Lexington, Ky., April 25, 2004 -- I feel as if I've been through the emotional wringer today at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. This sport is so exciting and risky that it gets you really involved with the competitors. I always feel like I'm jumping with them, celebrating with them and, when things go wrong, commiserating with them.
I liked the way Abigail Lufkin put it when asked about the ups and downs of the sport: "For me," she said, "what's so fabulous about the three-day event is that you get such a range of emotion. You have the nerves and the adrenaline, the disappointment if something goes wrong and the happiness if something goes right for yourself. And then you have your friends that you're excited about or sorry for."
That encapsulates everything that I went through since we arrived this morning for the trot-up (also known as the jog, or soundness check) in the pouring rain. I'm always astounded at the enthusiasm Rolex generates. The real fans -- and there are hundreds in what I'd call the fanatical category -- got up at 8 a.m. just to watch the horses trot in front of the judges to see if they were sound enough to continue into the show jumping, the event's final phase. The road where the horses jogged was lined with umbrellas as people craned their necks to catch a glimpse of Bruce Davidson or Kim Severson.
I held my breath while Kim jogged Winsome Adante because she was leading in the CCI division, needing to finish it in order to be eligible for the Olympics. Not only did Dan (Winsome Adante's nickname) pass the jog, but he figuratively and literally kept right on going, putting in a clear round to win the event wire-to-wire (excuse the racing metaphor, but I am in Kentucky and it is the start of Derby week.)
Let me set up this afternoon's scene for you: Breathing down Kim's neck was Phillip Dutton, that most determined Australian, with his rangy chestnut Nova Top. When he jumped a clear Kim could afford only a single knockdown because anything more in the way of falling rails meant he would overtake her.
She was steady as a rock. Kim put in a fantastic trip herself over a course designed by the very talented Richard Jeffery, who designed beautiful fences to look like the most famous Kentucky landmarks, such as the twin spires of Churchill Downs. This was no easy route, either. It included an option for a double that could be taken across the middle of the ring; only Kim and the Brits chose that path, but I guess it was the right one.
When Kim finished and was getting ready for her TV closeup, she took time out to give a big, heartfelt hug to Linda Wachtmeister, who owns Dan.
I spotted Linda still clutching the bouquet of flowers given to the winner and decided to ask how she had persevered through last year when the future looked bleak, after Kim broke her leg and Dan had colic surgery.
"I guess I'm an optimist," Linda told me. "But I always feel there's a silver lining to things that happen. I always felt that as a team we were very well rested and ready to go, and I guess this weekend has really proven that. They seem to have really jelled more than ever before."
Linda sounds like the perfect owner. "I never put pressure on her ... to make it here or go to the Olympics. She has enough pressure on herself," she said.
However, Linda has been planning since last fall to take her whole family to Greece, scene of this summer's Olympics, for which you could say Kim is the prime U.S. candidate right now.
"I knew we'd be going, no matter what," Linda said, explaining she would travel there even if Kim didn't make the team. "But I was hoping," she added with a chuckle.
Okay, so much for the thrill of victory. Now let's talk about the agony of defeat.
Nathalie Bouckaert, who was leading in the modified (no steeplechase) section of the event with West Farthing after dressage and cross-country, seemed very fragile to me. Lovely, but fragile. And indeed, her inexperience came out immediately as she went into the arena to try to replicate or improve on Darren Chiacchia's 4-fault round with Windfall II, who just rolled a rail at the last fence, the Rolex oxer.
West Farthing came to a halt in front of the first fence, and you could see Nathalie was undone.
"I was trying to be very careful," she said, "but I rode backward. After that, I took a long breath and relaxed." But it was too late; West Farthing went on to drop three rails and accumulate six time penalties, plummeting Nathalie to seventh.
The thought of what she lost was overwhelming to Nathalie, who started to cry and couldn't stop when I asked her what happened. I hate those questions, but that's my job, and she showed her class by trying to explain the situation.
I loved Phillip Dutton for giving her a hug when she broke down. "I did feel very bad for Nathalie," he said. "We've all been there."
Darren echoed that exact phrase, then added, "We know the feeling when things don't go your way."
So Darren won the modified and Phillip was second with Hannigan (Abigail Lufkin's former mount), rising from seventh after cross-country. And while I'm giving placings, I should mention Ab was an extremely credible third in the CCI with Kildonan Tug, a tall bay who looks like a real star to me.
Speaking of stars, one of the sport's biggest was center stage between the show jumping rounds. David O'Connor officially retired Joseph Zada's Custom Made, better known as Tailor, in a ceremony that had more than 17,000 spectators alternately applauding and wiping their eyes.
David gave the crowd their money's worth, cantering around several times so they could see the horse, and then taking him over two jumps. Funnily enough, Tailor threw a shoe. I remember old-fashioned retirement ceremonies where they would call in a blacksmith to take off a horse's shoes -- Tailor apparently just decided to save them the trouble. Well, not really, since he isn't just going out to pasture. David and his wife Karen will continue to use Tailor for the demonstrations they give around the country, but the horse has seen his last event as a participant.
Tailor was covered with a cooler that included his name, nickname and a list of all the places he had won. That was a lot of embroidery. He also got to gobble a combo of carrots and mints before walking out of the ring with David, who didn't even touch the reins until Tailor decided to veer off course.
David once told me his thoughts about Tailor, obviously a very special horse. "Tailor and I get along like a house on fire," he said. "Maybe that's because he's very much like me; he has a public side and a private side, which he shows by being very grumpy and protective in his stall. He's a real iron man, and that's what the team selectors call him. He's the toughest horse I've ever met. At the age of 17, when he jumped in his last three-day, he was still tough."
My favorite moment here with Tailor was when David rode him on the grounds bareback, with just a halter and lead rope. Pretty impressive, especially considering the hustle and bustle that is Rolex these days.
Want to see for yourself? Tune in to NBC next Sunday, May 2, 2004, at 1:30 p.m. Eastern time for a 90-minute show of Rolex 2004. It may be the next-best thing to being there, but I wouldn't have traded my weekend here for anything, even with the rain.
I'll be doing some more traveling next month. Look for my postcards from the show jumping Olympic selection trials in California.