The 2015 Reem Acra FEI World Cup Dressage Final Champion will be crowned on the afternoon of Saturday, April 18 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. The moment will also be a landmark in the history of World Cup dressage: its 30th anniversary. Since its creation in 1985, the World Cup has become the most important annual dressage series on the international calendar. A list of its winners over the past three decades is literally a who’s who of the world’s dressage elite, from legends like Kyra Kyrklund to the world’s most decorated Olympic equestrians, such as Anky van Grunsven, Isabell Werth and reigning World Cup Champion Charlotte Dujardin. Far from becoming stale and predictable over the years, the World Cup has continuously reinvented itself and remained relevant to the sport it was created to promote. And if there is one host city that has played a major role in the evolution of the World Cup Dressage Final, it is Las Vegas.
In The Beginning
It was through the vision of one man that the Dressage World Cup came into existence in 1985. Joep Bartels, a Dutch psychologist and publisher—whose wife, Tineke, and daughter, Imke, are both Olympic dressage riders—remembers the exact moment that sowed the World Cup seed in his mind. It was during the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. The great Reiner Klimke and Ahlerich performed a seemingly endless tour of one-tempi changes in the stadium as the Olympic anthem played for their victory lap. A year later, the first World Cup season was launched, and the inaugural final took place in the spring of 1986 in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, near Bartels’ home in southern Holland.
The World Cup introduced the freestyle to music for the first time in FEI-dressage competition. Bartels’ goal was to create an avenue for bringing a wider audience to a sport that historically had enjoyed little spectator interest. “In the first years after the introduction of the World Cup, the development of dressage exploded,” says Bartels. “It went faster than I had expected.” In spite of the immediate success, there was initial resistance to the freestyle among traditionalists who feared that the classical basis of the discipline would be eroded by the circus element of performing to music. Ironically, Reiner Klimke was one of those early critics, though he would subsequently have a complete change of heart as the freestyle brought crowds to the stands with none of the predicted slide in quality of the sport.
The freestyle was introduced to the Olympic Games for the first time in Atlanta in 1996 as the final phase in the individual medal competition. The World Cup can take considerable credit for the freestyle’s acceptance at the highest level of competition. Bartels recalls a conversation he had with the International Olympic Committee’s then-president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, during the 1994 World Equestrian Games in The Hague, Netherlands. “He asked me all kinds of detailed questions during his visit to The Hague,” says Bartels. “Shortly afterward, the freestyle was declared an Olympic event. So, yes, the development of dressage was very positively influenced by the introduction of the freestyle in the World Cup.”
Coming To America
It was 10 years before the World Cup Final was hosted outside of Europe, at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Burbank, California. Glenda McElroy, who had founded her company Cornerstone Event Management a decade earlier, was the organizer at that World Cup Dressage Final. “My career with horses evolved with dressage in this country,” says McElroy. “As the sport gained popularity in the U.S., I was fortunate to be in California, which has an extremely active dressage community.”
McElroy now manages some of the biggest dressage events in the U.S., including several CDIs and the USDF Region 7 Championships. But she learned back in 1995 that staging a World Cup Final is an entirely different situation compared to a standard dressage show. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for an American producer,” she says. “You are working with the world’s elite athletes in the sport. Everything has to be just right, and everybody—riders, trainers, officials—has to be happy. There is also the challenge of putting on an event under the FEI rules.”
Following 1995, the World Cup Final returned to Europe for another decade. In the meantime, Las Vegas successfully hosted the World Cup Show Jumping Final two times: in 2000 and 2003. Las Vegas Events President Pat Christenson is a past manager of the Thomas & Mack Center. He has been involved with every staging of the World Cup Show Jumping and Dressage Finals in Las Vegas. When Las Vegas placed a bid to host the first joint World Cup Show Jumping and Dressage Finals, it was a turning point for the FEI World Cup series.
“When we approached the FEI with our proposal, it wasn’t really a hard sell,” says Christenson. “When we hosted jumping on its own, we had 7,000 or 8,000 spectators, maybe 9,000 for the final round. It was very expensive to bring all the horses over from Europe. We looked at the numbers for putting on dressage together with jumping, and two things became apparent: the two disciplines could feed off each other in terms of ticket buyers, and we could split the expenses.”
The FEI approved Las Vegas as a dual host for the 2005 finals. The event was such a success that Las Vegas went on to do it two more times, in 2007 and 2009. Christenson says he was pleasantly surprised at how complementary the audiences were for the two disciplines. “Staging the finals is a tremendous risk,” he says. “It’s close to a $7 million budget, with over a million dollars to fly the horses over.
