Lexington, Ky., April 25, 2008 -- What started out as a great cross-country competition at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event turned somber under sunny skies in the afternoon, as Laine Ashker and her longtime mount, Frodo Baggins, took a horrific fall at the fifth obstacle.
The black gelding tumbled over the flower basket jump, injuring his rider in the process. Laine suffered a broken jaw and missing teeth. Her horse was far worse shape. He sustained lung damage and a fracture at the base of his skull. Since his prognosis was poor, the family gave permission to have him euthanized. It's very sad; he was a lovely horse.
The accident held up action at the 4-star event for about 90 minutes near the end of the day. The remaining rounds seemed an anti-climax. When they started announcing the standings before the next horse proceeded on course, I almost felt like it was happening in an alternate universe. I was still thinking about Frodo, whose previous career was as one of the Black Riders' horses in the first Lord of the Rings movie made him a crowd favorite.
"But the day goes on," as Phillip Dutton pointed out, and there was more jumping to do. He had a long wait before going out on course as the last rider, but logged only 0.4 time penalties with Connaught to move into second place with a total of 41.7.
Becky Holder already had cemented her first place standing from dressage on 39.3 penalties with Courageous Comet after delivering a double-clear in the morning session. She was held part-way through the course after Dornin Anne North had her second fall from Lion Display and was eliminated.
It's hard to start up again when the flow of your round has been stopped (ask McLain Ward, who faced the same problem in the American Invitational earlier this month, as you'll remember). It was double-trouble for Becky because her watch went flooey when she tried to restart it, and she just had to wing it and hope she made the 11-minute optimum time.
"Cross-country was pretty amazing," she said, noting Comet "came out of the box with his game face on." Unflustered by the hold (she said he likes being admired by all the people who were looking at him during the hiatus) he was back in stride instantly, eating up the ground and the fences as if they were merely bigger-than-normal speed bumps.
I asked Becky how riders reacted to Laine's accident, and here's what she told me.
Let me get all the bad stuff out of the way at this point before I give you more details about the competition. Sarah Hansel's Quiet Man injured his right front leg in a fall at the 13th fence, the footbridge. He is in stable condition, but I have no diagnosis of his injury tonight.
Other mishaps during the day were far less serious, since they didn't involve life and limb, but they did alter the standings considerably. The most dramatic was Heidi White's fall from Northern Spy at the duck marsh, five fences from the end of the course. She had been second, but the fall and time penalties plummeted her to 31st. Since Rolex in an Olympic selection trial, the situation is even worse than losing a shot at the $80,000 in first place money.
The adorable Australian, Boyd Martin, was on fire with Ying Yang Yo, 14th after dressage, when he fell off and landed face down at the Head of the Lake. After a medical evaluation (Boyd was fine), he retired. Who knows what the Australian Olympic selectors were thinking.
Dobbin, Cahir and Merloch, who had been fifth, sixth and seventh respectively, all vanished from the top of the standings (Cahir actually retired), and Theodore O'Connor moved up from 24th to 11th with his great clear round that led off the day.
His was one of 13 double-clear rounds, and with only 40 starters, that's quite a high proportion. Some thought the course was actually 3 and ½ stars, with a lot of brush obstacles that made things easier for the horses, but even at that, it took its toll, as I pointed out. Course designing is a very tough job, that's for sure.
Karen O'Connor was ecstatic with her pint-size mount.
Stephen Bradley, one of the victims of the long hold for Laine's accident, felt From had lost some of his sparkle during the wait, because he's a nervous horse who won't stand still. He said the Russian-bred bay gelding was tired, resulting in 5.2 time penalties. Even so, he moved up from fourth to third, courtesy of Northern Spy's abdication.
Stephen is also 10th with Brandenburg's Joshua, which gives him two choices as the selectors eye him for Hong Kong. But From is his favorite.
From's score is 47.8 penalties, which gives Becky and Phillip some breathing room in tomorrow's finale. Karen is going for it, telling me it boils down to "a stadium jumping competition." And that happens to be one of her specialties. When she was younger, she spent months training pentathlon horses over jumps, experience that has stood her in good stead.
Becky has a positive viewpoint toward the jumping, even though that's where she lost the event in 2006, when she came into ring in first place and left the grounds in 13th place after dropping four rails.
"I feel like I'm bringing more and more tools to the game and I'm really excited to go out and work and see how I hold up," she said.
There's a lot more to come tomorrow, including the final vet check (where dreams are often dashed), the retirement ceremony for Winsome Adante and the determination of 4-star supremacy. Check back tomorrow when I write my last postcard from here. I'll also update you on Frodo and Quiet Man, of course.