Oct. 26, 2003 -- What an amazing -- and busy -- day it was at the Fair Hill International, where I'm betting the only person as tired as I am right now is Karen O'Connor. She had a come-from-behind win in the U.S. Equestrian Team Fall Championship with Grand Slam, then earned a come-from-behind silver medal in the Pan American Eventing Championships.
Actually, I might be more tired than Karen because in addition to chronicling the two separate 3-star eventing championships, I was running around the very hilly Fair Hill Natural Resources Area covering the driving event that runs concurrently. And then there's the trade fair and the dog agility competition for anyone who has a spare moment (which I didn't) or who wants a break from the horses (which I also didn't.)
I mean, it was so exciting to see Karen win the USET competition because she functioned like the pro she is, even though her husband, David, was operated on this morning for injuries he suffered yesterday on cross-country when he and Dunston Celtic fell at the covered bridge fence and got tangled together in the process. The horse is okay, but David now has metal screws in both his fractured wrist and ankle, and will be confined to a wheelchair for at least the first part of his 8- to 10-week recovery.
David was leading the Pan Am individual standings before his accident, but by default that position went today to Darren Chiacchia, who had been in second place on the Trakehner stallion, Windfall. Going into show jumping, Darren had a mere 0.6-penalty lead over Will Faudree, who was on the Pan Am team, while Darren was riding in the competition only as an individual.
Adding to the pressure on Darren was the parade of teams in which everyone participated before the jumping. All the squads were led in by contingents of mounted pony clubbers, and that gave Darren pause.
His stallion, who is also used for breeding, "has a little white pony friend who's a teaser pony," said Darren, explaining he feared Windfall might think he was getting ready to be bred rather than preparing to jump when he saw all the little grays. "After the parade of ponies, I said, 'Maybe I should go back to the barn.'"
But Windfall was a perfect gentlemen who put in a perfect round over the very challenging course designed by Sally Ike, the USET's director of show jumping activities. That clinched the gold, since Will's standing plummeted with the three rails he dropped on Antigua, putting him sixth. Karen, who had been fourth on Saturday (or third, if you don't count David) moved up to the silver with just one rail down aboard Joker's Wild. The individual bronze went to Jan Thompson, who was Will's teammate on the U.S. squad that won a very decisive victory over Canada and Brazil in the Pan Ams.
The team gold marked a U.S. sweep of those medals in the Pan Ams, after the dressage and jumping teams won in Santo Domingo, where there were no facilities for eventing. But this looked like a complete romp, with the U.S. earning only 190 penalties here, to 325 for Canada and 1,394 for Brazil, which had just two riders complete the event. It may have seemed like an easy victory, but as team member Robert Costello pointed out, "People expected us to win, and that's a lot of pressure right there When it comes right down to it...we still have to go out there and do the job."
Karen noted the weekend was valuable for the other nations that came to participate, because the U.S. can help "countries that are struggling" to get the information to succeed in eventing. "One of the wonderful things about this weekend is the exchange of dialogue between those countries...to get the Pan Am championships more competitive," she pointed out. And the experience helps the U.S.
"The team won this weekend," she said, "but we would like to repeat this in Athens next summer and that means we're upping the game to get ready for the dressage marks that are happening over across the pond" as well as keeping up with the cross-country and show jumping skills of rival nations elsewhere in the world.
Anyway, let me backtrack a minute, because I haven't yet given you the details of the morning USET championship. Karen had a clean round with Grand Slam, a handsome chestnut New Zealand-bred who tends to jump flat but has learned his lessons at home well and is now handling the fences with aplomb. She was standing second behind 20-year-old Kristin Schmolze, the young rider who was amazed to find herself leading the overnight rankings with Cavaldi yesterday.
But Kristin lost her lead at the big oxer five fences from the end of the course, dropping a rail when she got in a little too close. Still, second and the event's young rider title were no small potatoes, and she was very sincere in saying, "I'm just thrilled."
You'll be hearing lots more from Kristin, who's heading to Ireland tomorrow to buy some more horses. She's already impressed Mark Phillips, the USET coach, who agreed, "she had a huge weekend."
And don't let me forget to tell you about the driving. The feature was the USET Pairs Championship, with two drivers who have won the title multiple times going against each other for the trophy. Larry Poulin prevailed over Lisa Singer, 137.71 penalties to 146.86. Larry won the marathon by more than four penalties.
"It's been a long year, physically, financially and emotionally, you name it. It's so much work and commitment, day-in and day-out, trying to stay on top and improve your horses. It's awful nice to end like this and go home and just hang the harness up for a couple of months," he said.
The single horse section was the biggest division, with 13 starters, but it boiled down to a real battle between Morgan drivers Fred Merriam, the bronze medalist from last year's world championships, and Scott Monroe, a whiz on the marathon. Scott won that section, but Fred won the battle and the blue ribbon with 114.54 penalties to Scott's 119.83, as drivers prepare for their next world championship in 2004. Fred noted that there's a lot of competition developing for the team, citing Kate Shields who was third and Carl Furst who was fourth with a mare who is just coming back after a layoff.
"It's going to be a tough season," Fred said of the 2004 competitions. The four-in-hand section had only three entries, because Tucker Johnson, Jimmy Fairclough and Chester Weber called it a season after the USET championship at the Gladstone Driving Event last month. But Bill Long's victory with 144.2 penalties to Jim Richards' 179.82 and Gary Stover's 192.99 total is significant in that it shows how well he's doing with a new team.
He wants to be a contender for the four-in-hand world championship, also next year, and noted that his horses can do better than their effort on today's marathon, but he doesn't want to ask too much at this point in their training. Besides, the terrain at Fair Hill is stressful, as I can attest to from my own running around, and all the drivers agree that the marathon here is as testing as what they might encounter at the world championships -- though of course, there's less competition.
Well, that's a wrap. There's so much more I could say about Fair Hill, but I think you should come next year and see this wonderful event for yourself.
To read Nancy's account of Day I, click here.