Lexington, Ky., April 25, 2008 -- For racing fans, the big Kentucky moment is the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs, about an hour from here, where they run the Derby.
For eventing fans, the Kentucky weekend they dream of all year is the last one in April, when the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event makes its magic.
Can you believe 13,000 people turned out for the first half of eventing dressage yesterday? And there were even more today, though we didn't get a crowd count yet.
The trade fair, seeing old friends, walking the verdant grounds of the Kentucky Horse Park--all are part of the lure of America's only 4-star-rated three-day event. But it's the competition itself that is the biggest draw, of course, and as always, it's a doozy as anticipation continues to build toward tomorrow's cross-country test.
Becky Holder, who has had some big moments and some big disappointments here, is on the upswing again in this Olympic selection trial. On her birthday yesterday, when she turned 39, she managed to achieve nearly the same score as her age, earning 39.3 penalties for a test on the aptly named Courageous Comet that was a pleasure to watch. And this was no present; she deserved her good marks.
Her gray gelding is one special horse. Oh, but let Becky tell you about him.
Two years ago, Becky and Comet were leading after cross-country when four rails down in show jumping tumbled them into 13th place. In 2007, Comet refused at the fifth fence on cross-country, the Sycamore Corners, and Becky retired. Last fall, they both had a hard fall at the first of a pair of corners jumps, and I wondered if they were finished.
But Becky's back, and when I asked her what she did to overcome the way last season ended, she said, "I started all over again. I went back to the basics, both with myself, my own fitness and my horse's confidence," she said. Becky also worked on her dressage with Kim Severson (whose most famous mount, Rolex perennial winner Winsome Adante, is being retired here Sunday).
Today, she walked the course four times and waited to see if any of the 40 other riders in the competition could beat her score. "I have to admit I was sweating bullets the entire time. I was hoping I was good enough," she confessed.
Coming just close enough for discomfort was Heidi White with Northern Spy, the lop-eared bay, who was so harmonious in his movements it seemed as if he was doing the serpentines and flying changes effortlessly, and the judges gave him a total of 40.6 penalties.
The flying changes weren't so effortless for Connaught, third with Phillip Dutton aboard. They have been a bit of a sticky question for the bay gelding who, like Northern Spy, is a veteran of the World Equestrian Games (WEG). One change right in front of the judges looked more like Connaught was rearing as he dramatically switched leads with a leap. He still got a respectable 41.3 for the rest of his work.
The others in the top six are all close. Stephen Bradley started and finished like gangbusters with From, who got 9's for his halt and beautiful reaching trot, but had trouble with his changes and wound up doing some cross-cantering. His score is 42.6, nearly one point ahead of Corinne Ashton and Dobbin (43.5) while Young Rider Emilee Libby turned in a businesslike performance with Cahir to earn 44.8 penalties. After that, scores went into the 50s.
Fans didn't get to see Theodore O'Connor, who last year became the first pony to compete at Rolex, doing his best test. When they applauded the announcement of his name before he entered the arena he got fractious, backing into the gatekeeper. His flying changes put the emphasis on the flying part, and he stands 24th with 58.2 penalties.
The competitor who came furthest this year was Polly Stockton of Great Britain, ninth with Charles Owen Tangleman (52.2), who has done better tests when he is more focused. Usually, there's a large British contingent at Rolex, but the lottery funding that brought them here is going instead to get them to Hong Kong. Polly got private sponsorship for the trip, reflected in the Charles Owen prefix for the helmet manufacturing company. She has two horses starting at Badminton next week and couldn't ride a third. Tangleman is too old (15) and too heavy, in her opinion, to try for the Olympics in Hong Kong and has done well here in the past, so that was her reason for bringing him.