PARIS, France--Beezie Madden had a rail in hand going into the second of the two final rounds on Sunday, April 15 at the World Cup, and she needed every inch of it to hold off the unheralded Devin Ryan, 36 of Long Valley, N.J.
Madden won the FEI World Cup for the second time while leading a extraordinarily strong field of Americans that finished, first, second and fourth, with Ryan second and McLain Ward of Brewster, N.Y., last year's winner, fourth on HH Azur.
"In my memory, it never happened before that one nation finished first, second and fourth," said Chef d'Equipe Robert Ridland. "For sure, it hasn't happened in recent history."
Madden, 54 of Cazenovia, N.Y., runner-up Henrik von Eckermann of Sweden and Ryan were clear in the first round on Sunday, so they went into the final round with Madden on 0, von Eckerman on 4 faults and Ryan on 6 faults.
Ryan was clean again in the final round, but von Eckerman had a rail down, so that gave Madden some breathing room.
In a cliffhanger of a second round, Madden faulted for the first time over three tough days of jumping when last to go with the brilliant Breitling LS, dropping a rail at the middle element of the triple combination at fence six.
THE CROWD held their breath until she crossed the line to a roar of approval, separated by just two penalty points from Ryan in second place.
The biggest surprise of the week, the relatively unknown Ryan was relentlessly cool yet again as his apparently bomb-proof grey gelding son of the great stallion Zirocco Blue continued to make the super-tough courses designed by Spain’s Santiago Varela look fairly elementary.
"When I had that rail down I was a little nervous, but I still felt my horse was jumping well and I knew I had to pull it together to finish on four (faults) and try to get it done," said Madden.
Madden, who previously claimed the title on Simon in 2013 said it was “double-exciting” to post her second win, and particularly with this 12-year-old stallion.
“We’ve really believed in him but he’s taken time to mature, so for him to come through today is fantastic," said Madden. "It’s taken a little while to replace Simon and Cortes, her team silver 2016 Olympic Games mount, but it’s happening.”
“It is always exciting to win a championship, and two of these is pretty amazing,” Madden continued. “I was so happy that my owner, Abgiail Wexner, was here today to see. I am so happy for her and the rest of my team, my husband John, and the horse, especially. Also, what a fantastic week for the Americans, with three in the top-four. It’s really exciting.”
Her two nearest rivals had kept all the pressure in place when making no mistake in Sunday's first round, von Eckermann carrying his four points forward and Ryan still sitting on a total of six.
For Madden. a little rattle at the oxer at fence three on the 13-obstacle course, and another at vertical no. 7 were a bit scary, but she cleared the line with nothing to add, so the top end of the standings looked the same when the top 20 returned for round two over a new track.
Ryan did it again, steering Eddie Blue home with apparent ease once more.
At just 9 years old, Eddie Blue was the youngest horse in the Final.
“His brain is unbelievable, he never knocked a pole as a 5- or 6-year-old, he won the American Gold Cup as an 8-year-old and was second at Devon, one of our biggest shows in the U.S.," said Ryan. "He’s just a fantastic horse.”
“Eddie Blue felt really nice and fresh, and he is jumping solid,” said Ryan. “He is a young horse and he has never had to jump in a championship format before. So coming out of the ring, I said to myself, ‘Man, he is everything. He can go day after day and jump big classes.’ He felt fresher today and jumping better than the first day. I am really proud of him, and really happy with the way that he is going. He has done his job the whole trip.”
“To be second behind Beezie, she’s a legend in our country,” said Ryan. “Beezie, McLain, any of them, it’s always a good place to be. This is my first championship and it is fantastic. I am proud to be an American today. Proud to be beside Beezie.”
THE HARD LUCK story of the final afternoon was that of Sweden’s Henrik von Eckermann who had to settle for third place for the second year in a row.
In the runner-up spot and carrying four faults as the afternoon began, he might have forced Madden into a jump-off but for a mistake with Mary Lou in the closing moments.
Second-last into the ring von Eckermann knew he would pressure Madden with a clear, and later he was beating himself up about having the second fence down this time out.
“It was my mistake, my horse jumped fantastic as always, but we got too close and I interfered," said von Eckerman. "I should have trusted her quality and it wouldn’t have happened.”
You could hear a pin drop after Madden’s stallion hit the middle element of the triple combination at fence six.
One more error would hand the title to Ryan, but Madden, who has two Olympic gold medals in her trophy cabinet along with a whole lot more valuable hardware, didn’t crumble, bringing Breitling home with nothing further to add for a very popular victory.
Only five female athletes have taken the title in the 40-year history of the series that every rider wants to win, and they all have one thing in common.
Like Madden, Melanie Smith in 1983, Leslie Burr Lenehan in 1986 and Katharine Burdsall in 1987, are all American, while three-time winner Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum from Germany, who won in 2005, 2008 and 2009, was born in Los Angeles, Calif.
It seemed history was repeating itself, as Burdsall’s victory was also posted at exactly the same Paris venue when the Jumping Final was last staged in France 31 years ago.
The final standings showed three U.S. riders in the top four places as 2017 winner, McLain Ward, was fourth.
I thought ‘Annie’ was brilliant,” said McLain of HH Azur. “The first two days you have to do as well as you can. I have a really good horse and I don’t want to let her down.”
Two fellow American combinations jumped the final round of the evening as well.
Alison Robitaille of Upperville, Va., and Ace finished 14th with 24 faults., andJamie Barge of Malibu, Calif.. and Luebbo finished in the 16th position with 27 faults.
'In 2012, when I was shadowing George (Morris) before getting this job, one of our priorities was getting back to winning in the World Cup," said Ridland. "Now we've had four wins in seven years. I was excited because all of our riders did a really good job, not like last year when McLain carried the whole team."
"Devin was at the forefront of our riders in the World Cup for the first time," said Ridland. "I watched Devin last fall, and I picked him out for the Paris Masters last December, but that was not an official U.S. team. He had never ridden on a U.S. team before, and yet stayed cool, calm and collected through the whole week."
This is the 11th time that the United States has brought a win home from the FEI World Cup Jumping Final and the sixth time a U.S. female has brought home the cup, with Madden winning it twice. The 2019 Final will be held in Gothenburg, Sweden.
The happiest of all was new double-champion Madden.
“I love the World Cup Final," said Madden. "Each year I make it a goal to get there, and to win, and I did it again.”
She will be aiming join the elite club of three-time champions when the Final returns to Gothenburg in Sweden for the 23rd time next April.