Lexington, Ky., April 24, 2010 -- It all started going wrong with the weather report; it was set to be one of those days. Wisely, after word that thunderstorms and a tornado would be coming in the afternoon, organizers of the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event decided to skip today's scheduled two-hour lunch break and get on with the cross-country before the rains came.
And so they did, though the Kentucky Cup show jumping Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games test event wasn't so lucky. That grand prix was put off until 6 p.m. tomorrow, after the Rolex finale.
Things were going relatively well during today's test on Michael Etherington-Smith's course until just three horses from the end of the order. Everyone was looking forward to the trip around the 4-mile route by Ashdale Cruise Master, whose rider, Oliver Townend, stood to earn the $350,000 Rolex Grand Slam if he could win here.
This was a cause for excitement and anticipation, somewhat like hoping the horse that takes the Derby and Preakness can win the Belmont and the Triple Crown along with it.
Ollie's triple would have been Britain's Badminton and Burghley horse trials, which he accounted for last year, and this Rolex. But at the 20th of 30 fences, The Hollow, Cruise Master stopped cruising and fell. Though he wasn't hurt, Ollie was airlifted to the University of Kentucky hospital's emergency department, where he remains as I write this.
Update: While Ollie was set to get out of the hospital this morning, understandably he isn't going to show jump his other mount, ODT Master Rose, who stood seventh on 51 penalties. Ollie apparently has several cracked bones, (but no head injury, as doctors previously feared) but he'll have time to heal. He wasn't going to defend his Badminton title next week in Britain anyway, since Carousel Quest suffered a minor training injury before Ollie came over and thus he doesn't have a mount for the English 4-star.
Meanwhile, William Fox-Pitt, another Brit, held his lead from yesterday's dressage on Cool Mountain and has only 42.8 penalties. If Cruise Master could have gone double-clear (as 10 of the 39 competitors who got around cross-country did) Ollie would have had a better chance at the Grand Slam with him, since he had only 46.2 penalties.
"Delighted and excited," is how William described his mood after staying atop the leader board on a horse doing his first 4-star. He pointed out that you never know when a horse has made the journey over the Atlantic how he will react in a new environment, and the 11-minute, 8-second optimum time was something that Cool Mountain had never faced.
"He'd like to pull himself up after three minutes," he chuckled. But of course, he supplied the motivation to keep the horse going. When we're talking Fox-Pitt, we're talking about one of the world's greatest riders. Ever.
I wondered if he brought the horse here because this was an easier track than next week's Badminton competition, where he's riding the more experienced Sea Cookie. Actually, he felt the two events were comparable, with the caveat that Badminton's atmosphere is better for a mount with more mileage. He called it "the Badminton factor," and I asked him to explain that phrase.
William was, of course, mightily sympathetic about what happened to Ollie, and mentioned that the frangible (breakable) pins in the jump that Cruise Master hit didn't break as they were supposed to. Furthermore, he said the same thing happened to Dorothy Crowell when her Radio Flyer fell at the first element of the Park Question, 3-foot, 10-inch rails coupled with a 4-foot, 3-inch-wide ditch.
Mike E-S said he was going to look at videos to see what happened. The pins have to be loaded a certain way to break, but he noted that they only help reduce the likelihood of a rotational fall.
"No one has ever claimed they will prevent a rotational fall," he commented.
The situation is "all part of the Lexington learning curve," Mike E-S observed, explaining that the way the pin is loaded can handle a vertical fall. But apparently, horizontal falls don't break with that kind of loading.
More research needs to be done, though Mike imagines he will have something for the WEG, and he's looking at ideas other than pins.
"The whole sport worldwide has to get their thinking caps on," he said.
Thankfully, it appears there were no serious problems as a result of today's falls, which is a blessing.
Another innovation here, which I pointed out in Thursday's postcard, is the deformable log which was used at the Head of the Lake, the signature obstacle at Rolex. I got a chance to see it in action when Capt. Geoff Curran of Ireland had a half-jump/half-stop there on The Jump Jet. The horse put his knees into the log, which graciously crushed on impact. It looked awful, but the gelding was unscathed. It was fascinating to see workers take the two pieces of the log off to the side and install a new one, all in a matter of minutes. I think I'll do a sequence of that in my Rolex gallery next week. It was all no fuss, no muss, no bother, no damage (to the horse.) The log is sort of ugly, but I like it a lot because it keeps horses and riders safe. Thanks so much for the demonstration, Capt. Curran.
Oh, gosh, I forgot to talk about the Americans. Kim Severson, a three-time Rolex winner who has been without a horse for awhile, is second, two penalties behind William. She's riding Tipperary Liadhnan (do you think he's Irish?) a big gray with a ground-gobbling stride. He's got loads of scope, too. When she jumped into the Head of the Lake and splashed toward the next obstacle there, an island, he seemed reluctant. But she shook the reins at him, told him to go and he went. Kim was double clear on a horse who looks like the real deal.
"He's a trier," is the way she characterizes him. While she's had her ups and downs in show jumping, she noted, "I believe in this horse. He's a very good show jumper. If I can stay out of his way enough to let him do his job, he will do well."
Becky Holder stands third on another gray, Courageous Comet (45.2 penalties) in his eighth 4-star. She has been close here, but never able to win this one, so she's hoping she can keep it together in the jumping. She admitted to some nerves, which have shown up previously.
"But Comet's been on a steady rise in show jumping and become more consistent in that phase this year. I'm hoping I can get in a fair go and see what we have," she said.
Phillip Dutton occupies fourth and fifth places with Woodburn (47.7) who was my pick to win and The Foreman (48). He started with four horses, but withdrew Kheops du Quesnay, who was equal 27th in dressage. He called it quits on course after one refusal with Waterfront, who he's been riding for Jan Byyny (who's recovering from an injury.)
Karen O'Connor is sixth with Mandiba (48.5). After that, it's Master Rose, who we may not see tomorrow, and then Boyd Martin with his Fair Hill winner, Neville Bardos (51.8). I chatted with Boyd about his experience, particularly interested to know whether he thought the course was a little "soft" for Rolex.
Well, there's a lot to see tomorrow, and I'll tell you all about it. That is, of course, unless I'm reporting from Oz post-tornado. If so, I'll see what their version of eventing is like. All those green horses...
Visit Nancy's archive to read more coverage from the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event.