Oct. 26, 2002 -- It wouldn't be autumn for me if I didn't go to the Fair Hill International, but this year, I'm even more happy than usual to be watching the combo of eventing and driving. The reason? Sunshine and moderate temperatures, a rarity for this fixture at the fabulous Fair Hill Natural Resources Area.
But whatever the weather, the beauty of these hilly acres is undeniable. The horses gallop over vintage green turf with a backdrop of the most spectacular autumn leaves, whose crimson and gold add to the competition's drama.
And today, that was Academy Award quality. Here we have a veteran equine athlete in his last outing, with two virtual unknowns hot on his heels. Someone should wrap up the screen rights.
Center stage is 17-year-old Custom Made, better known to his fans as "Tailor" (custom made, tailor, get it?), the very same mahogany-coated horse who took David O'Connor to the individual eventing gold medal at the Sydney Olympics two years ago.
David wanted his mount's final bow to be at home, as was the case with another of his famous rides, Wilton Fair. "Wilbur," won (in the rain) here nearly a decade ago, and David naturally would like to see Tailor do the same.
The handsome Virginia horseman is getting used to this farewell routine. Last month, David won the team gold medal at the World Equestrian Games with Giltedge, for whom that event was his final championship.
"It's a great thrill to be able to take horses out at the top of their game," David explained. "They're happy and they're sound. Don't run them till they break. These guys don't owe anybody anything--they certainly don't owe me anything."
Funnily enough, Custom Made had been all over the world, but he never competed at the 3-star rated Fair Hill event previously. This morning, it seemed as if the record number of spectators had been waiting for him for years.
"The crowd was unbelievable when I was going around there," David said, of the attractive course laid out by Derek DiGrazia. "Every time I jumped a fence or went through a combination, the crowd went crazy. That's a very special gift."
And he returned it, with a clear jumping round. There were, however, 7.6 time penalties.
"I can't go as fast as these guys," said David, gesturing to Will Faudree, the 21-year-old young gun who stands second with the Australian ex-racehorse Antigua, and Heidi White, third on Northern Spy. They had the only two double-clear cross-country rounds of the day, and it boosted them from 12 and 17th, respectively, after dressage.
David explained his time penalties by saying that actually, Tailor is "a very strong horse when you light him up," so he has to keep him under control, especially when the course is as twisty as it was today.
"That's not his strongest forte," said David, who said Tailor makes better time on more "galloping" courses. Even so, he said, "he jumped exceptionally well."
Tailor had been second to the Trakehner stallion Windfall, ridden by Darren Chiacchia, at the close of the dressage phase Friday, with Windfall on 36.8 penalties and Tailor on 37.01. But Windfall racked up sufficient time penalties to drop him to fifth, today; hence the ascension of David.
Both Will and Heidi are proteges of gold medal Australian Olympian Phillip Dutton. Will is a working student, whose duties include cleaning stalls. Heidi is a rider and instructor for Phillip.
Both riders instantly fell in love with their horses when they tried them. Will went all the way to Australia to get Antigua, who twice completed the Adelaide 4-star event with his former owner, Karen Owen. She was so attached to the horse that Will was worried he wouldn't be able to complete the deal, but she took the check and cried. Antigua replaced another of Will's horses, The Big Easy, who was, his rider said, actually "The Big Difficult."
Though Will had been attending college, he decided to put that on hiatus so he could concentrate on riding.
"That was not what my parents wanted to hear," said Will, "but they stood behind me 100 percent. They were out there today. My mom (Karen) was crying when I went in the (start) box and she was crying when I came back."
Will grew up herding cattle on a Texas ranch, but decided to switch his western saddle for English after watching a horse jumping on TV. He spent some time with David and his wife, Karen, as he learned the ropes. Last spring, he won the Markham Trophy as the best young rider at the 3-star Foxhall trials.
Heidi bought Northern Spy from Margaret and Wash Bishop. "I sat on him, took one jump and was in love with him," she said. "Now I wouldn't sit on any other horse. He's easy to ride," added Heidi, explaining the English thoroughbred goes in a snaffle and looks through combinations, figuring them out himself.
The top three are bunched less than a rail apart, with David on 44.61, Will on 46.8 and Heidi on 48.41. Also threatening is Phillip Dutton with Dusky Moon, scored at 49.6. The top three have been known to have their show jumping problems--Heidi was leading Foxhall until the show jumping this year--but you can bet they'll be playing their best game tomorrow. Of course, everyone has to get through the vet check first.
The day took a toll. There were 76 starters in dressage. Only 40 finished cross-country. There were four eliminations, while the rest retired or withdrew.
David's wife, Karen, had a hard fall at the seventh fence, the Vintage Oxers combination. David, who had to ride three horses later on Texas Pride, zipped off to see her on his motorized scooter. Karen got up under her own steam, but David said he thinks she has a broken collarbone and was going off to see her at the hospital after the competition.
Combined Driving at Fair Hill
In the driving that is co-featured at Fair Hill, the tough cones course yielded only three double-clear rounds. National champion Jack Wetzel, who is leading the advanced single pony, was shaking his head as he came out of the brand new arena. He explained that there were several places where the animals had to gallop in order to make the tight time allowed, but then they had to bring them back for difficult combinations, such as the tight double figure-eight in one corner.
The schedule at Fair Hill is unusual, in that the marathon runs last (usually it's held between dressage and cones). So the standings could get a good shake-up tomorrow. In the meantime, Jack (who had only 1 time penalty) leads the single ponies, and another Gladstone Driving Event victor, Tracey Morgan, leads the pair ponies. Katie Whaley is ahead in the advanced pony fours. In the advanced single horse, which is the national championship, world championship bronze medalist Fred Merriam is on top (no surprise there) with the consistent Nancy Johnson right behind him.
Gladstone winner Lisa Singer and her Morgans are number one in the pair horses, with the formidable Larry Poulin just two penalties back. Chester Weber leads his World Equestrian Games teammate, Jimmy Fairlcough, in the four-in-hand section, where they are the only two competitors.
In my next postcard, we'll tell you who keeps the lead, and who loses it, so be sure to check here tomorrow evening for the latest.