October 27, 2002 -- The Fair Hill International--its ribbons, its trophies, and most of all, its spectators--belonged to Custom Made and his rider, David O'Connor yesterday.
There was a rush of affection from fans after the Olympic individual gold medalist and the horse who took him to that title in Sydney did what they set out to do when the 3-star-rated event began on Thursday.
They held the narrow lead they had gained in Saturday's cross-country phase. Although they came perilously close to losing the U.S. Equestrian Team's fall championship in the stadium jumping finale, they wound up with the title and a raft of prizes as Custom Made put in his final competitive appearance.
Going into the ring last, as the leader always does, David was up against his friend and perennial rival, Phillip Dutton, the Australian Olympic team gold medalist.
Phillip had overtaken his two students, Heidi White on Northern Spy and Will Faudree on Antigua. Will, second after cross-country, dropped two rails to put him fourth. Heidi had a single knockdown with Northern Spy (who won the best-conditioned horse award) to stand third.
Phillip was careful not to rush Dusky Moon, who has toppled poles before in show jumping, and he wound up with only 2 time penalties. His score was 51.60 to the 44.61 that David carried over from cross-country. David could afford only one rail and a couple of time penalties, but no more.
Just because it would have been poetic for Custom Made to win his last outing didn't mean it was a sure thing.
"I felt if he was listening, he could jump clear," David said, noting that while his mount has been better at stadium jumping in recent years, it is a segment that caused problems earlier in Custom Made's career. Most notable was the European Championships in Italy a few years back, where Custom Made got David eliminated at a liverpool in the show jumping, the only time he has ever had that experience in an event's final phase.
"He's not an easy horse to ride," noted Phillip, saying David "has had to work at it."
But Phillip called the horse an inspiration and said, "If someone had to win and it wasn't myself, I'm glad it was Custom Made."
Oh, but I haven't told you about Custom Made's round yet, and how we all held our breaths during the time it took him to get safely around the big ring.
Custom Made was jumping beautifully until he got a bit deep four fences from the finish, and a rail hit the ground. But David held it all together (as he has done so often) through the final challenge, a triple combination, and then he was home free with just 4 faults tacked on to his total.
David and his wife, Karen, were a mixture of happy and sad. There were tears in their eyes as they hugged, and then fussed over Custom Made, whom they call Tailor. Just outside the ring, the crowd that had cheered lustily at the moment of victory was still abuzz. Everyone wanted a photo op, so David obligingly posed with his horse, and then signed a few autographs--thanking the people who requested them. That's the kind of guy he is.
The attention probably took his mind momentarily off the sentimentality involved in knowing he will never ride this special horse in competition again. But he couldn't help reflecting on a career that included only great victories--at Rolex-Kentucky, Badminton, the Olympics and here.
"This is his fourth three-day event he has won in seven years," David remarked, then added that he feels he just "got to tag along for the ride. It's very emotional in that way, because you know that's the last time you'll do it."
He then remembered the first time he saw the horse, at the end of 1994.
"He was at Young Riders in Europe, and totally ran off with a kid, ran past two corners, had three down in show jumping," David recalled. But David got on anyway and was impressed by the horse's jumping ability, reasoning, "he just needs help." And David was able to give it to him.
Now the horse will be used for demonstrations, like those David and Phillip give during the winter. No way is Tailor being put out to pasture and forgotten, David assured us.
As we lose one show ring personality, we may have gained another, though only time will tell about Dusky Moon.
The gelding, who will turn eight in December, was an unsuccessful race horse in Australia, where Phillip bought him for the equivalent of $300 U.S. The horse, who won the Bromont, Canada 2-star-rated event during the summer, is worth a lot more now, but Phillip's wife, Evie, does a lot of the work with the bay gelding and won't part with him.
"It was either keep him or get rid of my wife," Phillip chuckled.
So Evie has a share of him, along with some other people, and I have a feeling we'll be hearing more about this horse, who had only 2 time penalties on cross-country, too.
We had a very full day here, starting at 9 a.m. with the eventing horse inspection and then going into the driving marathon.
Organizers decided to run the marathon on the last day, instead of yesterday, because they thought it would be too wearing on the volunteers to deal with both the marathon and cross-country eventing at the same time. A previous schedule that had run the marathon on Friday wasn't good spectator-wise, so this approach was tried. It is in the rulebook but Lisa Singer, who has driven around the block a few times, had never seen it used.
Some of the drivers said it confused their horses, because after dressage, the animals are used to getting a run cross-country before they're back in the confines of a ring for cones. Thus, the format meant that some horses were hard to handle in cones.
But it was nice for fans to have another walk around the stunning acreage of the Fair Hill Natural Resources Area, particularly when the autumn foliage is so appealing. The only down side I saw from a spectator's viewpoint was the awards ceremony. Everyone was on foot, since the horses had been cooled out and put away after their grueling test.
The standings changed quite a bit because the marathon has such influence on a driver's score. There was no surprise in the single horse competition, though, as Fred Merriam took the USA Equestrian National Championship. Fred admitted to feeling a bit of pressure, since he was expected to do well after winning the individual bronze at the World Championships last summer with the Morgan, Gadwood Lightwing. He called the Fair Hill victory "the icing on the cake."
Also expected was Lisa Singer's win in the pairs with Mimi Thorington's Morgans against more competition than she faced earlier this month at Gladstone, where she won the USET title for a record sixth time. Here she also won the Triple Crown of driving a record third time (it goes to the highest scorer among the Laurels, Gladstone and Fair Hill.) And she got double the pleasure, because she's Fred's trainer.
But in the single ponies, Jack Wetzel--who has been undefeated with his chestnut Welsh, Harry, for a year--tipped over on a steep hill in the third obstacle. Jack and his navigator, Diane Holler, got dumped out as Harry ran off. Jack and Diane walked away, though I saw Diane limping and I was told she had scraped her hand.
So the victory went to Miranda Cadwell with another Welsh, Red Robbo. This guy is 21 years old and still going strong, a candidate for next year's World Pony Driving Championships in Austria. He has also been in world championships for the disabled.
Miranda, who is called Randy, said she was sorry about Jack's accident.
"I hate to win that way," she said, "but at the Laurels, I missed a gate and Jack won that way." Yeah, that's how sport goes sometimes.
Tracey Morgan repeated her Gladstone win with her Dartmoors in the pair ponies, while Jimmy Fairclough won the marathon to move ahead of his WEG silver medal teammate Chester Weber in the four-in-hand division and take the top prize. They were the only two competitors. But four-in-hand is never heavily populated in this country because it's so expensive to do unless you're wealthy or, like Jimmy, have a sponsor.
So not surprisingly, the advanced pony fours also only had two contenders, with Katie Whaley beating Kelly Valdes.
That's it for me from Fair Hill. I think I'm the last person on the grounds, but I wanted to tell you EVERYTHING!