October 17, 2010 -- There is no venue more beautiful than the Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area when the weather is crisp and clear, showing off a blaze of red, gold and orange leaves.
The annual fall championship held here is always well-run by friendly people, making it a pleasure to attend.
Clark Montgomery's decisive 1-2 finish with Loughan Glen and Universe in the 2-star and Hannah Sue Burnett's come-from-behind win in the 3-star with St. Barths were memorable this weekend.
But the death of one of the horses competing on cross-country yesterday cast a pall over the proceedings.
I've been covering show jumping, dressage and eventing for decades, and have only written one story about a fatal fracture at a competition involving the first, and none involving the second. I've lost count of how many pieces I've written about horses that had to be euthanized at the latter.
The most recent is J.B.'s Star, an 11-year-old thoroughbred who was put down at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center last night after veterinarians evaluated him and felt that a broken right humerus did not offer a good prognosis for recuperation.
The horse hit The Footbridge, fence 17 on the 3-star course. I had seen him jump the previous obstacle and was turning away when I heard a loud clunk. The 11-year-old thoroughbred had fallen on his rider, Jennifer Simmons of Virginia, who was conscious but had to be taken to the hospital. She was released today.
Jimmy Wofford, whose stable Jennifer had run for four years, said she suffered a concussion in the fall, and he felt for her, losing her longtime partner. She had brought the horse along and was like many eventers living on "two nickels and a dream," as he put it.
As I thought about the accident, I recalled The Jump Jet, an Irish horse who slammed into the log at the Head of the Lake at Rolex Kentucky last spring. I watched in horror for about a tenth of a second until it was obvious that the "log" was actually a deformable fence, which broke the minute it was hit. The Jump Jet was just fine after collapsing the light material. A new "log" quickly was moved into place, the horse cleared it this time and finished the course none the worse for the experience. He even came back to the Kentucky Horse Park this month as a member of the Irish team at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
There are, I know, pro's and con's about the deformable fences. I attended a U.S. Equestrian Federation-sponsored safety summit in 2008 after two horses had to be put down following accidents at Rolex Kentucky, and heard that there were several sides to that question, though research goes on.
There is no question that eventing has made great strides toward being safer for horse and rider in the last few years, and the work continues, along with increased awareness on the part of riders and officials about responsibility toward the horses while on course. There's definitely been a change of mindset from the old "cross the finish line at any cost" of the cavalry and post-cavalry days to knowing when it's time to call it a day, even if the rules don't call for elimination after one or two refusals.
I just keep thinking about The Jump Jet and how that deformable log may have saved his life, while hoping that someday all the fences cross-country can be as harmless.
This morning, having had a troubled night, I sought out David O'Connor, the U.S. Equestrian Federation president, an Olympic individual gold medalist in eventing, and an expert on safety in the sport.
I asked why technology, such as frangible pins that break (sometimes) and deformable jumps can't entirely solve the problem.
In case you were wondering how the horse has a choice, David pointed out that some horses simply won't jump if they don't want to, and he views that as the horse expressing a preference.
Well, a lot of this is a conversation for another day, but I couldn't put it aside in the wake of what happened to J.B.'s Star. Now let me get back to Fair Hill and everything that went on here.
You'll remember that Fair Hill 2009 was awash with rain, causing the course to be changed and shortened, and led to some competitors scratching.
The route needed a lot of repair after being torn up while it was wet. Some of the fences that couldn't be used last year were put back into the mix this year. The 2010 track followed pretty much the same track as last year, with a few changes, of course, but the glorious weather provided a real contrast with 2009.
I asked designer Derek di Grazia to elaborate on how he thought things had worked out.
Here are some statistics: In the 3-star, there was only one horse fall (I told you about that) and three rider falls that did not involve a horse fall. In the 2-star, there were two horse falls and four rider falls. Sharon White fell under her horse, the unfortunately named Russian Roulette, and broke a hip and her pelvis. I was told no decision had been made on surgery when I asked about her.
In the 2-star, 44 of 56 starters finished, but 42 of them were behind Clark, as I told you previously. The leader after dressage on Glen with a score of 45.3 penalties, he added only 0.8 time penalties cross-country and none in show jumping, finishing on 46.1. Before cross-country, he was tied for fourth with Universe, who belongs to his wife, Jessica. He picked up 1.2 time penalties cross-country, but Universe moved up to third after that phase behind Erin Sylvester and No Boundaries. His show jumping was perfect, giving him a total of 50.4 penalties, and then Clark just had to wait and see what Erin would do.