“Approximately 25 percent of the fans bought tickets for both show jumping and dressage. It was surprising how easy it really was to produce the two events together.” At the 2005 World Cup Finals, a total of 75,000 tickets were sold. Two years later, that number jumped to 85,000. Clearly, the formula was a good one and it set a precedent. Since that first joint show jumping and dressage World Cup Finals, hosting the two together has become the new normal; the past four World Cup Finals for show jumping and dressage have been held together. The FEI has not failed to acknowledge the benefits either, saying: “The sport, media, economic and commercial impact of both finals held jointly is bigger compared to individual finals.”
A Champion’s Remembrance
The 2009 final in Las Vegas was a milestone event for American dressage, when Steffen Peters rode Ravel to the first World Cup title won by an American on home soil. For the spectators, the final was a showdown of epic proportions, with both Werth and van Grunsven challenging Peters for the title. Peters regards that World Cup Final as one of the most memorable in his entire career. “I think every rider will always remember his or her very first win at a major championship,” he says. “It was a competition where either Anky, Isabell or I could have won, and there was no way to know in advance who would win.”
After Peters and Ravel performed their freestyle, the announcer asked them to remain in the arena until the score had come up. “That’s what’s neat about the World Cup. You wait right there,” says Peters. “I remember how quiet it was in the stadium as we waited for the score. When our score popped up, all I saw was our number-one ranking, not the score. I remember standing up in the stirrups and throwing my arms in the air while Ravel stayed totally calm.” The noise of the largely American crowd cheering was an experience Peters will never forget. “It’s a bit surreal, a moment like that,” he says. “I’ve been asked to describe the feeling I had, but I still haven’t been able to put it into words. It was incredible.”
Viva Las Vegas!
This year’s final will be McElroy’s sixth as organizer. “The jumping manager and I are involved with every facet of how the horses are transported and cared for at the venue,” she says. This year, the jumping and dressage horses coming from Europe will all fly on one Dutta Corp. aircraft from Amsterdam directly to Las Vegas. Christenson says that his team learns and improves with every execution of the World Cup Finals. “Every year we do this, we seem to be able to tweak little things that have a big impact. Transport is one of them.”
Las Vegas Events has considerable experience with sporting events that involve animals, having put on the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) since 1985. Christenson says that the World Cup and NFR share many of the unique challenges of putting on a sporting event that involves nonhuman athletes, but he also sees the contrasts. “Both events have seamless productions, but one is ‘Beauty’ and the other is ‘the Beast.’”
The success of the World Cup Finals in Las Vegas has been partly due to the many attractions beyond the actual competitions. The city is easily accessible as a destination, and it offers countless attractions for all ages and interests. At the final itself, the attractions also far exceed the ticketed events, including half-time shows and a huge trade fair. Spectators who attended the 2009 World Cup Dressage Final will recall the costumed pas de deux challenge that entertained them in between competitions. McElroy says that in addition to another pas de deux challenge this year, spectators can look forward to a new feature performance, the nature of which will be disclosed closer to the final.
Christenson also says that spectators have much to look forward to at this year’s finals. “This year we are focusing on refining and integrating Las Vegas entertainment into the show itself. We want to bring a stronger flavor of Las Vegas into each performance.” The other enhancement for this World Cup Finals will be the VIP experience. And as Christenson points out, the first four rows of seating, which are dedicated to VIP ticket holders, have arguably the best sight line to equestrian sport that exists anywhere in the world.
For those who cannot attend the finals this year, there will almost certainly be opportunities in the future. Christenson confirms that Las Vegas Events has already bid on the 2018 finals and his team is in discussions with the FEI to bring the World Cup Finals back to Las Vegas every two or three years.
Keeping the ‘World’ in World Cup
Even though only 18 horse–and–rider combinations compete in the World Cup Final each year, the structure of the qualifications ensures that representation is as global as possible. The world is divided into four World Cup leagues: Western European, Central European, North American and Pacific. The distribution of participants is weighted according to each league’s demographics, so it isn’t surprising that the greatest number of spots (nine) is awarded to Western Europe, where the majority of strong dressage nations are located. In addition to the 14 allocations through league qualifications, one spot is given to the title defender. Two additional wild-card spots are allocated by the FEI and one final place is given to an athlete from the host country.
The FEI also encourages global participation from hosts of the World Cup Final, though the U.S. remains the only country outside of Western Europe to have hosted the final (Guadalajara, Mexico, was initially awarded the 2015 World Cup Final but was unable to guarantee adequate funding within the FEI’s deadline). According to a spokesperson for the FEI’s Media and Communications Department, there are many factors that go into the FEI’s choice of a host city, which is chosen three years ahead of time. Growth and development of the equestrian sport in the bidder’s region, as well as the popularity of the sport in the bidder’s city, region and country are among the FEI’s considerations when awarding the World Cup Final.