The 30th anniversary fixture in Gothenburg, Sweden, produced some of the most breath-taking show jumping competitions ever seen and it was Jessica Kuerten who held the whip hand going into the closing stages but, just as the Irish rider had predicted on Friday night, it was her great rival who would reign supreme.
FEI President HRH Princess Haya presents the 2008 World Cup to Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum and Shutterfly.
Course-designer Rolf Ludi presented two more fascinating tracks on the final afternoon. They asked huge questions about the rider's ability to be accurate and the horse's willingness to stretch themselves to their limit, but when it comes to limits Shutterfly does not seem to have any at all. Meredith left the 15-year-old gelding with a lot to do at the triple combination in the opening round but the horse just opened up his jump a little more to bring her home clear. Shutterfly was relaxed and it all looked so very easy - "he's been in a great mood here all week and he wasn't nervous at all. He enjoyed working in the warm-up ring which was very quiet and he reflected that in the ring," she pointed out later. The first two of the 24 starters retired in the opening round, Judy-Ann Melchior and the adorable stallion Levisto Z after hitting two elements of the treble at fence eight and America's Todd Minikus and Olinda after lowering the narrow vertical at fence six. These were just two of the traps in the cleverest of courses, the former approached off a left-hand turn after a big oxer and the latter following the triple bar that would put an end to Kuerten's dominance. In the lead after the first two legs and having won the Grand Prix with Quibell on Saturday night the Irish rider looked like a runaway train that just couldn't be stopped. But as all top riders are only too aware, including the eventual winner, show jumping is an entirely unpredictable affair and the World Cup format leaves absolutely no room for error.
Fourth to go, Belgium's Patrick McEntee produced the first fault-free round with Ever Mury Marais Z and when the Swedish duo of Helena Lundback with Madick and Rolf-Goran Bengtsson with Ninja La Silla did likewise the packed stadium went wild with excitement. However they were all lying a distance off the main contenders, carrying double-figure points when the results of Thursday's Speed and Friday's Jump-Off classes were calculated.
Switzerland's Steve Guerdat did his chances no harm however when, lying ninth, he left the course intact with Tresor and Engemann then kept a clean sheet to hold on to his seventh place on the leaderboard. He began to move up as Ludger Beerbaum fell victim to the middle-element of the treble with All Inclusive NRW and the defending champion, Beat Mandli from Switzerland, left two on the floor with Ideo du Thot. Fourth-last to go however Michaels-Beerbaum piled on the pressure when foot-perfect and when the following three got into trouble she was in the driving seat. The relatively novice 10-year-old Esplanade began to show her lack of experience when collecting 12 faults for America's Peter Wylde, Fellar's stallion hit the vertical at six and then Kuerten lost her grip with a mistake at the same spot on the track. Standing off the previous triple bar, the Irish rider's mare Castle Forbes Libertina landed short and hit it and then found the three-stride distance to the following vertical just too long and crashed through that too, although the partnership recovered their equilibrium quickly to finish without further incident. The die was cast however, and there would now be no way back.
The second-round track was shorter with just nine fences but the questions were still big ones and course-builder Ludi admitted afterwards that he might have been a little kinder with the distance to the very final fence. This asked for either three very forward and long, or four short and snappy strides from the previous big oxer and, time and again, the riders just couldn't master this one. Not until Wylde returned to show the huge promise of this amazing mare Esplanade who has come out of the blue to sparkle at this World Cup final, going clear this time out. Mandli mastered the last distance too but Guerdat, now lying sixth, kicked out the final vertical as did Beerbaum when both attempted the distance on three strides while Kuerten, now fourth, slipped further down the order with a frustrating mistake at the very first fence. With just two coming after him, Fellars chipped in an extra stride on the last line and Flexible showed exactly how he earned his name when snapping up and over to hold his position with a clear round.
An error at the first element of the double at fence three hampered Engemann but, last in, Shutterfly was like a piece of precision equipment and the crowd rewarded the German partnership with a huge roar as the horse and rider executed the last distance to perfection on four strides. It just looked simple in the end....but Meredith insisted these were some of the toughest days jumping she had ever experienced, and she was very glad to slay the dragon of last year's final when she disappeared from the reckoning due to a freaky fall.
"I'm very proud to win my second World Cup title and the first Rolex-sponsored World Cup final," said the rider who previously topped the line-up in Las Vegas in 2005. "Shutterfly showed he was in great form over three days and at 15 he is not young - he was super and he never had a rail down. I'm pleased with myself today too, and glad I got him around safely," she said.
Runner-up Rich Fellars was bombarded with questions because his second-placing came as a big surprise - even to him it seemed. The Oregon-based rider is also a trainer and horse agent and prefers to live a quiet life with his family in the US rather than travelling the international circuit - "I have two wonderful children and being with them is my priority," he said. However he has benefitted from the temporary arena created in Thermal, California where Flexible has produced some good results. Even the 49-year-old American was surprised by hos horse, an Irish-bred 12-year-old stallion by Cruising out of a mare called Flex, who was ridden by Edward Doyle. "You don't know what they can do until you ask them, and when I asked him this week to jump higher and go wider he just kept saying OK," he said.
His success was all the more remarkable however for the fact that Flexible was found to have a blocked artery in a foreleg which caused persistent lameness some years ago. Having sorted that out surgically the stallion then got loose while over-nighting at Barney Ward's stables and galloped into a fence breaking his shoulder. To come back from that almost three years later and finish a close second in the World Cup final is little short of remarkable.
Engemann meanwhile knew that he also achieved some special this weekend. There has never been any question about his horse's courage but he also showed that he could jump the biggest of tracks - "I am very happy to be third - my horse did a great job" he said.
And Meredith could now laugh about the 2007 final, safe in the knowledge that both she and Shutterfly are right back on top of the world.