McLain Ward and Rothchild (with his game face on!) - Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games

McLain Ward and Rothchild (with his game face on!) – Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games

10…9…8…7…6…5…4…3…2…1

That countdown has being running through my head as the Longines FEI World Cup and I’m getting more and more nervous excited panicked keyed up fired up as the big day gets closer and closer.  Nervous because this is the biggest event I’ve ever covered and I want to do a good job.  Nervous also because writing is is not what pays my bills and pleasepleaseplease I hope things in my real job will not fall apart while I am out living my dream in Las Vegas.

I’m excited because I will be seeing my HJU co-bloggers, all but one for the very first time. Panicked, because I suck at packing and inevitably leave it to the last minute and ohnonono nothing fits and what do you pack when it’s hot as hades outside and like a morgue inside? I’m keyed up because I get to see some of the most amazing horse and rider combinations in the world compete against each other and most of them I’ve never seen in person, just live streaming on my computer screen.  Fired up because, as I said, this is pretty much living the dream for me and the most exciting opportunity I may ever have and I feel like I’ve hit the lottery. I tell my non-horsey friends that this is like being able to cover the Super Bowl and being able to interview the players, stand on the sidelines, and attend all the press conferences. That’s how big this is.

I’m an FEITV addict and have been following a lot of the Western European league competitions.  That league spends a lot of time competing in small, oddly shaped indoor arenas like the Thomas and Mack center, so I wonder if maybe they’ll have a slight edge over other competitors. I’m very keen to see some of they players from that league, especially 2012 Olympic champ Steve Guerdat. Steve’s been a bit unlucky in past World Cups – if you can call finishing second a couple times in one of the most prestigious competitions unlucky. Steve’s probably sick of hearing the phrase, “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.”  Maybe this year will be his year.

France’s Kevin Staut will be bringing his venerable partner Silvana along his able deputy Estoy Aqui de Muze.  Kevin is such a stylish rider, and he and Silvana have been such a classy pair over the past several years, it’ll be great to see them go in person.

The Netherland’s Jur Vrieling started his indoor season off on a high note by winning the first leg of the Western European league qualifiers, and the Dutch riders have been riding the crest of the wave with their team and individual gold medals in last summer’s World Equestrian Games.

Speaking of the WEG, Patrice Delaveau just missed a first place podium position and no doubt he and his partner Orient Express will be looking to rectify that with a top placing in Vegas.

Patrice Delaveau and Orient Express

Patrice Delaveau and Orient Express

Marcus Ehning, three-time winner of the World Cup, will be there with up-and-coming stars Cornado NRW and Singular LS La Silla.  They might not have the mileage to win him his fourth championship, but you can never count him out.  In any case, watching Marcus ride is like getting a front and center lesson on how this riding thing should be done, so I’m really looking forward to seeing him.

Then there’s the two young guns in the field, Ireland’s Bertram Allen and the Netherland’s Jos Verlooy. Neither rider is legally eligible to drink or gamble in Las Vegas, so clearly if they’re to have any fun while they’re over here they’re going to have to win this thing.  Allen won his first ever World Cup Qualifier ever (yep, first one ever, talk about luck of the Irish!) and brings his spectacular speedy mare Molly Malone, so look for them to place high in the speed leg and challenge for the overall title. Verlooy’s Domino has carried him to placings in the Del Mar, London Olympia and Mechelen qualifiers, and like Allen, this young man has the all the confidence of youth and genuine riding ability to be a serious dark horse contender.

And of course there are the American riders to cheer on as they compete on their home soil.  Beezie Madden and Simon know how to win this thing, as they proved in 2013 in Sweden.  Any day you can watch Beezie ride is a good day; the woman is a master class in riding any time she gets on a horse.  McClain Ward is bringing his World Equestrian Games partner, the feisty little chestnut Rothchild, as well as HH Carlos Z.  Rothchild is such a hoot to watch; every time he goes he looks genuinely pissed off at each fence in his way, and his bucks and other antics make watching him super entertaining. I’m also very excited to see Rich Fellers and Flexible go.  I cried buckets when they won in 2012, and there’s a sentimental part of me that wants to see the 19-year-old Flexible take it all again this year.

Beezie Madden and Simon. -Photo by Keara

Beezie Madden and Simon. -Photo by Keara

The other sentimental favorite is New Zealand’s Katie Laurie, who brings with her Kiwi Iron Mark. When they enter the arena they will be realising the hopes and dreams of her late friend, Melanie Purcell, whose great ambition was to see her horse qualify for the Longines Final. While Melanie died of cancer three years ago, Katie kept the World Cup in her sights, and knows as she and Kiwi Iron Mark go for the win in Vegas that there will be a very special angel guiding them around the courses.

I can’t say much about competition dressage, as I’m a primarily a jumper and do only low level work in my daily training.  That being said, I’ve been luck enough to cover some big events held at the USET headquarters in Gladstone, and hopefully I’ve learned enough to be able to give a decent account of the goings on in Vegas.  Like everyone else, I’m over-the-moon excited to see Charlotte and Valegro.  I watch their Olympia ride several times a week (no lie!) because it is that good, and because I fantasize that if I can just break down every little move she makes maybe I’ll improve with my riding.  I really hope to get to meet her, because besides being a fabulous rider, she looks like a fabulous and fun person as well.

Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro

Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro

It’s always a thrill to watch Steffen Peters ride.  When I covered the Olympic trials at Gladstone a few years ago he was schooling in the warm-up ring as I parked my car.  Rather than rush off to the press tent I just stood there for something like 20 minutes, just watching him ride.  I loved watching him ride Legolas at those trials, and from what I’ve seen over the past couple years their partnership has only gotten better.

You can never discount Isabelle Werth, ever.  The woman doesn’t have numerous titles and accolades just for sitting pretty on top of a horse. She’s bringing her two top mounts, El Santo and Don Johnson, and it will be a privilege to see her ride in person.  Edward Gal, who led the Western European League, is bringing over Glock’s Undercover, one of the few horses in the competition that has scored over 80 percent in a Grand Prix test. This exciting pair won the ‘s-Hertogenbosch qualifier, and were second to Charlotte and Valegro in London Olympia.  Who knows, maybe they’ll pull off an upset.

Laura Graves and Verdades - Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games

Laura Graves and Verdades – Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games

My personal criteria for a good dressage is what I call the Tear Test.  You know when something is so beautiful it literally brings tears to your eyes?  That’s my benchmark.  If a rider and horse are so in tune, so harmonious together that they make me cry, that’s a damn good ride.  At last year’s World Equestrian Games selection trials in Gladstone, NJ, I watched their final ride with tears leaking from my eyes.  Only a few of the dressage aficionados in the crowd had even heard of her; for most of us she was not even on our radar.   Not only did Graves come to Gladstone as a comparative unknown, she owned Verdades, or “Diddy,” herself, and was without the financial backing of a big name backer. Anyway, none of that mattered.  Of her tests, their freestyle stands out in my mind, as I remember crying because they were so relaxed and in tune with each other they looked like they were just out there playing.  I look forward to seeing more of the same in Vegas.

There are so many more combinations to talk about but I need to wrap up here or I’ll miss my flight to Vegas!