Running sixth from last in the field of 44 starters, the California-born 39 year old who is defending the title she won for the second time at Gothenburg in Sweden last year, outclassed the rest of the 43-strong field in a thrilling race against the clock.
Germany's Meredith Michaels Beerbaum and Shutterfly, winners of the opening jumping competition at the World Cup final in Las Vegas. © Kit Houghton/FEI
The Rolex FEI World Cup Finals continue at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas through Sunday. The Finals feature World Cup Finals in the two Olympic disciplines of show jumping and dressage.
Course designer Anthony D'Ambrosio, assisted by Leopoldo Palacios, presented a clever and challenging 12-fence track but pathfinders, Rich Fellers and the Irish stallion Flexible who finished second to Michaels-Beerbaum at the 2008 final, made it look deceptively easy when setting the target in 58.50 seconds.
Liebherr was seventh into the ring with LB No Mercy who quite often lives up to his name by taking a very strong hold which leaves his rider with a battle on her hands. However as she said after the prizegiving the 14 year old gelding was on his very best behavior and gave her a great run. "Normally he jumps better outside because he has such a long stride so I had to think a lot before the competition in this much smaller arena. We just got into a rhythm from the start so I didn't have to push him and he really listened to me - it's so much easier when he's like this, he's so much more rideable" she explained.
Two-time Olympic team Gold Medalist McLain Ward was really happy with his result and the performance of his great mare Sapphire, "I've been aiming her at these finals since the Olympic Games" he pointed out. "My goal for today's competition was to get into the top five so I'm very happy to finish third. Sapphire and I have a lot of experience together now and tonight I was careful not to get too caught up with the number of options available to get around the course. This is a long week of jumping and I want to keep her fresh and happy" he added.
It was Michaels-Beerbaum's ability to plan her run and execute it to perfection that earned her top position. "Only one other rider took the inside turn after fence five and although I had to add a stride to the triple combination it worked really well," she said. "Shutterfly is a really good 'adder' and that was what was so clever about this course - you could take a short turn and add a stride and still be fast enough. That's unique - I think it was a brilliant course!" she added.
The second of the three deciding classes takes place Friday when the fences will be raised significantly, and the defending champion will be hoping to maintain the lead going into the third and final competition on Sunday when stamina will count for a great deal.
Mexican rider Enrique Gonzalez was eliminated after two refusals, and Acantus GK, the horse of Germany's Max Kuhner did not start because of lameness.