, and came tantalizingly close to victory in 2008, when they were second to Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum on Shutterfly. Fellers gave Flexible a light winter schedule this year in preparation for the selection trials for the U.S. show jumping team for the London Olympic Games. They then were fifth in the trials. “I didn’t feel like he was quite at his peak at the trials. He felt like he was improving from the few classes I did in California before the trials in Florida. But he felt like he was really coming into top form this week,” Fellers said.
He and Flexible were placed into seventh on the U.S. Equestrian Federation long list after the trials, and Fellers is planning to jump Flexible in the observation events at Del Mar, Calif., on May 1-6 and Spruce Meadows (Alta.) on June 13-17.
The rest of the American contingent finished in the middle of the pack, with Richard Spooner 16th, Beezie Maddden 17th, Kent Farrington 18th, and Margie Engle in 20th. Kirsten Coe was 24th, and Charlie Jayne, who chose not to jump on the final day though qualified, was 25th. Francie Steinwedell-Carvin finished in 27th.
Read in-depth coverage of Fellers and Flexible’s Rolex FEI World Cup Final triumph in the May 7 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse.