Lexington, Kentucky, April 26, 2003 -- Could there ever have been a better day for cross-country, the reason that people love the sport of eventing? It wasn't just the sparkling weather here at the Rolex-Kentucky Three-Day Event (the rain skipped us, thank goodness) and the perfect footing that made this such a great experience. But it was also the fact that there were no serious injuries, which often have marred this discipline.
Some people grumbled that there were too many riders who had perfect scores, 16 in all from a field of 55. But I can tell you from walking the track that it wasn't too easy; it's just that the competitors are getting awfully good, as course designer Michael Etherington-Smith has told me in the past. It's amazing to stand by a jump that puts an awesome distance between the solid top rail and ground, wondering how horses could ever get over it, and then see them fly and make nothing of it as they are silhouetted against the sky.
Best of all this afternoon were the British riders, who seem likely to take home the trophy for America's only 4-star event when it concludes with the show jumping phase tomorrow. Two-time European Champion Pippa Funnell hung onto her dressage score of 38.6 penalties by the skin of her teeth with Primmore's Pride and kept the lead over her countryman and friend, William Fox-Pitt on Moon Man (42.6).
Pippa had all kinds of problems en route on the sweeping turf at the Kentucky Horse Park. Her bay gelding was being naughty, totally disregarding her directions on the steeplechase segment and getting to the base of every fence, a tendency she cured with a dressage lesson on roads and tracks and in the start box. But even worse, her watch stopped at 8 minutes, 11 seconds. That meant she had to rely on guesswork to arrive at the finish line within the optimum time of 11 minutes, 3 seconds.
William, she knew, had enjoyed the luxury of taking the long route at the imposing Lexington Bank because he had made such good time. Remember, I told you about that yesterday. Riders had to jump a mini-run-in shed, then go up the bank to a pair of little sod houses with a bounce between them. But the direct route meant a detour around a rock garden cleverly placed by Michael so riders would have very little time to line up straight on their destination.
Pippa realized that she couldn't waste a precious second there. "I knew William was close on my heels," she said, and told herself, "I'm just going to have to be brave" and take the direct route. Primmore's Pride was up to the challenge and carried her through safely.
Polly Stockton, another British rider, didn't fare quite so well and had 1.2 time penalties. But her Tangleman, who had been fourth after dressage, was able to advance to third place after the USA's Amy Tryon disappointingly had two costly refusals with My Beau that dropped her from third to 38th. Amy was the only member of last year's World Equestrian Games gold medal team who was competing here, but she rode a different horse than she did in Spain.
Bruce Davidson replaced Amy as the highest-ranking American rider in the standings. He was fourth with Little Tricky, who was seventh in dressage with 49.2 penalties and didn't add anything to that total today. Bruce personally knows the dangers of cross-country, not only because he's been doing it for decades and is an Olympic medalist as well as a two-time world champion, but also because he nearly died in a fall last year that killed his mount.
"I wouldn't want to come that close ever again," said Bruce, who broke 11 bones and was hospitalized in critical condition. "I'm a very lucky man to be comfortable and sound again, and I'm grateful for that."
At the age of 53, he's still an incredible athlete, and it's even more unbelievable when you consider everything his body had to go through until it got back in the condition where it could deliver a round like the one Bruce put in this afternoon. Bruce said he and Little Tricky were in such good shape they could have gone around the whole course a second time. Hey, the Brits, probably could have gone again, too. They looked awfully good, though their sweep to this point seemed like a bit of a pleasant surprise to those responsible for it.
"I don't think we probably imagined that we'd be lying first, second and third," said William, who has a dazzling smile and loads of charm. "But we all came here on good horses, hoping that if things went as planned, we would have a good chance. We were optimistic," he explained.
"I'd love to come back again," Pippa said. "The whole layout of the park just sort of invites you to think, 'Gosh, we can have fun and go out and gallop here.'" That is not the case at too many events, she noted.
Well, with everyone so close in the standings, it will be interesting to see how the final act plays out in the show jumping arena. We don't know what the course will be, but Richard Jeffery always does a super job in that department.
Everyone was a little vague when asked to assess their mounts' show jumping ability, but William did note that in Britain, they always jump on grass, so the all-weather footing here will provide a different feeling for their mounts that could translate into unexpected faults.
"I'm fairly used to going in and having quite a bit of pressure," said Pippa, "but even the best jumpers can have one or two down. I'm well aware of William and Polly and Bruce; there are a lot of good people close behind."
The event, which drew a crowd of 24,500 today, has been highlighted by an exhibition of equine art and historical artifacts from Britain. The exhibit at the horse park's museum was formally opened last night with a gala at which the guest of honor was Britain's Princess Anne, resplendent in a creamy silk gown. Few riders attended, as they were busy getting ready for today, but more than 1,350 other people did, showing why Rolex is a deluxe social occasion as well as a major sporting event.