Fair Hill, Md., Oct. 17, 2004 -- Today was the Fair Hill International at its finest, with the fall foliage in full color, as we were able to see because brilliant sunshine replaced the on-and-off downpours that plagued us earlier this weekend.
I always say that Fair Hill, on the former DuPont estate, offers one of the loveliest backdrops there is for an equestrian event. I used to enjoy the quirks of the rolling grass arena used for the show jumping phase, but I have to admit that the all-weather ring installed a few years ago offered perfect footing for the final leg of the competition, despite all the rain we had.
So it was skill at jumping and not battling the elements that was showcased here, as Phillip Dutton won his third Fair Hill of the last nine years. He is a formidable competitor, as his two Olympic team eventing gold medals for Australia would attest, but I judged his horsemanship another way.
His mount The Foreman is--to use the words of owner Annie Jones--"a little odd." That's apparently an understatement. Phillip has mentioned how the horse would like to lie down in the start box at cross-country and apparently presentation ceremonies used to strike the same impulse in him.
So I was watching carefully as Phillip rode up to receive his ribbons (he got so many for various honors this afternoon that he could decorate his Christmas tree with them.) As soon as he felt the horse getting antsy, he jumped off quickly, posed for pictures (which gave The Foreman a break) then hopped back on.
He didn't take announcer Brian O'Connor up on an offer to canter a second victory lap either. I could see The Foreman starting to bend strangely as Phillip finished his honor round. Again, he was quick to head off trouble and dismounted instantly before anything unpleasant could happen.
Needless to say, Phillip mastered the show jumping course designed by Sally Ike. She is the U.S. Equestrian Federation's director of high performance show jumping, but was a long-time eventer herself so she really knows what she's doing.
The route was appropriate for a 3-star and very attractive (I particularly liked the first fence decorated with pumpkins for an autumnal touch that complemented the foliage.) It was rather straightforward and good sized, with a triple bar, liverpool, a double and a triple combination among the elements. The riders really had to do a lot of work between fences six, seven and eight, making a sort of cloverleaf that forced accuracy in their turns.
So the course asked just enough, and Phillip was able to answer the questions. Kim had only a 2.2-penalty edge on him. Her lead from dressage had diminished when she had time penalties on cross-country yesterday, which meant she couldn't afford a 4-penalty rail. Royal Venture, her attractive, blaze-faced black thoroughbred, was jumping well, and she was close to being home free when she ran into trouble at the 11th fence, a vertical and the last jump before the triple combination that ended the course.
She felt it was "a little questionable whether they (the horses) could define it from the railing behind it. I thought I got there as well as I had to the others."
But the rail came down hard, giving Dutton the victory. Stuart Black, who rose from 20th in dressage to third on Fleeceworks Blackout, was also double clear to keep his placing with 54.2 penalties, to Kim's 48 and Phillip's 46.2.
The fourth through sixth riders were also double-clear, but Kim wasn't kicking herself.
"I'm thrilled. My goodness! When you look at the horse's history and the fact that he was nearly dead a year ago, I don't care if he would have pulled every rail today. He's still amazing," she said.
Royal Venture has survived three colic surgeries (you can see the telltale lumps on his belly) and looks like he'll be running in the Rolex Kentucky 4-star next spring, probably with The Foreman and Blackout.
Stuart, who won the Radnor, Pa., 2-star on another horse last weekend, was pleased with his finish too, considering the caliber of the riders who were first and second.
"Any time you stay close to those two, you're doing all right," said Stuart, a longtime Canadian team member who just became an American. He is happy to show his former countrymen that he's doing very well, thank you. Stuart was dropped from the Canadian Olympic team at the last minute, prompting him to follow through on a long-time notion of seeking American citizenship.
The U.S. Olympic team, minus Julie Richards, who couldn't make it, got a salute and roses here. They're going to the White House on Monday to meet the President who may well give them the medals they didn't receive in Greece. Remember the hoo-ha about the Germans losing the gold medal, which is how we were elevated to bronze. The only thing is, no one has been presented their medals yet, which is why they're hoping the President can take the time to do it in the Rose Garden when he meets all the Olympians in every sport.
We got some sad news today. Presto, the mount of Allison Springer, had to be humanely destroyed following an accident on cross-country. He got stuck at the ditch and brush jump, after he hit the fence with his chest and wound up in the ditch. He was taken to the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, but was unable to stand due to some kind of neurological problem. Vets there will do a necropsy on him tomorrow to find out the exact cause of his difficulty.
This is a dangerous sport, but I've watched carefully over the years and seen many efforts implemented to make it safer. And it's a lot safer than it was when I started covering it a few decades ago. But as David O'Connor once said to me, you can't make it safer than life itself, and accidents do happen, unfortunately.
I missed the big-time driving event that used to be held at Fair Hill. This year both entries and sponsorship were down, so they only did a small one-day event and held clinics. Trish Gilbert, who is co-president of Fair Hill, hopes the regular driving event can return next year.
We did have endurance here, though. As I sat typing in the press tent last night while the rain poured down around me, I felt sorry for the horses and riders out on the 100-mile course. The winner, Tom Hutchinson of Maine, didn't cross the finish line until after 8 p.m., having spent 11 hours, 42 minutes and 33 seconds en route aboard his Arabian, Prymtym. But he looked none the worse for wear when I saw him this morning.
"It wasn't that hard," he confessed. While he was riding, he was all right; it was the standing around at the vet checks that wasn't fun. He recalled as he set out on the fifth loop his horse "did not want to go." Finally he got to a water hole and after his gray gelding had a refreshing drink, "that step-changed him."
Tom, a 52-year-old engineer, hopes to make the 2006 World Equestrian Games with his wife, Kathy Brunjes, who rode in the 2002 WEG. God bless them. I can't imagine riding 100 miles even in balmy sunshine.
Okay, I've got to wrap this up. As usual, I'm the last one in the press tent. I'm going home to do my laundry, badly needed since I was coated with mud yesterday. As I was walking the cross-country course, along a track greasy from the rain, I suddenly slipped and hit the ground. My appearance drew plenty of comment during the day.
"You're really getting into your work, aren't you," someone teased me.
I'll write my next postcard from the Washington International Horse Show on Oct. 31. I'm looking forward to the indoor event--no mud there!