Postcard: 2006 Fair Hill International

Gina Miles rose from fifth in dressage to win the 2006 Fair Hill International Three-Day Event aboard McKinlaigh.
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Gina Miles rose from fifth in dressage to win the 2006 Fair Hill International Three-Day Event aboard McKinlaigh.

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Fair Hill, Md., October 23, 2006 -- All athletes have their ups and downs; even Tiger Woods went through a slump. But because eventing has three very different phases, riders often do their triumph and tragedy thing in the course of a weekend, rather than over weeks or months.

And so it went at the 2006 Fair Hill International Three-Day Event, where Mara Dean led the dressage with Nicki Henley, only to have a stop at the fourth fence on cross-country and retire.

That day belonged to Jonathan Holling on Lion King II, one of seven riders to finesse this segment without jumping or time penalties. But Jonathan's joy didn't last long, as he sank like a stone from first to seventh yesterday after having three rails down in show jumping.

In the end, the triumph and the trophy belonged to Californian Gina Miles on McKinlaigh, whose gradual climb from fifth in dressage to third after cross-country was capped with a double-clear in show jumping as others stumbled.

It was her first victory in a 3-star, and fittingly, it came at the place where she made her 3-star debut on the 17.3-hand Irishbred liver chestnut gelding, five long years ago.

Describing that momentous trip back east, when she was initially dazzled to see so many stars of the sport in one place, Gina laughed as she recalled, "I was walking around and Bruce (Davidson) said hi to me and I was, 'Oh my God, Bruce said hi.'"

Yesterday, the two-time world champion was behind her in line at the presentation, having finished fourth on Jam. After tying for 18th in dressage, Bruce demonstrated that at age 56, he still can provide those less than half his age with a lesson about how to ride cross-country, where he was double clear. He achieved the same in show jumping with his gray mare to wind up on 60.4 penalties.

Fair Hill runner-up Jan Byyny on Waterfront | © 2006 by Nancy Jaffer

Fair Hill runner-up Jan Byyny on Waterfront | © 2006 by Nancy Jaffer

But wait. Before I go into more detail about the final phase, let me give you some details about cross-country, run against a spectacular backdrop of autumn leaves at the Fair Hill Natural Resources Management area.

Even in this era of short format eventing without roads and tracks or steeplechase, Fair Hill still presents a classic test of speed and endurance on cross-country.

It's called Fair Hill for a reason, though Fair Hills would be more accurate, since much of the terrain is up and down, requiring a very fit horse to make the optimum time. This year, it was 10 minutes for a route that was about 4 and 3/4 miles with 26 fences along the way.

The course was more open than in the past, and designer Derek DiGrazia improved the flow by having several places where riders could gallop, which enabled those who were fit to make up time--especially near the end of the course.

The only major mishap came when New Moon, ridden by Bruce's son, Buck, tired two fences from home and fell. Buck wasn't hurt, but the horse lay on the ground for quite a while before getting up. Officials said yesterday that he was fine.

Phillip Dutton and Tru Luck | © 2006 by Nancy Jaffer

Phillip Dutton and Tru Luck | © 2006 by Nancy Jaffer

Visually, the course was entertaining. Two corners added interest between the big oxer, fence 12, and the "Sneaky Snake," which rose over a ditch, filling what had been a bare spot. There was an intriguing pair of carved wood otters, the finale of the springhouse bounce into the second water, and the "Huntsman's Lodge" just before the finish line featured clever fox and hound figures.

The top group after cross-country was closely bunched. Jonathan had 50.9 penalties, to 55.2 for Phillip Dutton, who was in second place on the promising Tru Luck. Gina had 55.6, adding to her dressage total with 0.8 time penalties, and Jan Byyny was fourth on 56.4 with Waterfront.

Sally Ike's show jumping course proved nearly as influential as cross-country. Listen to her preview the route in an interview before the class.

There were six double-clears--including Gina and Jan among the 38 starters, but not all of the overnight leaders were able to leave the arena without adding to their total. Surprisingly, Phillip wound up with 3 time penalties, which cost him the win and put him third on 58.2 penalties, just behind Jan, who had 56.4.

