The crowd of 23,552 that packed the Kentucky Horse Park today for the finale of Rolex Kentucky certainly got its money's worth in terms of suspense, as three of the world's best eventers battled for a prize that played hard to get.
The tension started early, at the morning's final horse inspection, when defending champion William Fox-Pitt's horse, Bay My Hero, was held for re-inspection. Until he finally passed, with relieved faces all around, there were some anxious moments.
William stood fourth on 46.9 penalties, behind Germany's Michael Jung, third with Fischerrocana FST (39.3) and second with La Biosthetique Sam (36.7). The lead was held by Tim Price of New Zealand on Wesko (36.3), who had been in the number one slot since dressage, where his horse was tied with Sam, and he added no penalties on yesterday's cross-country, while Sam logged 0.4 time penalties there.
There wasn't any room for error among the top three horses. William, meanwhile, had a chance of earning a fourth Rolex title only if the first three faulted dramatically over Richard Jeffery's course in the massive Rolex arena.
Michael set the stage with a clean round on his mare, who went 13th from the end of the order to give him time to warm-up Sam properly. Celebrating with a dramatic fist in the air as he made a loop after going through the timers, Michael had laid down the gauntlet.
Double-clear rounds were few and far between after that, with the USA's Phillip Dutton having two, on Fernhill Cubalawn, who would wind up fifth, and Fernhill Fugitive, who finished ninth.
Phillip also stood seventh with Mighty Nice after cross-country, but he was withdrawn before the final horse inspection because he had scraped his stifle. The injury didn’t appear serious, Phillip said, but he was taking the precaution of having it X-rayed.
Great Britain's Nicola Wilson, William's compatriot, also was fault-free on Annie Clover (who was held at the horse inspection before being passed).
But when it came down to the top two, the rails started falling.
Sam, who took Michael to the world, European and Olympic championships, had a rail down at the oxer that was the C element of the Rolex triple combination, and then dropped another at the third-to-last of the 12 fences, the Grand Slam vertical, making his total 40.3 penalties.
"I was a little too fast in the combination," Michael said about his error with Sam.
The mare needs more speed on the fences, and he noted because he had two horses, he wasn't concentrating on Sam the way he normally would when he is his only horse in the competition.
Tim, last to go, was now in contention with Michael's mare, rather than Sam, and could not afford a rail. His blaze-faced mount was jumping easily until the Grand Slam fence, which went down to a mournful "ohhh" from the crowd. Tim cleared the last jump, but he wore a chagrined expression as he exited the arena.
When I asked him what happened at the Grand Slam obstacle (always a tricky question) he had a good, detailed explanation.
"It came up after the triple bar, where the horses really used themselves," he said.
"They were just going away from the ingate and they probably think, 'it's a little bit tired here.' It was green and plain and taking them away from the crowd, which was also quite green. It lured them into not giving 100 percent focus, and the riders, 100 percent focus. It took a little bit of organizing after the triple bar, which I think Michael would agree, we just came in a bit cagily."
I wondered how someone copes with such an enormous letdown, especially when it comes in front of a crowd of thousands. Click on the arrow at the left below to hear what he had to say.
I asked another difficult question of Michael. I wondered whether the mare, who was his number two mount, would now be number one in his stable because of the victory.
"I think Sam is my favorite," he replied about the third-place finisher.
"I win every title with Sam. Sam has a very special personality and he's a very good friend of mine, so I think no horse is better than he.
"But I like Fischerrocana and she did a brilliant job and is a top horse. She will do everything correct and great and she is so focused in the dressage. Every competition, she knows her job. Every competition is easier with her and that's really special, I think."
I have to tell you that I am proud to have picked the winner. Rolex runs a contest for the media, where everyone writes down on a card who they think will end up on top. I chose Fischerrocana because Michael had mentioned after dressage that she was able to cope with the terrible ground at the World Equestrian Games last year, and I knew rain was predicted here. I wasn't the only one who selected the mare, so all our cards were put in a bowl and Michael was asked to select one for the prize: a bottle of champagne. Sadly, he didn't pull out my card. But at least I had the satisfaction of being right (although you can't drink that!)
Phillip, as the top-placing American with a fifth on Cubalawn, won the Rolex/USEF CCI 4-star Eventing Championship. But no American has won Rolex Kentucky outright since he did it in 2008 on Connaught. And before that, the last American victory was 2005, when Kim Severson won with Winsome Adante for the second time in a row.
So when will we ever have another American Rolex winner?
I asked Phillip for his opinion on that. Click on the arrow at the left below to hear what he had to say.
I also discussed it with U.S. coach David O'Connor, who noted we haven't won a European event in that time frame, either.
He pointed out this country doesn't have a big star horse/rider combination at this point. And with top Europeans coming to Rolex ("there's no first-timers here," he said,) "you have to get ahead of them on the first day." That means Americans need to do better at dressage.
He is, as he reported in one of my previous postcards, optimistic about the group coming up; the 2- and 3-star horses. But they need time to reach their potential.
Leslie Law, the 2004 Olympic individual gold medalist who is the U.S. developing eventing coach, agreed.
While he's upbeat about the same group David is so high on, he notes they won't be at their peak for next year's Olympics. A more realistic ETA, he said, is the 2018 world championships.
"The hard part, which nobody wants to do, is wait for those to materialize. I understand we all want the result today."
The riders are buying better horses and doing well with them at the lower levels, but it's a long process.
"That's the hardest part for the people looking in from the outside," Leslie said.
"We've got to give ourselves two or three years before we start to reap the fruits of all that."
So everyone just has to be patient, and hope that one of these days, the Rolex honors stay in this country.
Although Rolex Kentucky (which I should mention is presented by Land Rover) is over, I'm not through with eventing for the spring. I'll be back in two weeks with a postcard from the Jersey Fresh 2- and 3-star competition at the Horse Park of New Jersey. Why don't you stop by if you're in the Allentown, N.J., area May 7-10?