October 16, 2011 -- "On any given day, there are so many amazing horses and riders at the top and everybody's got a story. It's good old friend luck that kind of shakes everything up."
That was Becky Holder's accurate assessment following this afternoon's Dansko Fair Hill International 3-star show jumping, where the top three each did indeed have quite a story, and some had more luck than others.
The winner, Boyd Martin, actually has many stories, but for the moment I'll just talk about his clear round, peppered with rails that bounced but didn't come down. The leader in dressage with Ying Yang Yo, who was second after cross-country by 0.2 penalties, returned to the head of the line with equal measures of good riding and good fortune.
Boyd, you'll remember, sadly lost six horses in a barn fire last spring at Phillip Dutton's farm in Pennsylvania and the event world rallied round him to help out.
Everything works two ways. If there had not been a fire, he likely wouldn't have been riding his old pal Ying Yang Yo this fall, and thinking of perhaps pointing him toward the 2012 Olympics.
Jan Byyny, the leader following the cross-country who was making a return here to the 3-star level after an awful accident at a Georgia event in the winter of 2010, said yesterday she wanted to savor the moment and not think about today's challenges.
She moved up the line from fifth place in dressage with Inmidair, artfully tackling Fair Hill's terrain and tough course. Her incredible achievement was universally saluted; she suffered a stroke after her carotid artery was dissected, and she had to learn to talk all over again.
Everyone, from the other riders to the crowd at the Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area, was rooting for Jan to win the coveted Fair Hill bronze trophy on a sunny day that showed off the autumn colors surrounding the huge ring.
But her slim lead disappeared when Inmidair dove through the second fence. Jan thought she perhaps did not use enough leg. Whatever the cause, it's a testimony to Jan's ability that she stayed on.
"I'm really lucky I didn't fall off," she said. "It could have been worse. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't."
The near-disaster obviously did not make things easy for the rest of her ride, and a rail also came down at the fourth fence from the end of Sally Ike's influential route. Disappointingly, Jan dropped from first to third, but made an extra, victory gallop-style circuit of the ring after her round at the invitation of announcer Brian O'Connor. It was a celebration about the miraculous achievement of coming back to the 3-star level.
Becky has been missing the ride on her longtime partner, Courageous Comet, following an injury that resulted in a long rehabilitation. But Can't Fire Me, another gray who looks a lot like Comet, has come in to fill the gap -- although he started out as "a bit of a rogue and an unknown factor."
Said Becky, "He really justified my faith and belief in him." Third after cross-country, dropping one place from his dressage ranking, he had a single rail down today to finish second on 56.2 penalties, 4.2 behind Boyd and 3 ahead of Jan. (Although Jan's score of 59.2 was the same as Will Coleman's on Twizzel, she finished ahead of him because cross-country time breaks the tie and she was faster.)
Both Becky and Boyd expressed a wish that Jan had won the trophy. But actually she did win, and not only the sportsmanship award. She now knows that yes, she achieved what she worked so hard to do, and the blue ribbon likely will come another day, and maybe even a place on an Olympic team.
Jan's parents, Dr. and Mrs. Richard Byyny, were on hand to watch and run the gamut of emotions with her.
"She's had a very tough time recovering from her injuries, but has done great. I'm sure she's disappointed getting third, but that's pretty doggone good when you look at the competition and the event. I was really thrilled she did as well as she did," said her father, who views the situation in perspective.
I wondered if she was riding as well as she used to. Watching her go on cross-country, I definitely thought the answer was yes, but her dad had a different take.
"She rides better, so I would actually say the time off in some ways probably helped in terms of her watching other riders and thinking about what she should be doing. I think she's a better rider now than she was before."
After her round, Jan got numerous hugs; from Boyd, Phillip and among others, Ying Yang Yo's co-owner, Faye Woolf.
I was eager to meet Faye, a lovely southern lady from South Carolina, whose daughter, Eliza, has been riding Ying Yang Yo (otherwise known as Thomas) in low-level competitions. Faye lost a horse in the fire as well.
Interestingly, all three of the top placing mounts are thoroughbred ex-racehorses, ideally suited to handle the rigors of Fair Hill, especially with the ground we had yesterday after two days of rain.
Of course, Thomas' tale is the most compelling. He had been bought off a slaughter shipment (shades of the mid-20th Century show ring star Snowman!) by a guy in Boyd's native Australia whose routine was to put up a 4-foot pole in a jumping chute to test his purchases. Those who could jump it got a new lease on life, those who couldn't went for dogfood. Thomas, needless to say, presaged his future by clearing it. A friend of Boyd's bought the horse for $1,000, and Boyd purchased him for $1,200. He went on to finish second in 3-stars both in Melbourne and at Fair Hill (in 2007) and was 11th at the Rolex Kentucky 4-star in 2006.
I also have to mention that Boyd was the 2009 Fair Hill 3-star winner on Neville Bardos. (He and Phillip rescued Neville from the fire, and despite having to be treated for smoke inhalation, that gritty horse went on to be seventh at the Burghley 4-star this year. I told you Boyd had a lot of stories!)
Anyway, you can expect the Fair Hill triumvirate to be Olympic prospects. Boyd, who calls Fair Hill a 3 and 1/2 star event, is excited about the U.S. eventing team going into the Olympic year. He thinks there's lots of depth, and hopes to have four Olympic prospects himself.
Gosh, there's so much to write about the 3-star that I haven't even gotten to the 2-star.
Kylie Lyman of Vermont, who has probably the biggest smile I've ever seen (and understandably so today) moved up from a tie for third in dressage to first after cross-country, and clinched her division with a fault-free round today. She had one of 14 double-clears among the 40 who started in the final phase with the Irishbred Trading Aces. Her 48.7-penalty score was well ahead of Colleen Rutledge on Dillon (53.9) and Canadian Kendal Lehari's Totally Frank, third on 54.7 penalties. All three were double-clear.
Fair Hill has gone through some tough times, but it is a unique event whose future I hope is secure. It is the East's fall 3-star in a unique venue, and I can't imagine the calendar without it. I know, like so many events, it needs more sponsorship, so I spoke about its status with Trish Gilbert, who serves as Fair Hill's co-president with Lana Wright. (Sidenote: Lana became the first woman to ride in an Olympic three-da y event in 1964, when she was Lana DuPont.)
It's a very busy autumn. Next up for me is the Washington International, one of my favorite shows.