Fair Hill, Md., October 22, 2007 -- The autumn splendor of the expansive Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area shone over the weekend, making a gorgeous backdrop for the drama of the U.S. Equestrian Federation's fall championship three-day event and four national driving championships at the Dansko Fair Hill International.
Competitors and spectators appreciated the good weather perhaps even more than usual, because heavy rain on Friday affected some dressage tests in both disciplines and sent people scurrying for cover.
But the downpour left the going perfect for Saturday's cross-country, where the eventing dressage winner, Phillip Dutton, widened his lead on The Foreman and put himself solidly in third place on the promising Woodburn.
Course designer Derek DiGrazia reworked his route this year, making it more interesting both for those who have tackled the hilly terrain on a regular basis and the fans who lined the areas around the 26 obstacles. Some fences had a nice topiary treatment, including The Diving Whale, number 13, and number 17, Wild Horses, both of which replicated those creatures.
Listen: Derek DiGrazia discusses the difficulty of his cross-country route
There was, as usual, a wide disparity among the participants' experience at this very testing 3-star-rated event.
Dutton had two of the six double-clears (no jumping or time penalties) with his best horses, while his personable assistant, Boyd Martin of Australia, picked up 0.4 time penalties on Ying Yang Yo, second after dressage, and remained in that spot by 4.1 penalties.
Martin, however, was double clear on Neville Bardos, his other mount, giving Dutton's True Prospect Farm from Unionville, Pa., a stranglehold on the highest honors that it would retain until the ribbons were handed out.
Another of Dutton's entourage, Cayla Kitayama, was sixth on Esker Riada, right behind Karen O'Connor, double-clear with Mandiba after cross-country. O'Connor also was seventh after cross-country with her newest horse, Hugh Knows, purchased just last Thursday by her longtime patron Jacqueline Mars. The money changed hands in the nick of time, because the Irishbred's former owners didn't want him going cross-country if he hadn't been sold before that.
Hugh Knows picked up only 1.2 time penalties as part of the elite group at the top of the standings. However, the course quickly whittled down the field, which originally included 66 starters in dressage (five were withdrawn before cross-country.)
The course was riding well with faults in general spread around, but the solid double corners on a slope, fences 18A and B, took the greatest toll with 14 horses having problems there. Corinne Ashton and Dobbin were enjoying a good trip until they had a run-out at the corners. John Williams' Sloopy jumped too far to the left at 18A and thus was on the wrong side of the flag, prompting Williams to withdraw after that.
But the biggest problems came late in the day. Becky Holder, sixth from the end in the order of go, had a hard fall at 18A with Courageous Comet. The horse was fine but Becky lay on the ground for a long time. She was treated for a broken rib at the hospital and released.
The next rider, Melissa Hunsberger on Just Fun Stuff, also had a fall there. In a reverse scenario of the previous accident, she was fine but her horse suffered an injury. Blue screens went up around him as veterinarians worked on the bay gelding, leading the crowd that had gathered at the fence to fear the worst. But finally, with his left foreleg bandaged, Just Fun Stuff was trailered off to the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, where the word on him last night was that he was resting comfortably but still undergoing diagnostic tests.
Analyzing the challenge of the double corners, Dutton said, "I misread it a little bit when I walked it. It looked straightforward to me on a nice show jumping four strides, but it rode longer than that." A dip in the ground complicated matters, as well as the way the roping on course was arranged.
"All those things add to you getting the right canter and the right distance in," he pointed out.
The tension was far from over after cross-country. There was high anxiety the next morning at the final soundness exam.
O'Connor's Mandiba cut his left foreleg on the paved strip in the main ring where the horses jog, and he was rejected.
O'Connor was dumbfounded, noting that while the cut was over a nerve, it was obvious the blood was fresh and that the horse had just nicked himself. She had no doubt he would have been capable of jumping in the afternoon, but there is no appeal on the final day and so it was over for Mandiba, one of her four rides (another of her horses, Allstar, 34th after cross-country, sustained a wound on cross-country and stayed in the stable).
"I'm not in the business of presenting horses that aren't going to pass the trot-up and this is the first time in my career I've failed the vet," she said after the show jumping, obviously still upset by Mandiba's absence.
There was even more angst when The Foreman, last to be presented, looked slightly off. He was sent to the holding area, where a vet examined him, then re-presented. While the horse definitely was better, he still looked iffy, and the ground jury had a long conference before declaring the leader fit to jump.
Dutton leaped into the air, then hugged The Foreman's owner, Annie Jones, who had been having what Jimmy Wofford called "a digitalis moment."
After all that, the show jumping was a bit of an anti-climax. Sally Ike's course, spread nicely over the huge arena, asked just enough of riders and horses to test them, while bearing in mind all they had been through the day before.
