April 27, 2013 -- Things change fast in the sport of three-day eventing, and it often seems they change fastest on the cross-country course at Rolex Kentucky.
Allie Knowles, queen for a day when she stood fourth as the highest-placed American after dressage, was back to earth this afternoon at the unlucky 13th obstacle, the sunken road complex. She was eliminated there after her Last Call said "no more" to the imposing combination.
But the king of eventers, defending champion William Fox-Pitt, also was toppled. Chilli Morning, first in the rankings after dressage, had a stop at the seventh fence, the HSBC Water Park. William turned around and headed to the stables, figuring there was no point in going all the way around the course at that point.
When I asked what happened with the stallion, the British star replied, "Who knows? There will be lots of time to reflect on it. Maybe he just over-jumped the fence before and shut down there. Whatever the reason, there was no point in carrying on--he's 13 years old, and he's not here for the experience. We'll try again another day."
But all was not lost for William, who moved up from 10th to fourth on Seacookie (46.2 penalties) after putting in one of 10 double-clear trips logged during the day on Derek di Grazia's course.
Even if he jumps clean in tomorrow afternoon's show jumping, however, he just has to wait and watch to see what Andrew Nicholson does. Though Andrew is first on Quimbo (38 penalties) and second on Calico Joe (40.8), the New Zealander is not feeling any sense of comfort about retaining his spots at the time the ribbons are presented.
I asked him if there was some comfort to standing first and second.
"You can never have too much of a cushion in the show jumping," he answered.
"I'll make the most I can of my rounds today and worry about the show jumping tomorrow."
He and I had good eye contact, and I'm sure he knew that I knew the Spinning Rhombus story. That's a tough one to live down.
In 1992, when he and the New Zealand team were poised to take gold at the Barcelona Olympics, Andrew could have had seven rails down and still earned the top prize. But he and Spinning Rhombus had nine rails down; I've never seen anything like it. My jaw kept dropping with the poles as they toppled, one after another. Australia got the gold, and New Zealand had to settle for silver.
But on the plus side here, Quimbo is a good show jumper, though Calico Joe apparently is not quite up to that standard. So tomorrow should be very exciting.
The undercurrent, of course, is that if Andrew wins, he has a shot at the $350,000 Rolex Grand Slam of Eventing, for which only William is currently eligible; his finish here does not affect that. But if Andrew is in the running, Badminton--the last leg of the Triple--will be quite a donnybrook next week, I guarantee it. (If you want more detail about this, look at yesterday's postcard. Or Thursday's, for that matter.) And the mix will include Germany's Michael Jung, the world, Olympic and European champion. He could be the spoiler.
Buck Davidson was the top American, making the climb from 10th after dressage to third on his old pal Reggie, whose formal name is Ballynoe Castle RM. He was one of 10 double-clears, a group that was a third of the field who finished cross-country.
This was a great moment for Buck in several ways. It eased the memory of Reggie's stop at the sunken road during the 2012 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games here, when Buck was part of the U.S. team.
"It's a shame that his entire career has been plagued by that stop at the Sunken Road, because he's such a great horse and everybody loves him," said Buck. "I just about gave up and stopped after he was so perfect through the sunken road--I was so happy."
And it was a nice bounce back from 2012, when he hurt his shoulder in a fall.
Buck and I talked about his feelings today.
Of course, his mood also was elevated by winning the Land Rover Best Ride of the Day for being the U.S. rider finishing closest to the optimum time of 11 minutes, 21 seconds to finish the course. He got free use for two years of a 2013 Range Rover. The award came for his trip on Mar de Amor, one of three horses he rode around today. Mar de Amor's time was 11:15. William actually hit 11:21 on the head, but since he isn't American, he wasn't eligible for the prize.
The course seemed generally well-regarded, but I got an interesting insight on it from Mark Phillips, former coach of the U.S. eventing team.
Bruce Davidson, Buck's father, has ridden around Rolex more times than anyone else--though it seems his son is catching up with him quickly. I was interested in what he thought of the course.
Happily, no one was seriously injured, though there were five rider falls, including Becky Holder, who was seventh after dressage. Ronald Zabala-Goetshel of Ecuador drew a laugh after he and Wise Equestrian Master Rose tumbled into the drink at the Head of the Lake, and the rider rose from the water to take a bow for the crowd.
I ran into Marilyn Little at lunchtime, when she was wearing a sling on her right arm to support a shoulder injury. I asked how it happened, and whether she would ride today. Here's what she said.
She did wind up starting on course, but had a fall from RF Demeter at the 17th fence, the Land Rover Hollow, ending her quest. Let's hope she'll take a rest and let the injury heal.
Several top riders followed William's cautionary lead by withdrawing their horses after a refusal, in order to save them for another day. Mary King, the winner in 2011 with Kings Temptress, came back on her second-place horse from that year, Fernhill Urco, to give try giving him equal time in the trophy department. But he looked tired coming into the Head of the Lake and ran out on the brush obstacle after jumping out of the water. Mary retired six fences later.
Boyd Martin had a refusal with Trading Aces six fences from the end of the 28-obstacle course and walked away.
The original field of 45 for dressage is now at 30, and I suspect it will be smaller still after tomorrow's horse inspection.
It should be great show jumping, Andrew and William, the fiercest of rivals personally and professionally, squaring off with so much at stake. I'll be there, and tell you all about it tomorrow evening in my final postcard from Rolex Kentucky. In the meantime, be sure to go to facebook.com/equisearch and facebook.com/practical horseman for more photos and videos.