April 16, 2015 -- What is Las Vegas all about? Getting down to the essence, you could say it's about hope. Everyone who sits in front of a slot machine, plays blackjack, puts a bet on roulette or hangs out in the high-roller area hopes they'll win, even though most realize the odds are stacked in favor of the house.
You could draw an equivalent to that in terms of the competition at the Reem Acra FEI World Cup Dressage finals. Everyone came here knowing the odds were stacked in favor of the world record-holding Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro. The best they could hope for was being in the fray for second place against the globe's number one-ranked combo.
And so it proved to be in today's Grand Prix. Valegro, the odds-on favorite, earned 85.414 percent for a performance that had the crowd of 7,344 in the Thomas & Mack Center cheering wildly. The presence of the famous twosome from Great Britain was enough to set them off; they were just as excited when all the horse and rider had done was enter the ring.
Charlotte had mentioned jet lag and heat as factors not weighing in Valegro's favor when we talked yesterday. Luckily, she needed no excuses this afternoon.
Though her score of 85.414 fell short of the amazing 87.460 she earned for the Grand Prix at London's Olympia show in 2014, it was still her usual breathtaking performance. When she finished, it seemed as if Valegro were smiling, saying, "I love showing off in front of a good audience."
The afternoon started off as pure Vegas, with an Elvis impersonator doing a medley that ended with, what else, "Viva Las Vegas." He was backed up by showgirls and flames that shot up periodically during his act.
That seemed to heighten the electricity of Thomas & Mack, which is known for its buzz. I would have bet on Edward Gal of the Netherlands finishing second on Glock's Undercover, a glamorous black Dutchbred as shiny as patent leather, except that I realized the horse can be quite sensitive. I wasn't sure how he'd fare in the heightened atmosphere, but he did himself proud with his snappy piaffe and elegant extensions, finishing on 79.057 percent. That's a nice score in anybody's book -- except for Valegro's.
The real eyeopener was Steffen Peters' third-place on Legolas (speaking of sensitive.)
He rode the heck out of the horse and it was so impressive it harked back to his 2009 Cup victory here on Ravel.
"The third place was probably a big surprise to a lot of people and to be honest, to myself too," Steffen said.
"The reason for this was mainly our show in Florida in January, which didn't go so well. Legolas, in the electric environment, was very nervous. When the class was over, I was handed a purple ribbon; someone had to tell me what place this was. It was barely 70 percent."
He knew that to qualify for Vegas, and do well here, he had to make some changes. Steffen recorded a sound file with music and a cheering crowd from a performance he did earlier this month, then edited the 10 seconds into five minutes and played it early in the morning and at night over the new sound system in his covered arena.
"We just prepared down to the very last second. It worked out beautifully." Complimenting Charlotte and Edward, he observed, however, "I was even more excited than the two of them together," he said.
The other American, Laura Graves, had finished ahead of Steffen at last year's World Equestrian Games, and hopes were high that she might be the one in third place behind the expected. Charlotte/Edward daily double.
Laura did a capable job handling her Verdades, who had never been exposed to anything like the tight quarters of Thomas & Mack, where horses can't go outside the ring to warm up, they have to go through their paces inside the ring until the start signal is given.
That was a new experience for Verdades, who had some glitches in his test.
But Will Connell, the U.S. Equestrian Federation's director of sport, still was smiling. He explained the goal was to have two Americans inside the top five, and they got it. Laura's 74.314 mark was just a little behind the fourth-place Jessica von Bredow-Werndl of Germany on Unee BB, marked at 74.843.
"Laura didn't underperform," Will assured me, saying he was pleased at how she handled things, given the inexperience of the horse and rider in such a situation.
"If anything, Steffen overperformed," Will continued. It was a real boost for U.S. supporters to see Legolas striding out in the awards ceremony behind Valegro and Undercover.
The Grand Prix only counts toward the Cup in terms of competitors' placement in the order for the freestyle, which determines who gets the trophy that has been lurking on the sidelines of the arena, displayed to show off what everyone is striving for. The order of go is done in groupings, so the best in the Grand Prix go last, though not necessarily in the exact order they finished today.
The freestyle is Saturday, so the World Cup horses have tomorrow off. The dressage Friday will be a "showcase," featuring some surprises (I know, but was sworn to secrecy) and the retirement of Dressage Today blogger Adrienne Lyle's Olympic and world championships mount, Wizard.
I'll tell you all about it in my next dressage postcard tomorrow night.