Cayla Katayama got bounced off over the triple bar, the 10th of 12 fences, but showed great presence by hopping onto the fence for a lift right back into the saddle. She finished the course, which is permitted under FEI (international) rules, though under national rules, she would have been eliminated. Still, she had a long drop, plummeting to 29th place with 45 time penalties.
Martin was double clear with Neville Bardos, as Dutton was with The Foreman, but then Martin gave Dutton some room as Ying Yang Yo dropped a rail. Dutton in turn had a knockdown early on, at the fifth fence with The Foreman. But he dealt beautifully, as always, with the pressure to finish on 46.4 penalties, to Martin's 50.5.
The Foreman pawed and bounced his way through the awards ceremonies, like a three-year-old who can't sit still during a sermon, but that's his style. Dutton and his owner take it all in stride.
Ying Yang Yo is an ex-racehorse saved from the slaughterhouse and purchased by Martin for $600. He's a very special animal, as Martin explains here.
Dutton, an Australian Olympic gold medalist who became an American citizen last year, heard The Star-Spangled Banner played in his honor for the first time at Fair Hill after four victories there. It's lucky he's on our side; if only he could be cloned, he probably has enough good horses to make himself into a medal-winning Olympic team.
The driving also was exciting, with a special meaning for Fair Hill in Robin Groves' first National Single Horse Championship. Robin drives Thor's Toy Truck, who is held in the name of Lana Wright. She serves as Fair Hill's co-president with Trish Gilbert.
Wright says Toy Truck, who is by her stallion, Thor, is hers in name only. She notes that Groves has spent ages working with the difficult Connemara/thoroughbred cross to get him to the point where he is today. This was Groves' third Fair Hill win in a row, but the first time she has taken the national title.
Groves was attired in the same sunshine yellow boiled wool jacket that Wright wore when she was on the gold medal team at the 1991 World Pairs Championship. I asked Groves if she might try for the world championships herself, pointing out, "you've already got the right jacket." I expect she'll be a key player in the trials for that team.
Going into the competition, another world championships hopeful, Scott Monroe, was the favorite to take his third national title in a row. He was three-for-three in previous starts this year with the black Morgan Bethesda's After Dark whom everyone calls Shadow.
Although his dressage only placed him eighth of 11 competitors, he hoped to make it up in the marathon. He nearly did it, winning all but one hazard. But that was where his hopes died; he went through a gate backwards in the fourth hazard, accumulating 20 penalties and scuttling his chances for a title hat trick.
While he won the cones, that was only good enough to get him promoted to fourth place, behind Groves, Donna Crookston and Bill Peacock, the dressage winner.
In the single ponies, Sara Schmitt won the marathon with Julia Greifeld's Batman, a Morgan/Welsh cross, then drove conservatively in the cones to accumulate seven time penalties. But she had such a cushion that she wound up 21.73 penalties ahead of Vivan Creigh, the reserve champion.
Schmitt, who is looking toward the world championships with her new partner, previously won national honors with High Country Doc in 2005.
Richard Nicoll, the cones course designer, told me the footing in the arena is such that the cones tend to move sideways when a carriage hits them, rather than having the shock topple a ball. So he made the time allowed tight to put pressure on the drivers. No one drove a double-clear, but Monroe came closest with just 0.61 time penalties.
Larry Poulin, first after the marathon, was just ahead of his main rival, Lisa Singer, to take the Pair Horses honors with Natasha Griggs' duo. He and Singer are tied on seven national championships apiece. Poulin, the nephew of Olympic dressage medalist Michael Poulin, will be working with him as he moves the driving horses up to FEI level in ridden dressage. After 2010, he sees himself retiring from competitive driving, but not from riding or training.
And speaking of training, he's working with Monroe to get Shadow's dressage on a new level.
Oh, and about Singer--she took part in a lovely retirement ceremony for her longtime partner, Farm, Mimi Thorington's 20-year-old Morgan who has traveled to Europe so often for championships that he probably qualifies for frequent flier miles.
In the pony four-in-hands, Lisa Stroud won the marathon with her gray Connemara ponies, but still was playing catchup to dressage winner and defending titlist Boots Wright and her Welsh team when they got to the cones. Stroud had only 3 penalties to Wright's 10.55 in the final phase, putting her atop the leaderboard for her second national title.
That's it for now, though be sure to check out my photo gallery from Fair Hill. My next postcards will be from the Syracuse Invitational Sporthorse Tournament November 2-5, when we'll tell you all about the Maclay finals and the international jumping.
Visit veteran equestrian journalist Nancy Jaffer's postcard page to relive all of the action at some of the world's top equestrian events.