Underdogs And Long-Awaited Victories: A Look Back At U.S. World Cup Final Winners

Apr 17, 2020 - 7:59 AM

The 2020 FEI Dressage and Show Jumping World Cup Finals were scheduled to take place this week in Las Vegas. They were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe. In honor of the event, we’ll be hosting a variety of articles on coth.com highlighting special moments and horses from previous World Cup Finals.

In the early years of the FEI World Cup Show Jumping Final, U.S. riders were a dominant force, winning seven of the first nine championships. But after Katharine Burdsall won in 1987 (Paris) on The Natural, the streak ended. Though U.S. pairs frequently appeared in the top 10, it would be another 25 years before an American would hoist the famed trophy into the air.

Diminutive Irish Sport Horse stallion Flexible broke the drought with Rich Fellers in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands, in 2012, and when asked what that win felt like, Fellers grinned and said, “Well, I think we were about due.”

Fellers had been tantalizingly close in 2008 when he and Flexible finished second to Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum and Shutterfly, but their subsequent attempts fell short of the top 10. At barely 16 hands, Flexible was the smallest horse in the field, and Fellers had already nursed the 16-year-old back from two injuries that should’ve been career-ending.

“It’s difficult to describe. It’s a unique, very special feeling,” Fellers said after his win. “I love him, and he loves me. We have a great relationship, and we know each other very well.”

(Read about one of Flexible’s offspring who is following in his sire’s footsteps.)

Rich Fellers’ FEI World Cup Final win with Flexible ended the 25-year U.S. drought in 2012. Molly Sorge Photo

American fans wouldn’t have to wait long to see another victory, as Beezie Madden repeated the feat the following year in Gothenburg, Sweden, with Simon. In many ways, it played out in the same fashion as the previous year. Madden won the speed leg just as Fellers had, and then at the completion of Round 4 she sat tied with Steve Guerdat—the same rider Fellers jumped off against. When Guerdat faulted, all Madden had to do was keep the rails up.

“He gets a little strong, but all good horses have some difficulty to them,” Madden said of the Dutch Warmblood (Mr. Blue—Naline, Polydox). “They need to be fighters to be special. He’s a fighter, and he’s special.”

It was a particularly meaningful win for Madden because even though she had two team gold medals from the Olympic Games, individual and team silver medals from the FEI World Equestrian Games and countless other victories, a major individual title had so far escaped her.

“I’ve always wanted to win a World Cup Final,” she said. “I was hoping I could do it with Authentic; that didn’t happen. This was a big goal for me this year. I was so happy to get it done.”

Beezie Madden and Simon, pictured with groom Clark Shipley, won the FEI World Cup Final in 2013. Mollie Bailey Photo

Four years later in Omaha, Nebraska, another U.S. victory was on the line as McLain Ward tackled the final course with HH Azur. The pair had been flawless until then and could afford a time penalty or two. But Ward had been in the pole position before only to watch the win slip through his fingers in the 11th hour.

However “Annie” didn’t make a mistake, and the title Ward had been chasing his entire career was finally his in 2017. In the strides after they passed the timers, Ward pumped his fists in the air before leaning down to hug the Belgian Warmblood mare (Thunder ZD Zuuthoeve—Sion VD Zuuthoeve, Sir Lui VD Zuutheoeve), showering her with praise.

McLain Ward showered HH Azur with praise after winning in 2017. Molly Sorge Photo

“I’ve been doing this a long time, 25 years jumping international grand prixs. I’ve felt close so many times, and then one way or another messed it up,” Ward said. “I’ve been in this situation when I have cracked, I know how to do that, so I just took a deep breath and tried to ride my horse, and we had a little bit of luck.”

It was no surprise to Ward’s team that Annie would rise to the top. All she needed was the right set of circumstances.

“From the get-go when we got her, she’s always wanted to do well,” said Lee McKeever, Ward’s barn manager. “She was a little green at the beginning, just figuring it out. But once she figures something out, she’ll never make that mistake again. I think that’s huge in a horse—some horses have all the ability, but they don’t want to win, and some horses make up for less ability with their heart, but she’s got it all. She has the ability, and she wants to win.”

Finally! Molly Sorge Photo

Luck stayed with the Americans in 2018 (Paris), when once again Madden claimed the trophy. This time it came with Breitling LS (a horse she sourced from Jeroen Dubbledam, from whom she also bought Simon). As in her previous victory, her week mirrored the previous year nearly to a T. She was clean from the beginning, but an unlucky rail in the middle of the triple combination midway through the final course upped the stakes.

Though you’d never tell by her cool exterior, Madden admitted to being rattled by that rail.

“All you can do at that point is say, ‘Pull it together and finish on 4 and try to get it done,’ ” she said afterward.

“At this stage in my career, I come here hoping I can win,” she said. “But I wasn’t really expecting [to]. I thought top-five finish was realistic, and anything better than that would be amazing. He’s been so good; he’s only showed three times; he was fresh; he was confident and set up well for it.”

Seconds after Beezie Madden realized she’d won with Breitling LS in 2018. Kimberly Loushin Photo

Though U.S. riders have often been in the hunt at the FEI World Cup Dressage Final, that title has mostly eluded them. It’s a feat that’s only been accomplished twice, and scriptwriters couldn’t have penned a better ending for the 2009 final in Las Vegas.

At the time international championships were dominated by Anky van Grunsven and Isabell Werth, and Steffen Peters was always just a half step behind.

But when the titans faltered, Peters and Ravel, the then-11-year-old Hanoverian gelding (Contango—Hautain, Democraat), refused to give up any points, earning personal bests in the Grand Prix (77.91%) and the freestyle (84.95) by a significant margin.

In 2009 Steffen Peters became the only U.S. rider to win a World Cup Final on U.S. soil with Ravel. Sara Lieser Photo

“It’s fair to say, and I probably speak for Ravel too, there’s truly magic soil in [the Thomas & Mack Center],” Peters said at the time. “To share that moment in time with the most amazing dressage fans in the world is an incredible feeling. It hasn’t quite sunk in yet. In a few hours, when I see family and friends, it will.”

The victory made Peters the second U.S. rider to win the FEI World Cup Dressage Final (Debbie McDonald and Brentina won in 2003 [Sweden], but it was after Germany’s Ulla Salzgeber was eliminated because Rusty tested positive for testosterone), and Peters was the first to do so on U.S. soil.

“The audience was so happy to see someone from America be in the running,” said Linda Zang, who judged that year. “When I sat on the side in the Grand Prix, you could hear the emotion. No one was speaking, but you could feel the emotion coming out from the crowd to see someone from America be so successful. He’s been so close, and that time he had the best ride of the day. When you can feel the crowd and the emotion, you know it’s good for our sport. We have to do things that encourage people to be involved and have enthusiasm and feel.”

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