April 29, 2012 -- I've felt the karma all weekend: Great Britain's William Fox-Pitt was destined to win the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event on Parklane Hawk. But he didn't achieve that without real tension, in a well-played drama over what he called a "serious show jumping course" that had the capacity crowd of 9,504 riding with him in the Kentucky Horse Park's Rolex Stadium.
The top three were less than a rail apart as today's show jumping wound down to the essence of the contest. New Zealand's Jonathan Paget put himself out of the running with two knockdowns in the triple combination, blasting the rails in the C element with Clifton Promise. He finished sixth.
When Allison Springer entered the arena, I was holding my breath. She lost her lead from dressage with time penalties on cross-country that put her second in the rankings, but a clean round over the Richard Jefferey-designed route could put extra pressure on William, the world's number one eventer.
At the time, he had more at stake than just the $80,000 Rolex first prize and the handsome watch that came with it. He needed to win Rolex Kentucky to stay alive for the third and last leg of the $350,000 Rolex Grand Slam that was supposed to be held this weekend at Badminton to capitalize on his September 2011 win at Burghley.
However, weeks of rain in England turned the ground at Badminton into a sodden mess. Water was ankle-deep in some places that were partially flooded, prompting the organizers to cancel that event early Monday morning. They said that with more rain predicted, there was no chance of the ground drying out.
Since the Grand Slam criteria calls for a rider to win Rolex, Burghley and Badminton consecutively in any order, William's chance for the prize will not come until Badminton next year (hope there's no monsoon then), since he already has won Rolex and Burghley. However, if someone wins both Burghley this fall and Rolex 2013, they could challenge William for the prize at Badminton 2013, adding more drama to the situation. Poor William; the Grand Slam was hard enough to achieve in its original configuration.
Okay, back to the Rolex show jumping. Allison was fault-free until her Arthur pulled a rail at the oxer over a liverpool that was the seventh of 13 fences. That gave William a rail in hand, and he needed it.
As he approached 6A, the first part of the double combination, he knew he could be in trouble.
"I thought that was going to be a tricky fence for him," William said.
"He was just arguing with me today and I might have to have a little thinking about his bitting. He used to be very, very strong and he's not so strong now. He was chucking his head around. When that (rail) came down, I did think `uh-oh.' When you've got a fence in hand, that makes a huge difference. you've got a bit of a cushion, but suddenly the cushion had gone. I tried to regroup, and jumped home very well. He normally jumps a clear round; that was a bit of a bad moment."
When he knew he'd won after soaring over the last fence, he raised his arm in joyful triumph.
The crowd was with him--and with the other riders as well. They are a supportive group that really appreciates what it takes to get to show jumping on the final day, when the original field of 57 was whittled down to 27 starters this afternoon. No matter what happens, they cheer, a wave of sound that boosts even those who finish near the bottom. However, I've got to say that I think the Tevis Cup endurance competition motto "To finish is to win" could apply to Rolex as well.
But there's always a real winner, and this time, it was William. However, he didn't get to hear his country's national anthem played in recognition of his achievement. There were a few funny moments as first The Star-Spangled Banner began, then stopped; only to give way to what sounded like the German national anthem (William gave it a thumbs down sign.)
But that little mixup didn't dim his wide smile.
"This is the closest I've ever got to the Grand Slam," he said.
"I've won 4-stars before (an understatement if there ever was one) but I've never managed to win two in a row. Still to win three is fairly unlikely. We'll see."
But things do tend to come in threes, don't they? It was the third consecutive British victory at Rolex (Mary King took first and second places last year and William won in 2010). Do they know something we don't? Australian Lucinda Fredericks was the winner in 2009. The bottom line is that there hasn't been an American victory here since Phillip Dutton did it on Connaught in 2008.
But America's got talent and a good deal of it showed at this Olympic selection trial, with four out of the top five placings going to U.S. riders.
The final score was William, 45.3 penalties, to 47 for Allison and 51 for third-place Boyd Martin on Otis Barbotiere. Both he and Karen O'Connor on Mr. Medicott jumped double clear to finish on the same total, but the tie was broken in favor of Boyd because he had been closer to the optimum time on cross-country. Will Coleman, fifth, also was double-clear on Twizzel, a horse who certainly has the look of a future 4-star winner.
Allison was left off the U.S. winter training list after some inconsistent results. But now that she won the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation's Pinnacle Cup as the top American rider at Rolex, I'll bet she's under serious consideration.
Boyd has four horses (Otis, Neville Bardos, Ying Yang Yo and Remington XXV, eighth here) as Olympic contenders. Karen's alliance with Mr. Medicott is new, but this weekend proved they are on the same wavelength. While cross-country didn't start well for her when she fell off Veronica, her ride with Mr. Medicott made up for it.
Karen and I talked about this flashy chestnut who had been a big part of the successful German team.
An exciting new contender is Marilyn Little-Meredith, who used to be best known as a show jumper. But after starting eventing two years ago, she's a force to be reckoned with. Following cross-country, she was 20th with Rovano Rex and seventh with RF Demeter, who ironically had three rails in show jumping to drop from seventh to ninth.
But Marilyn (she's Karen's `fashion consultant') who has rhinestones edging the collar of her red coat, has shown she's a quick learner in her new discipline and will be an important player. I caught up with her before show jumping to get her take on her first 4-star.
The top horses will be getting a good veterinary going-over tomorrow as the U.S. team looks toward the Olympics. I asked Brendan Furlong, the team vet, what he had been looking for all weekend.
London and this summer's Games are on everyone's minds, especially for the British, since they're playing at home this time.
I discussed that with Yogi Breisner, the British eventers' World Class Performance Manager, who by the way is one heck of a nice guy.
One of the best things about Rolex is the people you run into, many of whom, like Yogi, you see only once a year. It's almost as if Rolex is its own universe, where nothing matters but the competition and the shopping. A total of 46,807 people attended the 2012 edition, between the three-day event and the two evenings of reining.
I was hailed by Geoff Sutton, who owned Simba Run (the reserve horse for the 1992 Olympic show jumping team.) He was sitting unobtrusively on the ground beside a tent, and was in awe. He hadn't been to this event since 1978, the year it all started with the World Eventing Championships. Can you imagine the contrast with what he saw then (when everything was staged on a grass field) and what he saw today in the huge stadium, with all that has grown up around it?
I'm not through with eventing yet. I'll be sending you a postcard in two weeks from the Jersey Fresh 3-star, also an Olympic selection trial. I'm looking forward to seeing Phillip Dutton's newest mount, Mystery Whisper, in action there. Phillip finished 10th here on Mighty Nice and 12th on Fernhill Eagle, but Whisper could well be the horse who takes him to London. Let's hope he does well at Jersey Fresh.