Allentown, N.J., May 16, 2005 -- Splash! That was the way a very controversial afternoon started over the weekend at the Jersey Fresh Three-Day Event, as the first three riders in the short format 3-star section got an unhappy baptism at the new water complex.
I was awed when I first saw the mini-lake at the Horse Park of New Jersey, the same place where I covered the Garden State Combined Driving Event last weekend. This gave the word "complex" a new meaning. There were so many obstacles and options that I would have needed a roadmap to get around if I were riding.
Although there were the usual mishaps one would expect during the long-format 2-star run in the morning, it seemed to me that the water rode well enough. But those horses didn't have to leap up onto a "bridge," take a big bounce stride, jump out over a row of whiskey barrels and dive (as it turned out) into the lake.
Graeme Thom of Canada, first to go in the 3-star with Arrow, parted company from his mount, and both got a soaking, as the entry was eliminated for fall of horse. Oh well, bad luck, one would tend to think.
Buck Davidson was next on Hyperlite, a lanky bay owned by his student, Wendy Lewis, and he was amazing. The two of them splashed down too, but somehow, Buck stayed on. Though he was nearly unseated when the horse clambered out of the water, Buck kept on clinging desperately with both arms and only his calf on the left side of Hyperlite. He almost went flying, however, when the horse jumped the ropes in the galloping lane.
"There wasn't much of me on the horse. At that point, you just try and survive," said Buck. The worst thing about it wasn't the water and mud he was spitting from his mouth, it was worrying what the experience would do to Hyperlite.
"You actually feel bad for the horse," Buck said. "He didn't do anything wrong."
The third horse to go, Balista, ridden by Canadian Mike Winter, also went to his knees. These mishaps, obviously, were no coincidence.
A member of the grounds crew started mucking about in the water and raking it, to see if there was a problem with the footing. By that time, as worried riders looked on, course designer John Williams was meeting with the ground jury. No one was sure what was wrong, but in the interest of safety the bridge was abandoned in favor of a twisting, alternate route that riders later said was difficult for their horses--just not as difficult as going snorkeling.
I hate to think that this controversy overshadowed all that was good about this three-year-old event, where the 3-star was making its debut, but it certainly was Topic A. When John met with us after cross-country, he said the person who built the bridge didn't follow his specifications and brace it properly. In effect, he theorized that the bridge was a springboard, causing horses to over-rotate when they jumped.
But it seemed everyone I spoke with had their own theory: Perhaps the bounce was a little long, maybe the color of the water was too dull, having two logs to clear on the approach was too much, the slatted "roof" over the obstacle might have made the horses duck, the way the grading was done could have affected the landing, etc.
David O'Connor, an eventing Olympic gold medalist, suggested it was a combination of things.
"It was a hard question," he said, and indeed, there were those who told me they thought it was a 4-star question on a 3-star course. "I have great belief in John. He's going to be a great course designer."
There was a suggestion that a horse or two should have been jumped over the bridge route to see how it rode, but David said, "you couldn't pay me $1 million to jump that thing cold." A horse would need to do a lot of jumping and be in the heat of competition to give the complex a proper test, he said. I guess you'd need a 4-star horse in perfect condition to test it.
John told me yesterday that without the braces, the bridge wasn't complete. He took the blame for using it under the circumstances. They're going to look at the footing again after the lake is drained, though he didn't have real concern about that.
It's possible that next year the bridge won't be used, but as John pointed out about the water complex, "There's plenty of choices available in there."
The ground jury added 10 seconds to the time allowed once the alternate route was instituted, and Buck rightly asked the officials to take some seconds off his time. They obliged by cutting 17, though there was nothing they could do about Graeme because once you're eliminated, you're eliminated.
At the end of the day, Buck remained in second place, the same spot where he was after dressage. Buck wound up with 49.5 penalties after cross-country, to 48.7 for the new leader, the resilient Phillip Dutton on Amazing Odyssey. Forget that the Pennsylvania-based Australian had a head cold and had hurt his shoulder that morning after a crashing fall in the 2-star. Phillip was one of only two riders to go double-clear cross-country (Susie Beale on Majestic Bear was the other, rising from 37th to seventh in the process. Who said cross-country isn't influential?)
Royal Venture, Kim Severson's ride who won the 3-star dressage, had a refusal at the sixth fence, the entrance into the water complex, and after successfully clearing it on the second try, she retired. Kim, the 2005 Rolex winner with Winsome Adante, enjoyed a good trip on her other mount, Maguire, and finished fourth.
Amazing Odyssey, who put in one of only three double-clears in the 3-star show jumping, finished on his dressage score to win the 3-star. It's likely he'll be competing at Britain's Burghley 4-star this September.
Buck had three fences down, but managed to keep second place, even with a 61.5 total, and expressed his pride in Hyperlite.
"He was as good as he could be. He spent a year being a show hunter, and I don't think that helped him, they wanted him so quiet and lazy," said Buck. "He got beat by a better horse, a better rider this weekend."
Phillip once again effectively demonstrated how he won two Olympic team gold medals for his native Australia.
"Phillip works extremely hard," said Buck. "He's got the right horses and the right owners, but at the end of the day, you know that what he's got comes from hard work, not from telling anybody the right thing or kissing anybody's ---. I think all of us as riders should try to strive to be as good as he is and not complain about what we don't have, but work hard to get it."
Sally Ike's show jumping courses were influential and perfectly appropriate in both divisions.
"I was asking the horse and rider to stay balanced and engaged, and in front of the leg. Those able to do that were successful," said Sally, who was a three-day rider herself once, though she's now better known for running the U.S. Equestrian Federation's high-performance show jumping program. She was asking for basic good riding, but she didn't get enough of it.
In the 2-star (where the cross-country riding had been roundly criticized, as four riders retired and seven were eliminated) only one competitor was double-clear in the show jumping. It was scary to see the way some of the others clambered around the course.
Rebecca Brown of Dallas, who's only 18, overtook Olympic veteran Stephen Bradley with her quirky Twinkle Toes, a Thoroughbred she got on a trade for a school horse seven years ago. He was only worth about $2,500 then, but look at him now! Twinkie, a little bay with a sagging back who can fly over the fences, was really revved up for the challenge.
It had seemed unlikely that Rebecca would be able to overcome the lead established by Stephen, who had three fences in hand with his catch ride, New Moon. Stephen got the mount only a week ago after the gelding's owner, Jane Sleeper, had to undergo emergency intestinal surgery. But the newness of their partnership was apparent as the rails started dropping. He wound up with 20 jumping faults to finish on a score of 66.6 penalties, only good enough for third.
Wendy Lewis rose from fifth on the Connemara/Thoroughbred cross, Galway Blazer, to eke out second by a mere 0.2 penalties. Rebecca won the 2-star with a score of 61.2 and no show jumping faults.
Melissa Silverman was fourth with Center Stage who was purchased from a rescue organization for $700. Melissa and Rebecca's experience demonstrate that you don't need millions to make it in eventing. It just takes an eye for the right horse and hard work (as Phillip demonstrated).
The Horse Park is a lovely new venue with great footing. As locations where events can be held continue to fall victim to development, it's nice to know this one will be around in perpetuity because it's state-owned. It was a shame about the water complex, but thank goodness there were no serious injuries. They'll have everything sorted out next year, you'll see.
I'll be writing to you June 3 from the Devon Horse Show, another of those must-go shows that are the beloved landmarks on our calendars.