Two years ago a U.S. rider that few Europeans had ever heard of showed up in Götenburg, Sweden, with a tiny chestnut horse, then amazed the continent by jumping to second in the Rolex/FEI World Cup Final.
And he’s on his way to doing even better this time around.
Rich Fellers and the bounding Flexible tore up the ring at the Palexpo Arena in Gevena, Switzerland, to claim the first round of the Rolex/FEI World Cup Final. Fellers edged out U.S. compatriot McLain Ward and Sapphire in the speed round today, April 15, with Brazilian Rodrigo Pessoa taking third.
Portugal’s Luciana Diniz, second to go, put it all on the line with Winningmood to finish fourth, while Todd Minikus and Pavarotti head into tomorrow’s grand prix fifth from the top. Reigning European champion Kevin Staut (France) sits sixth with Silvana, with newly-minted U.S. rider Mario Deslauriers and Urico rounding out the top seven.
Ears permanently perked, Flexible bounced around Rolf Lüdi’s big track looking rideable, alert and endlessly game. Fellers took plenty of risks that backfired for other riders, but the Irish stallion (Cruising—Flex) left the rails in the cups and showed off his spectacular turn of foot.
“It was a challenging course from the very first fence,” said Fellers of Wilsonville, Ore. “The first line was a bit long in six strides and the first line was off a short turn. And it was very well laid out for a speed class. There were rollback turns, left turns, right turns, places to gallop, challenges all along.”
Indeed the first fence—a 1.50-meter vertical—knocked plenty of competitors out of contention, as did a maxed-out vertical-oxer-vertical combination.
Riders who played it safe and scored conservative fault-free rounds weren’t guaranteed a comfortable spot in the standings. Lauren Hough, who went early, piloted Quick Study to a careful clear, but she still sits 16th headed into tomorrow’s grand prix, a bit lower than the top-10 finish she’d been hoping for.
The withdrawal of major European contenders Jessica Kürten (Ireland) and three-time World Cup champion Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum (Germany) has left Ward as the much-toted favorite for the championship. Runner-up last year, Ward, Brewster, N.Y., has made no secret about how much he wants an individual title.
“I felt the mare went pretty well, and my hat’s off to Rich because I took every risk I possibly could, and there was no way I could go faster,” said Ward. “I’m just going one day at a time. The mare feels in great form, she’s been in great form for a couple years now. In order to win a competition a lot of things have to go your way. I’m just focused on each night, and we’ll see what we can do.”
Sapphire wasn’t the only one of Ward’s mounts decorating the tack room. While most riders tacked up their World Cup horses for 1.40- and 1.45-meter classes yesterday, Ward left his big contender in the barn. Instead, he opted to ride Rothchild to the top of the 1.45-meter Prix du Léman against some serious contenders.
That horse, whom he dubbed a “horse for the future” is looking more and more like a horse for today, this victory coming after an impressive and unexepected fifth-placed finish in the World Equestrian Games Selection Trials last month.
And other U.S. riders fared just as well. Hillary Dobbs lies 30th in the World Cup standings after her Quincy B logged 4 faults, but she topped a speed class, the Prix de l’Arve this morning, aboard longtime partner Marengo, and finished second in another speed class with him yesterday.
“Bringing Marengo here was actually a graduation present for me,” said Dobbs, who is in the midst of her final exams and papers at Harvard University (Mass). “I adore that horse, he’s so fast and he loves this. We’re kind of kindred that way about the speed classes.”
And Hough won this afternoon’s Prix de Communes Genevoises with Prezidio S and took third behind Dobbs on Available Versace.
“I’m very happy with how the horses have been going,” she said. “We still have [three more World Cup rounds] coming up, but it’s great to be on a roll, and I feel quite confident.”
All the riders stressed how important it was to take a grueling competition like the World Cup one round at a time, and no rider would make any bets about the final outcome.
“We’ve all come here to win, and we all would like to think that it’s our year, our time. That’s what sports are all about,” said Fellers. “But he’s been a great horse, and he doesn’t stop improving. I feel like my chances are better than two years ago.”
Fellers will have that chance to tomorrow, when the 43 riders will return to the Palexpo Arena in the evening to contest a 1.60-meter grand prix. While the show jumpers take a day off on Saturday, the six best indoor four-in-hand drivers will take their turn, vying for the FEI Driving World Cup. Show jumping competition resumes on Sunday with the final two rounds of competition.
Check out yesterday’s World Cup preview photo gallery and find plenty more information about the competition, including a run down of all the contenders, on our 2010 World Cup Show Jumping Final page.
Top 10 results follow, and full results are available at the official Geneva’s World Cup Final website.
Rank/Horse/rider/country/penalty seconds/total time
1 Flexible/Rich Fellers/USA/0/70.63
2 Sapphire/McLain Ward/USA/0/71.13
3 Let’s Fly/Rodrigo Pessoa/BRA/0/72.36
4 Winningmood/Luciana Diniz/POR/0/72.47
5 Pavarotti/Todd Minikus/USA/0/73.18
6 Silvana/Kevin Staut/FRA/0/73.84
7 Urico/Mario Deslauriers/USA/0/74.30
8 GIG Amai/Michael Whitaker/GBR/0/74.91
9 Katchina Mail/Patrice Delaveau/FRA/0/75.21
10 Noltes Küchengirl/Marcus Ehning/GER/0/75.57