The top 18 dressage horses and riders in the world have landed in Omaha, Nebraska, where for the first time this Midwestern city will host the FEI World Cup Dressage Final (plus the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping Final, featuring that sport’s top contenders).
Should have been 18, that is, but unfortunately only 16 boarded their respective planes for Omaha.
A colic and a lameness made for eleventh-hour upset and no-go decisions for two of the highest-ranked competitors. Germany’s Unee BB, a 16-year-old Dutch Warmblood stallion ridden by Jessica von Bredow-Werndl, suffered an episode of colic at Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport and was withdrawn from the Final — thankfully before taking off for the USA. Von Bredow-Werndl, who herself had already departed for Omaha, had to find a return flight to Europe; but the inconvenience was tempered by the good news that Unee BB had recovered and was doing well.
Unee BB and von Bredow-Werndl were third at the 2015 FEI World Cup Dressage Final in Las Vegas and at the 2016 Final in Gothenburg. They were ranked second in the Western European League coming in to the 2017 Final.
Then, after what he reported to be a good morning ride, the World Cup Dressage Final title defender, the Netherlands’ Hans Peter Minderhoud, announced that his 2016 champion partner, the 16-year-old Swiss Warmblood gelding Glock’s Flirt, had come up lame just prior to leaving for Omaha. Veterinarians diagnosed an injury, and so “Flirty” was withdrawn, as well.
So who does that leave? The world’s top-ranked combination and the favorites going in, for starters: 2016 Olympic Games team gold and individual silver medalists Isabell Werth of Germany on Weihegold OLD, a 12-year-old Oldenburg mare. The pair led the Western European League standings going in to this World Cup Dressage Final.
Also from the Western European League: Judy Reynolds of Ireland on Vancouver K, a 15-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding; Australia’s Kristy Oatley riding Du Soleil, a 13-year-old Hanoverian gelding; 2016 Olympic team silver medalists Carl Hester of Great Britain on the 13-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding Nip Tuck; Swiss Olympian Marcela Krinke Susmelj on the 16-year-old Danish Warmblood gelding Smeyers Molberg; Dutch competitor Madeleine Witte-Vrees and the 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding Cennin; fellow Dutch rider Edward Gal (who won the 2010 FEI World Cup Dressage Final aboard the legendary Totilas) with the 15-year-old Dutch Warmblood stallion Glock’s Voice; and Mai Tofte Olesen of Denmark riding Rustique, a 15-year-old Danish Warmblood gelding.
Two slots go to riders from the FEI’s Central European League. For 2017 they are the Russian Olympic and World Cup Final veteran pair Inessa Merkulova on the 13-year-old Trakehner gelding Mister X, and Hanna Karasiova of Belarus riding Arlekino, an 11-year-old Latvian Warmblood gelding.
Wendi Williamson will become the first rider from New Zealand to compete in a World Cup Dressage Final. Winner of the “competitor who traveled the farthest to reach Omaha” award, she will represent the Pacific League aboard Dejavu MH, a 12-year-old Hanoverian gelding.
(What does it take to transport horses internationally? Watch this short video by the FEI, chronicling the journey to Omaha.)
One competition slot goes to a non-league rider. For this year that will be Argentinian rider Maria Florencia Manfredi on her own 11-year-old Argentine gelding, Bandurria Kocero.
The host-country audience will surely be cheering on the three representatives of the North American League, with two slots plus one extra for Omaha, all held by US riders. The league leader is Laura Graves on her own Dutch Warmblood gelding, Verdades, followed by second-ranked pair Kasey Perry-Glass on the 14-year-old Danish Warmblood gelding, Goerklintgaards Dublet, owned by Diane Perry. The third-ranked pair, who earned the extra slot for the North American League, is Steffen Peters riding Rosamunde, a 10-year-old Rhinelander mare owned by Four Winds Farm.
Graves, Perry-Glass, and Peters were teammates on the bronze-medal-winning US team at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, with Peters riding his previous international mount, Legolas 92. Peters is a past FEI World Cup Dressage Final champion, having claimed the title in 2009 aboard the legendary Ravel.
Last but not least will be the youngest dressage rider in Omaha: 21-year-old Joao Victor Marcari Oliva of Brazil, who earned the extra starting place for the World Cup Final. Marcari Oliva will be riding his 2016 Olympic Games partner, the 14-year-old Lusitano stallion Xama Dos Pinheads.
Inquiring minds want to know: I was asked several times whether other competitors would be given the chance to compete in Omaha, given the last-minute withdrawals of Minderhoud and von Bredow-Werndl. The answer is no: Qualification and entry deadlines had passed, and from a practical standpoint, the planes were pretty much ready to leave at the time of the horses’ illness and injury. So the 2017 FEI World Cup Dressage Final will be a “sweet sixteen” competition that would’ve been sweeter if it had included those top horses, Glock’s Flirt and Unee BB. Both are fantastic horses, and we’ll miss them and their wonderful riders. But the riders are horsemen first and foremost, and so we salute them for doing the right thing for their mounts’ welfare.