October 21, 2012 -- Autumn at its best, on Saturday and today, offered the perfect setting for sporting drama at the Dansko Fair Hill International, where the backdrop of gorgeous foliage set the stage for fabulous eventing. We won't talk about Friday, when the rain didn't improve the dressage conditions and caused worries about what the footing would be like on cross-country.
But an hour's delay in the start yesterday helped dry the ground, which provided less in the way of surface problems than one might have thought. New fences on the cross-country really made things interesting. Most eyecatching was the Keyhole, with horses jumping through a picture frame obstacle, and one of the most interesting was the following fence, the Open Corners, so narrow that nearly everyone knocked over a flag there.
Happily, there were no major accidents. Only one horse fell, Jessica Phoenix's Erodium in the 2-star, and just one rider, Will Faudree, took a tumble. He went off of DHI Colour Candy at the first water in the 3-star, getting quite a dunking, and did not start on his second mount, Pawlow.
The hills at the Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area always make cross-country more of a test than is obvious by just looking at the fences, but the show jumping layouts by Sally Ike also played a big role in the outcome of the 2-star fall national championship.
I met Connor Husain, a 19-year-old sophomore at George Mason University in Virginia, at the Jersey Fresh 3-star last spring. He is quite impressive, both in demeanor and athletic ability, and it was obvious to me that he would go on to great things. But although he won gold at the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships during the summer, neither he nor I thought he would wind up winning his 2-star division here on the Swedish bred Piece of Hope.
Tied for fifth after dressage with Jennie Brannigan on Indie, he moved up to second with 0.8 time penalties on cross-country, while she rose to first place with one of only four double-clear rounds over the route laid out by Derek di Grazia, who also designs the cross-country at the Rolex Kentucky 4-star.
Never betraying the pressure he faced in the huge show jumping arena, Connor turned in a neat trip that did the job and put him in the position to claim the trophy if Jennie faltered, which she did. Indie dropped a rail at the fourth fence on the course. That attractive Dutchbred was one of only two horses in the top 10 to have jumping faults, but Jennie hadn't been counting on a clear go, since he's still rather inexperienced. So as that rail fell, Connor became the winner.
It felt "so surreal," he said.
"It's just amazing to have everything come together for one weekend," he noted, after finishing with a respectable 44.7 penalties.
We had chatted following the cross-country, and you can tell from the conversation that to him, just riding at Fair Hill for the first time and being competitive would have been enough.
Connor always wears a pink ribbon on the lapel of his jacket because his mother, Leslie, is a breast cancer survivor. Leslie and his whole family were there to watch Connor, who is not only their star, but could be on the brink of becoming a star for his country, too.
Let's look at the people in the standings behind Connor in the extremely strong 2-star division. Second went to Olympic medalist Clayton Fredericks of Australia, who has just moved to the U.S.; like 10 days ago. He rode Pigrela Des Cabanes (46.4), whose owner hopes to compete the horse for her native South Africa in the 2014 World Equestrian Games. Jennie was third (47.9), Doug Payne fourth on the up-and-coming Crown Talisman (48.9) and two-time Fair Hill winner Boyd Martin, of whom you may have heard, was fifth with Master Frisky (49.7).
Another young gun, 26-year-old Hannah Sue Burnett, led from start to finish on her dressage score of 43 penalties in the 3-star with Harbour Pilot. Hannah has found her perfect niche at Fair Hill; she won the 2-star and 3-star here with St. Barths in 2009 and 2010. Last year, she earned team gold and individual silver in the Pan Am Games with Harbour Pilot, who was homebred by owner Jacqueline Mars.
"William," as he is known, is out of Shannon, a mare campaigned by Karen O'Connor. William got his early training from Karen's husband, David, who said the horse was very difficult (he liked to rear in his younger days). David trains Hannah at home in Virginia, and he'll likely be training her in his new role as U.S. eventing coach, too.
Marilyn Little, whose first international eventing outing was here a year ago, finished second with the gorgeous gray RF Smoke on the Water (love that perfect name), who had 52.4 penalties (Hannah could have had several rails down and still won) and fourth on RF Demeter (56.6).
It hasn't been an easy year for Marilyn. She came close but missed out on the Olympic team. She's getting a divorce, and on the morning of show jumping, Smoke was held at the final horse inspection and prodded by the veterinarian, as Marilyn waited for another chance to trot him in front of the ground jury. She got it and they gave her the nod, but she told me she hadn't planned on such an eventful morning.
Marilyn, who had a rail with Smoke, was the only one of the top six to score any penalties in the show jumping, but she had room to spare in order to keep the number 2 placing she earned in dressage.
Phillip Dutton was third in the 3-star with the very experienced Fernhill Eagle (53.2). He said he has a "love/hate relationship" with Eagle who is "a little bit of a cranky horse," but noted, "he's pretty proud of himself today."
I caught up with David to talk about the prospects for America to regain its international standing after a disappointing (that's an understatement) Olympics. With well-mounted riders such as Connor, Hannah and Marilyn, ready to be honed for international stardom, perhaps his new job won't be as tough as some think. First, I was interested in his impression of Connor Husain.
Veering off the subject, I asked David how Karen is doing after an operation to insert a rod in her back. She broke two vertebrae in a fall recently, but he believes she'll be fine riding because the rod is high up and won't interfere with her ability to bend.
Clayton, who has won Rolex Kentucky, is starting a business in Ocala, Fla. He has been based in England for years, where his wife, Lucinda, will keep a stable going. His achievement in the 2-star was quite something, considering the horse just got here and spent two days in quarantine. He also was supposed to ride another of his mounts, Walterstown Don, in the three-star, but the quarantine situation wasn't helpful and the horse tied up when he got him here. Rather than pushing and possibly regretting it, Clayton decided to let Don rest up. I think you'll be seeing him at Rolex Kentucky.
We talked about his move and his reaction to living in America, although that may have been a bit premature on my part.
With former Australians Boyd and Phillip now riding with the American flag on their saddlepads, I wondered if Clayton had thought about becoming a citizen too (they could have their own team of "former Australians.) But it doesn't appear likely.
"It's not anything I've really thought about...never say never, but I don't think so," Clayton said.
If you haven't been to Fair Hill, you really should come. It's relaxed, beautiful and the crab bisque (so Maryland!) isn't bad either. Just walking the cross-country course will give you a good workout, with all those hills. The former du Pont estate is nothing but scenic, a perfect setting for the final three-day of the season in the East.
I'm switching gears now, heading for the Washington International horse show. Look for my postcard next Sunday night.