April 28, 2012 -- The world's top eventer showed why he's a perennial number one by putting in a smoothly professional cross-country round during a day when it seemed there was more trouble than triumph on the course at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event.
Great Britain's William Fox-Pitt turned in what his countrymen would call a "copybook" double-clear over a difficult route with Parklane Hawk to take the lead in America's lone 4-star. Looking at the big picture (though he swears he tries not to think about it) he moved a step closer to becoming only the second person to win the $250,000 Rolex Grand Slam. He already took the first of three legs at Burghley last September with Parklane Hawk. If he has a victory here tomorrow, all he has to do (ha!) is win next weekend's Badminton event in England with one of his horses; any one of his horses, and the Grand Slam prize is his.
His dressage score of 41.3 penalties was just good enough for second place yesterday, but this afternoon, he passed the overnight leader, Allison Springer, who had 3.2 time penalties with Arthur for a total of 43 that dropped her to second place.
"When you watched Allison's round, she set off really meaning business. It was all history after that," said William, taking note of the fact that so many of the problems were in the first half of the course and required a determined approach.
Allison actually could have gone faster, but was playing it conservatively, remembering how last year, she was one of the dressage leaders and on her way to glory when she fell at the third-to-last fence, the double brushes combination. This time, she took the long way there, even though she was tempted to go the more difficult direct route.
She told herself, "Don't do it, Springer. Be smart" and then followed her original plan.
Adding to the drama was the presence of a crowd of 18,400 surrounding many of the jumps. That's the way it's going to be at the London Olympics, for which this was a U.S. selection trial, and of course, coaches and selectors from other countries were looking at their athletes, too.
Allison, who may well have put herself into real Olympic contention, said Arthur could handle the very loud spectators.
"He's kind of 'getting' that they're there for him," she said.
Standing third is Jonathan "Jock" Paget of New Zealand, with 44.8 penalties on Clifton Promise. I didn't know much about Jock, who I'm told is the son of a rodeo bull rider, so I took a moment to chat with him.
The difficulties came early and often today, starting with the withdrawal of Buck Davidson's two mounts, Titanium and Absolute Liberty. Although he rode in the dressage, Buck is still recovering from a broken collarbone he sustained this winter. This wasn't the course for anyone starting out with a disadvantage.
There were many who had a bad day. Becky Holder was among them. She fell at the Normandy bank with her veteran, Courageous Comet, making a comeback this year after a long absence due to injury. Then she was eliminated near the end of the course with her other mount, Can't Fire Me, because he had a cut on his knee. You know how it is these days; any presence of blood on a horse, in the mouth or elsewhere, is a reason for elimination. It's all about the welfare of the horse, as the saying goes.
California-based Englishman James Alliston, who had been mentioned as a possibility for consideration in the British Olympic effort, retired after two refusals with Jumbo's Jake, then had a thumping fall at the second fence with his other mount, Parker. That horse didn't get up as fast as James, so there was concern about him, but they brought him back to the stables and we're being told he's all right.
Aside from William, the Brits who flew over probably wished they'd stayed home. Lucy Wiegersma's ride, Granntevka Prince, was eliminated for a fall, and Oliver Townend retired with Pepper Anne after two refusals near the end of the course. I asked William about the mood of the British camp, though I could imagine that it was far from jolly.
I was starting to cringe every time the announcer came on the air today, because there was so much bad news. I don't want this postcard to be a litany of problems, since there were so many. Let's put one situation in a positive light. Karen O'Connor had a fall in the first water after becoming unbalanced on Veronica during the morning. But she came back in the afternoon on her new horse, Mr. Medicott, to produce a lovely trip. She accumulated 4 time penalties along the way, which put her fifth on 51 penalties behind Boyd Martin on Otis Barbotiere. His score was also 51, but he had no time penalties, which gave him the edge.
However, I do have to say Derek Di Grazia laid out exactly the right kind of challenge to test the prowess of those who have plans on going to London this summer as team members, rather than tourists.
Derek and I talked about how it all worked out.
It will be interesting to see how Richard Jeffery's always-creative efforts at putting together a show jumping course will work out this afternoon.
There are only 3.5 penalties separating the top three, so a rail down for 4 penalties will make a big difference.
I have to mention that many riders are wearing green ribbons on their jackets this weekend in memory of Amy Tryon, the outstanding U.S. event rider who died in her sleep at the age of 42 earlier this month. Amy was a staunch team member, a great competitor who rode while injured to help her squad. A celebration of her life was held at the Horse Park yesterday, and it was standing room only. Those who spoke included her husband, Greg; her teammate, David O'Connor, and U.S. coach Mark Phillips.
I'll be sending another postcard tomorrow to wrap up this amazing event. Got to go now, since I need to be at the 8:30 a.m. vet check, ouch! While I'm on the subject, the horse inspections at Rolex are occasions that draw crowds, the same group of people who consider the eventers to be rock stars and stand in long lines for the endless autograph sessions. These are what I call real fans. You can't help but appreciate their enthusiasm. They help make Rolex an event like no other.