Tru Luck, he noted, is "not the carefullest if I go fast. So I tried to keep him in a relaxed canter and do tight lines, but it wasn't quite enough."

When Jonathan entered the ring, the crowd went silent. Even with one fence in hand, he couldn't breathe easy, and it got more difficult after he dropped a rail at 4A, the first element of a double of verticals coming off a bending line after a Swedish oxer--a question Sally saw as pivotal. Jonathan was still ahead at that point, but the coup de grace came at fence 10, a liverpool, and then he had the next down as well to finish with 62.9 penalties.

"I was very surprised. He's a very good show jumper. It's very disappointing to have three fall down; two I probably could have lived with," said Jonathan, who handled the situation with as much grace as he could muster.

Show jumping is where it all fell apart for Jonathan Holling. | © 2006 by Nancy Jaffer

Show jumping is where it all fell apart for Jonathan Holling. | © 2006 by Nancy Jaffer

The winner was sympathetic to his situation and shared her mixed emotions over benefiting from someone else's misfortune.

"Jon's a wonderful person, a wonderful rider," Gina said. "He's working on clinching the big win. I was really disappointed for him, though I was thrilled for my horse."

Gina, a mother of two, has had plenty of ups and downs herself with McKinlaigh. He went to the World Equestrian Games as an 8-year-old in 2002 and finished ninth at Rolex Kentucky in 2004. But he had breathing problems that ruled him out for the 2004 Olympics, and he bled this year at Rolex.

"It's really exciting to have him back on form and have the timing right, and have it all come together for him on this weekend," she said.

There was a poignant moment during the presentation when Gina was handed the Beale Wright Morris Memorial Trophy given to the leading lady rider by Beale's little boy, Wright Morris, and Donnan Sharp, who donated the tray. Beale, a successful eventer, died last year at age 34. She was the daughter of Lana duPont Wright, who serves as co-president of Fair Hill with Trish Gilbert. As Lana watched her grandson with a rapt expression on her face, you knew she was remembering Beale with joy and sorrow.

The driving divisions at Fair Hill for the most part were just a shadow of what they used to be, when you'd see at least four advanced four-in-hands and a bevy of advanced singles and pairs. Gladstone had the same weak turnout last month. Some people are ending their season early as the popularity of driving on the Florida circuit has grown. All in all, there are an ever-greater number of combined driving events available these days for a universe of competitors that is much more limited than for eventing.

Next year here will be a different story, however, as Fair Hill hosts the pony, single horse and pair horse driving championships. That should attract a crowd.

Despite the scarcity of entries, there was still some good competition in several of the divisions, though it was a shame that a broken carriage shaft in the advanced single horse section put dressage leader Kirsten Brunner of Canada out of the running.

It was nice to see Gladstone Driving Event advanced single horse winner Robin Groves repeat here with Thor's Toy Truck, however, especially because the horse belongs to Lana. Another Gladstone winner repeated in the intermediate horse division, as Kimberly Stover took her Tony to an easy victory. Those were, unfortunately, the only sections with more than two competitors.

A fun innovation this year was the addition of a marathon hazard and a cross-country fence in the William duPont Jr. arena (named after Lana's grandfather who once owned this glorious acreage.) It made easy viewing for those who didn't want to hike to watch the action. There was a fun buzz, as Pony Club games went on along one side of the huge all-weather ring, while the drivers maneuvered around burly barriers on the other side.

That's what the other part of Fair Hill's official name--Festival in the Country--is all about. There's a dog agility trial, with tent after tent of border collies, Labradors, golden retrievers and more as they wait their turn to run through tunnels and jump their own fences. A local pony club put on a pageant of equestrian history through the ages. There was a concert and even a sheep herding demonstration, as well as a nice-size trade fair. There, you could buy the $398 stylish waterproof leather boots banded with suede up the leg that now seem more popular at U.S. shows than those ugly green, but effective, Wellington boots.

It's a fun weekend, and the International seems to improve or add something every year to make itself even better. The hard-working co-presidents deserve special thanks for their long and continuing devotion not only to this event, but to horse sports in general, as do their corps of loyal volunteers.

Next weekend I'll be at a completely different type of venue, indoors at the Washington International Horse Show just a couple of hours from here. Come back to EquiSearch on October 30 to read all about it!