October 20, 2013 -- With a new sponsor, the Dutta Corp. Fair Hill International is flying high. That's sort of a play on words, since Dutta Corp. is involved in shipping horses by air, but this eventing competition got a lift (there I go again!) from the backing of the company that is better-known in the dressage and jumping worlds.
There was great concern when Dansko, the national fall 2- and 3-star eventing championships' previous sponsor, decided not to renew its backing. Having Dutta step in was more than a life-saver for this fixture on its 25th anniversary. It also is going to open doors that likely will take it to a new level.
We're not talking about the level of the competition. The standard of the horses and riders, and the wonderful cross-country course designed by Derek di Grazia, always have been topnotch. This year was no exception, and the excitement factor hit its usual highs.
Jan Byyny, who overcame a near-fatal 2010 fall to come back even stronger, was a popular winner of the 3-star on her aptly named - can you believe this coincidence? -- Inmidair. That certainly fit in with the Dutta Corp. theme. In the 2-star, 23-year-old Allie Blyskal-Sacksen won on the 15.3-hand Connemara cross, Sparrow's Nio, moving up from eighth place after dressage to take the title, putting to rest once and for all her personal dread of the stadium jumping phase.
There was a good, enthusiastic crowd on hand, but someday we could see thousands more. The setting is ideal for a major championship, and with the help of Dutta Corp. founder Tim Dutta, it could happen.
Let me set the stage. The Fair Hill Natural Resources Area, 5,633 acres owned by the state of Maryland, is the former William duPont Jr. estate and one of the most beautiful pieces of land you've ever seen. It is the perfect site for a three-day event. At the same time, money always has been an issue, and the event has managed to operate within reasonable parameters without venturing outside them.
For the 25th anniversary, Fair Hill brought back Mike Tucker of Great Britain who designed the first cross-country course for the event. Mike served as an announcer this time around, and I was eager to talk to him about the first Fair Hill. Here's what he had to say.
In the course of our conversation, he mentioned that Fair Hill would be the perfect venue to host a championship that could bring over Europeans to test their skills against the terrain. Could it be a 4-star, a fall complement to our spring 4-star, Rolex Kentucky? Or would it just be a special entity? That is to be determined, but when I spoke with Tim Dutta about the idea, he was all for taking Fair Hill to the next level. He gained an instant fondness for this place after spending the weekend here, and I asked him about his reaction to the event.
It's good to know he is committed to backing Fair Hill for the near future; the question of whether this was just a one-off now has been answered.
I talked with Jim Wolf, the U.S. Equestrian Federation's executive director of sport programs, whether he thought it was feasible to crank up Fair Hill more than a notch.
I feel sure that whatever else is in Fair Hill's future, it will always retain its drama. There was plenty of that this time around. Jan's victory, of course, was scripted perfectly.
"There's no way I want anyone to win but Jan," Buck Davidson said about his longtime friend before the competition played out. Sally Ike's stadium jumping courses were extremely influential in both the 2- and 3-star, but the fences provided a real squeaker in the latter, as top placings after cross-country (except Jan's) were re-arranged.
Doug Payne, standing third on Crown Talisman, had a rail that dropped him to fourth with 54.4 penalties. If he hadn't had 6.8 time penalties on cross-country, he would have been the winner even with a toppled pole, but he played it conservative with a horse lacking experience at the level. That likely will stand him in good stead down the road in terms of his talented mount's development, so consider that he is just putting off victory until another occasion.
Will Coleman, standing second before he went into the big arena, had a rail at the first fence on Conair, leaving him 0.2 penalties ahead of Doug. Buck, who had been fifth with Park Trader, moved up on others' mistakes and made none of his own, finishing on 52.6.
As Jan trotted into the ring, Mike misspoke, announcing she could not afford a rail. But a quick check of the math showed that adding 4 penalties to her total of 47.6 after cross-country would still put her ahead of Buck.
