Fair Hill, Md., Oct. 16, 2004 -- The rains came at the Fair Hill International Three-Day Event, but fortunately not until cross-country was finished this afternoon. The course already was drenched from Friday night's downpour, which made it deep and holding in spots.
Fair Hill is a tough enough test even under sunny conditions. It's a 3-star with 4-star aspirations on hilly going.
Derek di Grazia designed a 29-obstacle route with six new fences, and moved other jumps for a whole different look. The result: only one rider, the intrepid Phillip Dutton, was able to finish within the optimum time of 10 minutes, 18 seconds.
And, no surprise, he was riding an ex-racehorse, The Foreman. In fact, the first three finishers were thoroughbreds, which is encouraging considering that eventing, once their province is now being dominated increasingly by warmbloods--good movers who can get the right marks in dressage.
But dressage wasn't the story at Fair Hill 2004. True, the leader, Kim Severson, won the dressage on Royal Venture with 36.8 penalties, 9.4 ahead of her Olympic teammate Amy Tryon on My Beau.
Cross-country, however, completely juggled the standings. Amy dropped to fourth on 15.2 time penalties, Phillip moved up from fourth to second and most amazing, Stuart Black went from 20th to third on Fleeceworks Blackout because he had only 0.8 time penalties.
It was a similar story for much of the rest of the top 10. For instance, Ides of March, ridden by Mary Grantham, had been tied for 29th after dressage and now stands fifth. This is old-fashioned eventing where a horse that can run and jump has a shot at winning something despite an inability to half-pass prettily.
There were, of course, some mishaps. A total of 65 starters appeared for dressage. Due to falls, withdrawals and other problems, the field was narrowed to 48 by tonight. The worst accident involved Presto and Allison Springer. The paint slipped into the ditch at the ditch and brush. It took 45 minutes to get him extricated and then he went off to New Bolton Center for a check-up.
Even those who have succeeded at Fair Hill in the past had no guarantees today. Karen O'Connor, the defending champion on Grand Slam, was in striking distance after placing 10th in dressage. She was going well until three fences from home, when the chestnut ran out at a narrow brush.
"I just softened the rein," she said, kicking herself and noting, "I was so on the clock!"
Kristin Schmolze, who was second in 2003, had a runout at the Wayne's Walls fence with Cavaldi. She still managed to improve on her 43rd place finish in dressage, but only moved up to 27th.
So much for last year's stars. Let's talk about this year's.
Kim, who won the individual silver and team gold in the Olympics, said this course was much harder than the one in Greece, which was roundly criticized for being too easy.
It was a good test for Royal Venture, the black Australian thoroughbred Kim guided so skillfully. He has been mostly out of commission since last year and had to undergo three colic surgeries before getting back in training in April. Then a scheduled outing in the American Eventing Championships was called off after Kim fell on her head off another horse in the stable area there.
But now, everything has come together. "They talk about people who have a near-death experience and they come back and enjoy life a lot more. I really believe with this horse...that he's really happy to be back and enjoying his job," said Kim.
She was worried, of course. Fair Hill originally was supposed to offer both a competition with steeplechase and one without. But it was transformed into one event "without" after three times as many people entered that format as they did the longer version.
Even absent the rigors of the steeplechase, Kim was nervous about how Royal Venture would do.
"I just didn't know," she explained. "It was a concern here because he hasn't done this long of a course," she said after the dressage on Friday.
So Kim, who had 7.2 time penalties, thinks she has a 4-star horse, another (like her Olympic mount, Winsome Adante) who will enable her to try for the 2006 World Equestrian Games.
Phillip is high on The Foreman, bought as a 3-year-old and brought along by him.
"It's been rewarding for me," he said. "We've been through all the ex-racehorse stuff." And it sometimes continues.
"He tries to lie down at the start," noted Phillip, whose two Olympic team gold medals for his native Australia attest to the fact that he can handle such misbehavior.
Stuart is best known as a Canadian competitor, but he changed his citizenship to U.S. Easy to do, since his wife, Momi, is an American. Annoyed at not being part of the Canadian Olympic team this year, he's hoping to make the U.S. long list so he can train with coach Mark Phillips and George Morris, who helps our eventers with show jumping.
It's Stuart's fourth competition with Blackout, the one-time New Zealand steeplechaser formerly ridden by Kelly Tempel. He bought him four days before Rolex-Kentucky and finished 20th there. He'll do a lot better here, obviously. His strategy for cross-country was to stay to the inside, which was the shortest route.
He also was the most optimistic of the top three about today's show jumping, noting that if he had gone to the Olympics, doing two show jumping rounds would have been Blackout's cup of tea.
Things are close between the first two, with Kim on 44 penalties and Phillip on 46.2. Stuart, with 54.2, has some ground to cover, and Amy's further back on 58.
Even as the rain was coming down in buckets tonight, the arena was lit by an errant ray of sunshine and a giant rainbow arced over the grounds. It ended right at the ring. I wonder who will find the pot of gold there after show jumping today. I'll tell you Sunday evening.
Read Nancy Jaffer's coverage of Sunday's Fair Hill Show Jumping. Also, visit Nancy's postcard page to relive all of the action at some of the world's top equestrian events.