April 30, 2011 -- The indomitable Mary King may well be the unbeatable Mary King. At the conclusion of today's cross-country test, Mary was 1-2 with her homebred Kings Temptress and Fernhill Urco respectively.
"I'm absolutely over the moon," she said with characteristic Mary verve and the kind of oomph that enabled her to win Badminton twice, Burghley once and bunches of medals in the Olympics, World Equestrian Games and European Championships for Great Britain.
"They're two very different horses, one very experienced (Temptress), one not so experienced (Urco) at this level. I never would have dreamt I would be in this position when I left England to come here," she commented.
Yesterday, she was second and fourth, but Derek di Grazia's 28-obstacle test at the Kentucky Horse Park shook up the standings big time.
Ground that had been sodden on Wednesday dried out quite well, but some said footing was a factor -- though opinions varied -- and the afternoon heat on a glorious sunny day also threw in a game changer for a few starters.
Allison Springer's luck finally ran out, big time. The winner of a Rolex watch and Dubarry boots who was the leader after the first day of dressage with Arthur and dropped to third yesterday, Allison didn't finish with either of her two horses. She had a fall with Arthur, citing slippage, and was eliminated again later in the day with Destination Known.
Tiana Coudray, first with Ringwood Magister after dressage wrapped up Friday, logged two refusals and a fall. Twizzel, Will Coleman's ride who was equal fifth post-dressage, also was eliminated with a fall.
So much for America's rising stars, you might sigh, despairing for how we will fare for the future in the sport. But no, don't let yourself be troubled.
Sinead Halpin, 29, who was eighth in dressage, came out of the pack with a sparkling ride on Manoir de Carneville in her 4-star debut to move up to fourth. While Mary has an edge, with 47.7 and 49.7 penalties on her mounts, third-place Olympic team silver medalist Clayton Fredericks of Australia could be vulnerable. He stands on 53 penalties with the very distinctive Be My Guest (more on that later) and Sinead is just a mere 0.1 penalties behind him.
And 0.2 penalties behind Sinead is Hannah Sue Burnett on St. Barths, who won the 2-star and 3-star at Fair Hill in 2009 and 2010, another young gun who is making her mark. Hannah was one of just three double-clears today. The others were Mary with Temptress and Jessica Phoenix of Canada with Exponential, making quite a comeback after retiring with two refusals earlier in the day on Exploring.
Further back are defending champ William Fox-Pitt of Great Britain (Neuf des Coeurs, 54, fifth) and Badminton winner Mark Todd of New Zealand (Grass Valley, 83, 18th after a runout). I'll remind you, however, that neither are on the horses that earned them those distinctions.
I took a minute to speak with an elated Sinead about her day. Here's what she had to say.
Sinead, blonde, beautiful and determined, knows tomorrow's show jumping is not a sure thing. At the same time, she noted about her Selle Francais, "He doesn't have a normal style over a fence, but he's careful and doesn't want to hit anything."
The exception was last year on a developing riders' trip to the Boekelo 3-star in the Netherlands, where she was on the silver medal team but her mount had three rails down. Sinead attributed that to a lack of fitness and jumping on grass footing, rather than the all-weather ground he prefers.
While Temptress, seventh at Burghley in 2010, has dropped several rails in the past, "so far this year, each event she's done, she's jumped clear," said Mary.
As far as Urco goes, she has never show jumped him after he was as tired as he felt finishing the cross-country with 8 time penalties, "so you just never know," said Mary.
Clayton said Be My Guest is "nervy" (Australian for nervous) so he tries to keep her as relaxed as possible "and doing that, Mary watch out!"
I was very curious about Be My Guest, so I took a few minute to chat with Clayton, who is an extremely cool and nice guy. And frankly, I love the accent.
I reminded him we had first met here in 2007, the year he won Rolex. And he reminded me that he was third on cross-country day then, just as he is now. So I will echo, "Mary, watch out."
Anyway, here's our conversation about the mare, with a side note on his wife Lucinda (the 2009 winner) and their daughter, Ellie.
Derek should be very proud of his cross-country course. It was appreciated not just by the riders, but also by the crowd of more than 28,000 that made a colorful tapestry around the jumps. I was at the signature Head of the Lake combination, where the riders were cheered lustily when they went through, particularly if they had a close call or, in one case, fell off. It's nice to see fans who are really into the sport.
As I've mentioned before, Derek took over this year from one of the designing legends, Michael Etherington-Smith, and he has risen to the occasion.
Here's what he had to say about his first Rolex on his own. Whoops, first Rolex as a designer; he won the event as a rider in 1985, back when it was a 3-star.
Most important, all the horses got around safely, or stopped before there was the chance of a major problem. Only one rider, Kristi Nunnink, was taken to the hospital, where she was being treated for a right arm injury. She had a fall with R-Star at the double corners, fence 15.
There are only 30 left in the race from an original field of 44. After tomorrow's trot-up, there may be less. But the finale will be exciting, I promise you that, and I'll be back with you tomorrow night to fill you in.