She did have that rail, blaming it on herself rather than her horse, and figuring she was second, but when the announcement came that she had won, Jan raised her right arm in triumph. It was about winning more than the division.
Two years ago, she went into stadium in the lead, but went through one fence and had a rail at another to wind up third. It was still a victory of sorts, since the fall a year earlier that dissected her carotid artery, caused a stroke and affected her speech could have been a career-ending disaster for someone else.
"She rides great and perseveres," said Buck, who credited her for keeping him in the riding game by training his pony, Oliver, when she was working years ago with his father, Bruce Davidson (a Fair Hill winner, by the way).
I asked Jan, 46, about the difference between two years ago at Fair Hill and how she felt today.
Oh, and the Tom to whom she refers is her boyfriend, Tom Finnan. In case you were wondering. By the way, Jan bought Inmidair from Will, who said he was too big for the horse and that the gelding has found the right home with Jan.
Her prize is a round-trip from Dutta Corp. (worth $15,000) for any horse she chooses that she wants to take to Europe for training and/or competition. So she won't be going to Disneyland, as Buck joked, but she hasn't decided on her destination as yet. The plane trip is especially valued, as Jan noted she had applied for every available grant this year and hadn't gotten one.
Speaking of sticking with it, Buck said Park Trader has been "a job in perseverance. He's been a very difficult horse. He's sort of famous for breaking my collarbone."
Buck recalled he couldn't even get a qualifying score in the dressage in his first 2-star with Park Trader.
"I was just trying to survive. There's no way you would wear a top hat with him," said Buck, who always made sure to "wear a crash hat." But he said he has never sat on a horse that feels like Park Trader, and that is why he has kept going with him.
Fortunes change fast in eventing. In the 2-star, Buck was standing seventh with Wiley Post, but didn't even make it over the first fence when the horse refused twice and he was eliminated.
Sharon White, first after cross-country with Under Suspection (a name she thinks is the mangled German interpretation of Under Suspicion or Under Suspension) had a rail and two time penalties to drop to fourth.
That cleared the way for Blyskal-Sacksen, who was double-clear on her little gray. He wasn't happy with the victory ceremony, refusing to put his ears forward for photos.
"He was ready to go back and get hay," explained his rider.
For her, the Fair Hill trophy has extra meaning, since she grew up a few miles away and volunteered at the event from the time she was eight or nine, doing everything from taking horses' temperatures to working in the vet box. Although she now lives in the Pittsburgh area, she enjoyed coming home to fulfill a long-held dream.
Her horse is a half-brother of another mount she lost to a lightning strike.
While she wasn't able to predict whether Sparrow's Nio might make it to Rolex Kentucky, she noted, "He has that `I'm all that' attitude (see above about the hay) that I think a lot of upper-level horses tend to have. Even though he's only 15.3, he definitely thinks he's 17.3".
Show jumping hasn't always been his thing, though. Ally used to vomit after show jumping, understandable when you hear that Sparrow's Nio had seven down last spring at Jersey Fresh, so she spent the summer in the backyard practicing under the watchful eye of her husband, Sam, a 2008 pentathlon Olympian. (Yes, pentathletes do show jumping, but his wife said she just needs someone to remind her to tell the horse to go forward and to "stay tall." Oh, and now she remembers to breathe, which has ended the inconvenient vomiting.
Fair Hill has long been a testing ground for those who hope to go on in the sport. This is another stepping stone for people like Jan, Buck, Ally, Will, Sharon and Doug. Keeping an eye on the Americans at Fair Hill was David O'Connor, the U.S. technical advisor/chef d'equipe. I wondered how this competition plays into his strategy for improving our eventing fortunes internationally.
So that's it for here. Now I'm switching gears and heading to the Washington International, one of my favorite shows. Watch for my postcard next Sunday and in the meantime, go to facebook.com/practicalhorseman and facebook.com/equisearch, both for more photos from Fair Hill and photos I will be taking at the Verizon Center in D.C.