ABU DHABI // As favourites go they do not come much hotter than showjumper Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum who will contest the Rolex Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) World Cup in Las Vegas on Sunday. The defending champion has not just won the event once before, she has won it twice and furthermore, has won it in Las Vegas - her home town.
Past form is taken as an important indicator of future performances in sport and, on that basis, Michaels-Beerbaum's achievements are compelling. American born but with German citizenship, Michaels-Beerbaum became the first woman to top the FEI ranking, in 2004, before winning her first world title in Las Vegas on her famous gelding, Shutterfly, a year later. She went on to claim two World Championship bronze medals in 2006 for Germany and a gold and silver at the European Championship 12 months later.
Last year she reclaimed the World Cup in Gothenburg with Shutterfly, making the big-hearted bay, now at the ripe-old age of 16, one of the most successful ever jumping horses. Shutterfly, who goes by the stable name of 'Petey' and probably receives more fan mail than his human partner, was discovered by Beerbaum as a six-year-old. He is the envy of the showjumping world and, though a gelding and so unable to stand at stud, his relatives are in big demand.
Michaels-Beerbaum may have great form but her breeding, to put it in equine terms, could not be said to be showjumping-specific. In fact, if she is bred for anything it is the silver screen. Her father is film director, Richard Michaels, who, among many other projects, directed the 1970s American series, Bewitched. Perhaps like the show's central character Michaels-Beerbaum also has a magic nose-wiggle, or perhaps she was just blessed with raw talent because while she may not have been born in the saddle, she has achieved more than most and many speculate that Shutterfly would not have done so well with any other rider.
Now Michaels-Beerbaum, 39, and Shutterfly plan to pull off another coup among a World Cup field that includes not only the world's best horse and rider duos, but also her husband, Markus Beerbaum. "I'm definitely one of the favourites," she said. "Obviously I'm the defending champion which adds pressure and I've won in Las Vegas before. I also feel that in Shutterfly I have a truly great horse who has had an incredible career. I feel like I'm going home and I have a great feeling about this competition."
In a sport where horse and rider must form a partnership, nothing, however, is ever assured and Beerbaum is too experienced a campaigner to assume success. "Shutterfly is 16 now and that's not young for a jumping horse," said the rider who won the 2005 Bambi Award - Germany's equivalent of the UK's Sports Personality of the Year. "I feel he's in great condition and I'm happy to ride him but let's see how it ends up. My goal is to ride the best I possibly can and on Sunday, when it's over, I'll see where I stand. I'm hoping to give Shutterfly the ride of my life."
In it's purest form showjumping challenges two minds, horse and rider, to clear obstacles designed to confuse and put-off both parties within a time limit. Issues outside the arena have clouded the sport recently, though. Doping has affected not just showjumping but horse events across the board, while the financial downturn has impacted on the sponsorship and patron-reliant upper echelons of the sport. Yet Michaels-Beerbaum rejects the idea that showjumping, which had been considered a doubt for inclusion in future Olympic Games, is in jeopardy.
"I feel that in Europe the sport is really at the top level and I don't see any danger of losing it as an Olympic discipline," she said. "Obviously the financial crisis has hurt a lot of businesses as far as sponsorship and prize money is concerned, but if you look at the FEI jumping calendar there is an international show of top quality almost every week. We are in hard times that are being felt by everyone."
Four horses tested positive for the banned pain reliever, capsaicin, at the Beijing Olympics last year causing an international scandal that re-ignited rumours of the sport's supposed plight. "It's difficult because you are dealing with a living animal that is also an athlete," said Beerbaum, who herself was cleared by the FEI's judicial committee for procedural reasons after a failed dope test prior to the Athens Olympics. She said the rules and the procedures need clarification, as does the way the athlete is treated by the media following .
"They are trying to make differentiations between medications and doping and it's extremely difficult," she went on. "Every horse is different and there are so many factors. "At the Olympics four riders were positive for the exact same medication on the exact same day at the exact same event. "I don't believe that doping is a problem in our sport; I believe its more a problem of clarity and knowing how to really finesse the rules so that there is a differentiation between medication and doping."
The FEI will be fervently hoping that doping won't be a problem at the World Cup on Sunday, leaving the action over the fences to generate the headlines. And it must surely be one of the last high-profile shows where fans will see Michaels-Beerbaum and her 16-year-old campaigner, Shurtterfly, united. email@example.com