Lexington, Ky., April 27, 2003 -- It was fitting that the Rolex-Kentucky Three-Day Event all came down to a question of time.
Great Britain's Pippa Funnell, who led throughout the weekend on Primmore's Pride, found herself in trouble with the clock after her clean stadium jumping round that lasted 97.18 seconds, as opposed to the mandated 92 seconds. The resulting 6 time penalties put her in a tie on 44.6 penalties with her countrywoman, Polly Stockton, aboard Tangleman. But because Pippa was spot-on the time for cross-country yesterday, coming in at exactly 11 minutes, 3 seconds, that broke the tie, since Polly had 1.2 time penalties cross-country.
Pippa beat up on herself about her riding, but it wasn't too painful. After all, she collected $60,000 for first place on her first visit to America.
"I was just trying to do everything to leave fences up," she explained. "I think I was all right as far as number eight, but then I got more and more nervous at each fence." She started holding her horse to make sure he was careful, and that slowed down her bay gelding before he cleared the last of 16 jumping efforts.
Still, it all worked out for the Brits.
Third was William Fox-Pitt on Moon Man, who had an uncharacteristic error. When I caught up with William, he was busy signing autographs for a legion of young fans -- all girls who were thrilled to pieces, as the Brits would say. I expressed my sympathies to him, since he would have been the winner, had he not toppled the "in" of a two-stride in-and-out that was the penultimate obstacle on course.
"That's the name of the game," said William, always gracious. "I blame myself. My horse was really jumping, really trying, and I'm delighted with the whole weekend."
This event also offered a measure of strength and sweet revenge for the Brits, who got run over by the Americans at last year's World Equestrian Games, where the U.S. took the gold medal.
"The Americans did such a fantastic job at the world championships last year," said Pippa. "I think we were unlucky. I must stress it's very, very exciting that all the British horses went so fantastically yesterday (on cross-country)."
So what of the Americans? I have to remind you that none of our WEG gold medal horse/rider combinations competed here. In fact, the only member of that team riding at Rolex was Amy Tryon, who wasn't up on her WEG horse. And Kim Severson, the defending Rolex champ (and a member of the gold medal squad) broke her leg this month and couldn't compete. David O'Connor made an appearance, but it was only to retire Gilt Edge, his Olympic mount, as his wife, Karen, retired Prince Panache in moving ceremonies attended by the horses' owner, Jacqueline Mars (see photo).
David is a little thin in the horse department now. The horse he entered here, Texas Pride, had a tendon problem and didn't start. Tigger Too, another of his advanced mounts, has had colic trouble. And The Native, who had won the Fair Hill 3-star, died during a horse trials earlier this year.
So the flag was waved by Buck Davidson, son of Bruce, who has been knocking on the door for a big honor in recent years. He was awarded the U.S. Equestrian Team's spring championship for the highest-placing American. He was fourth, taking the spot that looked like it would go to his father, a six-time Rolex winner and two-time world champion.
Bruce was fourth behind the Brits going into today's competition, but Little Tricky dropped three rails to put him eighth. Buck came through from 11th place, though, scoring one of only three double-clears all day over Richard Jeffery's interesting course.
Before I go any further, let me tell you about the route Richard laid out. The fences were in the colors of famous Kentucky stables, and several represented the state's equestrian landmarks, such as the twin towers of Churchill Downs. He put in a nice little option at fence 11. One side was a fence of white planks that came down easily, five strides from a double of green and yellow rails. The other side, which was easier, was a narrow obstacle of red and white rails to an easier double of the green and yellow rails, which were banked with brush to make them more inviting. This route was five seconds longer, Richard estimated. But Buck was one of the few competitors at the head of the rankings who went that way. He just made the time allowed, with only 0.5 seconds between him and a time fault.
There was so much pressure on him, and really, all the riders at the top of the heap. The beautiful tree-shaded arena was lined with faces, 22,050 in all, in every nook and cranny. The lovely weather helped draw people to the event, and most seemed incredibly knowledgable.
Buck's clear round was a watershed for Mystic Mike, who--like Little Tricky--is by the great eventing sire, Babamist. Mike used to drop rails regularly, but greater emphasis on flat work at the canter, as well as increased maturity and strength, has made him a new horse.
Actually, Buck thought after breaking Mike as a two-year-old that he'd be a good mount for the woman who bred him, Jan Smith.
"It definitely didn't occur to me he'd be an event horse," said Buck. "He was very little, maybe 15.1 or 2. The mare (dam) is nothing to write home about, but somehow we got the best traits out of both of them (the sire and dam)." Now the horse is 16.2 hands and a star.
Next stop? Buck is planning on Burghley this fall. And after that? "For sure, he's a Badminton horse," said Buck. His dad was the first American to win Badminton. Maybe Buck will get his name on that trophy, too!