Fair Hill, Md., October 22, 2007 -- The autumn splendor of the expansive Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area shone over the weekend, making a gorgeous backdrop for the drama of the U.S. Equestrian Federation's fall championship three-day event and four national driving championships at the Dansko Fair Hill International.
Competitors and spectators appreciated the good weather perhaps even more than usual, because heavy rain on Friday affected some dressage tests in both disciplines and sent people scurrying for cover.
But the downpour left the going perfect for Saturday's cross-country, where the eventing dressage winner, Phillip Dutton, widened his lead on The Foreman and put himself solidly in third place on the promising Woodburn.
Course designer Derek DiGrazia reworked his route this year, making it more interesting both for those who have tackled the hilly terrain on a regular basis and the fans who lined the areas around the 26 obstacles. Some fences had a nice topiary treatment, including The Diving Whale, number 13, and number 17, Wild Horses, both of which replicated those creatures.
There was, as usual, a wide disparity among the participants' experience at this very testing 3-star-rated event.
Dutton had two of the six double-clears (no jumping or time penalties) with his best horses, while his personable assistant, Boyd Martin of Australia, picked up 0.4 time penalties on Ying Yang Yo, second after dressage, and remained in that spot by 4.1 penalties.
Martin, however, was double clear on Neville Bardos, his other mount, giving Dutton's True Prospect Farm from Unionville, Pa., a stranglehold on the highest honors that it would retain until the ribbons were handed out.
Another of Dutton's entourage, Cayla Kitayama, was sixth on Esker Riada, right behind Karen O'Connor, double-clear with Mandiba after cross-country. O'Connor also was seventh after cross-country with her newest horse, Hugh Knows, purchased just last Thursday by her longtime patron Jacqueline Mars. The money changed hands in the nick of time, because the Irishbred's former owners didn't want him going cross-country if he hadn't been sold before that.
Hugh Knows picked up only 1.2 time penalties as part of the elite group at the top of the standings. However, the course quickly whittled down the field, which originally included 66 starters in dressage (five were withdrawn before cross-country.)
The course was riding well with faults in general spread around, but the solid double corners on a slope, fences 18A and B, took the greatest toll with 14 horses having problems there. Corinne Ashton and Dobbin were enjoying a good trip until they had a run-out at the corners. John Williams' Sloopy jumped too far to the left at 18A and thus was on the wrong side of the flag, prompting Williams to withdraw after that.
But the biggest problems came late in the day. Becky Holder, sixth from the end in the order of go, had a hard fall at 18A with Courageous Comet. The horse was fine but Becky lay on the ground for a long time. She was treated for a broken rib at the hospital and released.
The next rider, Melissa Hunsberger on Just Fun Stuff, also had a fall there. In a reverse scenario of the previous accident, she was fine but her horse suffered an injury. Blue screens went up around him as veterinarians worked on the bay gelding, leading the crowd that had gathered at the fence to fear the worst. But finally, with his left foreleg bandaged, Just Fun Stuff was trailered off to the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, where the word on him last night was that he was resting comfortably but still undergoing diagnostic tests.
Analyzing the challenge of the double corners, Dutton said, "I misread it a little bit when I walked it. It looked straightforward to me on a nice show jumping four strides, but it rode longer than that." A dip in the ground complicated matters, as well as the way the roping on course was arranged.
"All those things add to you getting the right canter and the right distance in," he pointed out.