Lexington, Ky., April 23, 2010 -- While we were all busy paying attention to Oliver Townend of Great Britain and his quest for the $350,000 Rolex Grand Slam, his countryman William Fox-Pitt sneaked up and won the dressage phase of the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event this afternoon.
We weren't the only ones who were surprised--so was William, who got scoring bouquets of 7s and 8s (out of 10) from the three judges. They probably appreciated his flowing performance even more after many lackluster efforts during the day; you'd think all eventers could do a decent flying change, but that is not the case in the dressage arena.
William's Cool Mountain has 42.8 penalties, 0.9 penalties ahead of his closest rivals; not much of a margin, but still an edge.
"I didn't expect to be at the head of affairs at the minute," William conceded, noting Cool Mountain is competing in his first 4-star-rated competition.
"I'll be hoping he carries on, but I certainly wasn't coming here expecting him to win. But who knows? I'm not going to let go without a bit of a fight," he vowed.
I'm sure Oliver feels the same, though he's in sixth place with Ashdale Cruise Master (and ninth with his other mount, ODT Master Rose). Cruise Master had a nice performance, with the exception of the half-pirouette that comes early in the test for which he was marked with expensive 4's. That gave him a score of 46.2, which is not too far back when you consider the test everyone faces with tomorrow's cross-country.
"The horses went as good as they could have been, just about," said Oliver. "They are both green, relatively," he pointed out.
But the experience here is worthwhile for both, especially for Cruise Master, who he sees as a potential mount for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) this fall and perhaps even the London Olympics in 2012, obviously a very important goal for the British.
When I asked if he regretted not bringing his brilliant Carousel Quest, he said no, that he preferred giving these horses experience in the Rolex atmosphere.
Only one other person, another Brit, Pippa Funnell, has ever won the Grand Slam, which requires the champion to have won the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials, the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials and Rolex in any order but in succession.
I'm sure Oliver still has a shot, at least. This is one hungry fellow, and of course, the rain predicted for cross-country day could very much complicate things and scramble the standings. While as I told you yesterday, designer Mike Etherington-Smith said it wasn't the most difficult course he had ever produced (though he emphasized it is definitely a 4-star, not a 3-star), a storm will certainly elevate the level of difficulty.
The top Americans are Karen O'Connor, who was in the lead yesterday with her 2008 Olympic mount, Mandiba, and Allison Springer, who is tied with her on Arthur. Both have 43.7 penalties. Allison, who rode in the worst of the rain, was the only competitor to wear a helmet rather than a top hat. She gave a very thoughtful answer when she was asked why she chose protective headgear.
She also was influenced by dressage Olympian Courtney King-Dye's fall last month that resulted in a skull fracture and left her in a coma for weeks. Happily, Courtney is doing much better and is taking jaunts out of her rehabilitation facility these days.
I predict that soon, but not soon enough, top hats will be a thing of the past and all dressage riders, whether in Grand Prix or eventing, will be wearing helmets. It's common sense.
I also discussed the subject with America's No. 1 dressage rider, Steffen Peters, when he was here the other day.
OK, let's get back to the eventing. Just a quick rundown of the rest of the top contenders. Kim Severson, who once dominated Rolex with Winsome Adante, is fourth with Tipperary Liadhnan, a handsome gray who makes you look twice at him.
Kim, always circumspect, wouldn't commit when I asked whether he was a possibility for the WEG or the 2012 Olympics, but I'll take a guess that he is.
Becky Holder, who has been near or at the top here so many times, but never clinched the top prize with Courageous Comet, is fifth, followed by Oliver, and then Phillip Dutton with the Foreman and Woodburn, two of his four rides in the dressage.
Rolex is a selection trial for the WEG, so I asked U.S. coach Mark Phillips about the procedure (always long and arduous) for selecting a team. Here's what he told me.
I'll fill you in on how it all goes tomorrow. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for sunny skies.
Visit Nancy's archive to read more coverage from the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event.