May 1, 2011 -- What was practically a foregone conclusion became reality in a big way this afternoon, as five-time Olympian Mary King set a record by finishing 1-2 in the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event.
She earned the honors with two perfect rounds, claiming the crown for Great Britain with Kings Temptress in front of a crowd of 15,743 who gave her a standing ovation, as well as retaining her overnight second-place spot with Fernhill Urco.
The suspense over who would claim the $80,000 first prize was finished early. Urco went sixth from last in the field of 28 (because Mary couldn't ride two rounds in a row), and his clean performance assured that Mary would win no matter what happened with Kings Temptress. Mary had a rail in hand with that mare over American Sinead Halpin on Manoir de Carneville, but she didn't need it.
Mary's professionalism enabled her to leave all the rails resting comfortably in their cups. Temptress won on her dressage score of 47.7 penalties, while Urco had 49.7 penalties after accumulating time faults on cross-country yesterday.
Down-to-earth Mary, friendly and candid, said, "I was fairly calm" as the final test loomed, though she did admit that after "a quick meal and a few drinks" last night, she couldn't sleep and wound up watching a movie at 2 a.m.
She explained that understandably, she worries most about cross-country, and if the horses finish well there, she takes a "whatever will be, will be" attitude toward the show jumping. And frankly, she seemed predestined to take top honors here. Her haul also included a Rolex watch and $37,000 for second place.
Lack of suspense didn't mean there was lack of drama. I figured the crowd that spread out around the stadium was mostly diehard fans, some of whom attended the final horse inspection at 8:30 a.m., despite heavy rain in the early morning, though it did clear right before the trot up. It was obvious that spectators really were with the riders as each horse was inspected and passed. In the same way, during show jumping, the crowd cheered even for the riders at the bottom of the leaderboard after they had managed to make their way around Richard Jeffery's course.
As always, the route was highlighted by fences with great Kentucky significance, from the twin spires of Churchill Downs at the finish to the red and white of Calumet.
The biggest leap belonged to Olivia Loiacono and Subway, 44th after dressage, who finished the competition in 15th place with one rail down. The biggest change in the other direction involved Tipperary Liadhnan and Kim Severson. They dropped six rails to go from 10th place to 16th. It brought to mind the disaster Kim had in the same phase here last year, when she was second going into show jumping, then had a stop and five knockdowns. It's a shame, because the horse does a lovely dressage test and Kim knows what it's like to win at Rolex, having taken the title in 2002, 2004 and 2005 with the much-missed Winsome Adante.
This is just a example of how tough this game is; a horse that's good in one phase, or even two, might not have what it takes for all three. And that makes Mary's achievement even more remarkable.
Sinead sealed the third-place deal for herself with a coolly ridden clean round on her Frenchbred, known as Tate (thank goodness, because it's easier to spell!). After she went over the last fence, Sinead began to cry, wiping away her tears of shock and awe as she galloped past the finish line with a 53.1 penalty score.
Aside from that, no one would have guessed that it was her first 4-star. She was the highest-placed American, which gave her the U.S. Equestrian Federation National 4-star Championship, something she told me was beyond her wildest dreams when she came here to give one of the world's most famous events a shot.
I asked if she was considering Burghley (the British 4-star) this fall, and she admitted a bit sheepishly (not sure why) that she was. I pointed out the prize money, $30,000, would help with that project, and she noted she hadn't thought about that.
"I'm new at this," she explained with a laugh.
The door was opened for Sinead when Australia's Clayton Fredericks had a rail down in the Rolex triple combination with Be My Guest and went from third to fifth on 57 penalties.
I admire Clayton, who won Rolex in 2007 with Ben Along Time. While some of the riders who had rails down showboated and one even did what I would normally call a victory lap, Clayton simply saluted the crowd after his round and left the arena.
In addition to giving Sinead third place, that boosted last year's winner, Great Britain's William Fox-Pitt, into fourth place with Neuf des Coeurs. The finish might have been a different story had all of the dressage judges liked his test, but two of them were nearly seven marks lower than the other, putting him behind the eight ball in 19th place.. He had only 0.8 time penalties cross-country and managed a clear today despite a very hard knock on a rail that stayed up early in the course. He finished on 54 penalties.
I asked William, who has a wealth of 4-star horses, about this one when I visited him after the horse inspection. We talked just outside the stables, as no one but riders, grooms, owners, vets and officials are allowed inside.
Interestingly, Sinead had worked for William a few years ago. He refused to give her lessons, saying instead that she should just learn from watching. And she learned well enough to beat him.
By the way, I asked William if he had been invited to the royal wedding on Friday; I know his sister, Alicia, is a good friend of the bride.
"Of course," he said, but he was smiling, so he may have been kidding. Or maybe not. But anyway, he and Mary watched on TV as so many of us did.
Rolex is all about the competition, of course, but it's so much more than that. The atmosphere at the Kentucky Horse Park is just special when Rolex is on, and the trade fair always is lots of fun. It's also where you run into people you haven't seen for a long time; it seems everyone turns up at Rolex sooner or later.
So this morning, I caught up with Gina Miles, the eventing individual silver medalist from the 2008 Olympics. Will you ever forget the photo of her raising her arm in triumph as she galloped McKinlaigh around the arena in Hong Kong? Here's what she's been doing lately.
Reining picked up more spectators last night for the freestyle, falling less than 800 people short of filling the 5,000-seat Alltech Arena. USEF President David O'Connor was one of the celebrities participating, and produced a bravura ending when he took the bridle off his horse.
I'm not sure reining belongs with Rolex, which I think shines on its own like a diamond solitaire, but others who count feel differently, and I hear the reining will happen again here next year.
David showed up at the Rolex party last night wearing a cowboy hat, so we talked about his new-found sport.
That wraps up Rolex for another year, but I'll have more eventing for you in two weeks, when I go to the Jersey Fresh 3-star.