As it happened, she had a show jumping disaster over Sally Ike's flowing course, and her three knockdowns dropped her to 10th. That moved the Dutchbred Universe up to second, making Clark the winner no matter what happened with Loughan Glen, an Irishbred owned by Kathryn Kraft and Holly Becker. He was home-free early.
I asked 29-year-old Clark about the pressure or lack thereof with one more horse to ride when he knew he had won.
The show jumping double clears that put him first and second were the products of a real pro. He is the trainer for Carl Bouckaert in Chattahoochee, Ga., and has a level of confidence that is palpable but not annoying. Watch out for this guy down the road.
Phillip Dutton made a leap from 15th place in dressage to third with Why Not, despite 1.6 time penalties cross-country, but a clean show jumping round left him on 54.9 penalties. The horse belongs to Jan Byyny, who has been sidelined since an accident earlier this year. She was at the competition, however, and hopes to be riding next season.
Although Phillip knows the ropes when it comes to horses, he said he "wasn't at all impressed" by Why Not after Jan bought him in England, and advised her to sell him.
He's changed his mind.
"He's a really good horse for her and has the makings of a 4-star horse," he commented, never afraid to admit when he's wrong.
Hannah, 24, also is a pro. She works for David and his wife Karen. Last year, she won the 2-star here with St. Barths, owned by longtime eventing enthusiast Dick Thompson (remember Biko?) Hannah nearly had a disaster in 2009, when she lost her focus and crashed through the last jump, but she had enough of a margin to secure the victory.
She didn't make the same mistake twice, and showed she is ready to move up the ranks yet again. St. Barths, nicknamed Nike, can be a bit of a temperamental redhead, but today she knew from her first schooling fence that he was ready to be exuberant over the jumps. And that turned out to be a good indicator; he was clean to finish on his dressage score of 49.4 penalties. Nike was even bouncy in the awards ceremony, rearing up at one point just to show off.
Hannah's victory came at a price for her friend, Nate Chambers, who also boards at Karen and David's Virginia stable. Nate took the 3-star lead in dressage with Rolling Stone II, a horse he has had for a decade.
The German gelding, Nate's Christmas present from his parents when he was 13, also was clear cross-country. Show jumping, however, loomed as a problem, and the tight time allowed didn't offer any leeway.
Karen told me that at the last three events, Nate lost his lead in the final phase. Although he trains in show jumping with Olympic double-gold medalist Joe Fargis, it's obviously a work in progress. This time was no exception. Nate had a knockdown early on course, which handed the trophy to Hannah, since he did not have a rail in hand. Nate also finished with a knockdown, while incurring three others in between. That 20-penalty total put him sixth. It was a Spinning Rhombus moment (remember in my WEG coverage I told you about Andrew Nicholson of New Zealand losing the 1992 Olympic team and individual gold medals when his horse, Spinning Rhombus, knocked down nine rails?) However Andrew came back from that (he won individual bronze at the WEG) and Nate, who finished sixth, will too.
Hannah and I talked about her afternoon, and Nate.
Despite a rail down, Phillip Dutton was closer to the top prize in this division, with a total of 57 penalties on Fernhill Eagle to finish second. Kristin Schmolze rose from ninth after dressage after a clean show jumping performance with her longtime partner, Cavaldi, who had 60.2 penalties. She hopes his next big stop will be Badminton in 2011.
Speaking of show jumping, I had a chance to speak with Karen O'Connor about her WEG show jumping problem with Mandiba that lost the silver medal for the U.S. She explained the Kentucky gate where he stopped, and then knocked down when he finally jumped it, looks like the Virginia gates that are too tall to jump, which she opens to go through at home. She thinks Mandiba was having a what-the-heck-is-this moment when he freaked at it.
In the 3-star, she had a clean stadium round on Quintus to finish eighth. Karen lost time on cross-country with him when she mistakenly went through an opening in the rope line along the course and had to backtrack. She sees Rebecca Broussard's Oldenburg as her horse for the future, perhaps the London Olympics 2012! There's always another event to look forward to, no matter how things go at the one where you're competing.
I'm looking forward to the Washington International, but won't have another postcard until I finish up there in two weeks. Meanwhile, the Fair Hill gallery will go up early this week. And I'll try to get you my story on the 2014 Normandy WEG soon, too.