Lexington, Ky., April 27, 2008 -- I'm glad Phillip Dutton is on our side now. The Australian Olympic gold medal winner, who became an American in 2006, was formidable in winning the 4-star Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event this afternoon with a stadium jumping performance that was a definite mixture of thrill and chill.
Thrill, because after being second five times at the Kentucky Horse Park, Phillip finally took the title of the sport's biggest competition in the U.S. (not to mention $80,000, a saddle, scads of trophies and so much stuff he'll probably need another horse van in order to haul it home.) Chill, because Phillip rides with icy precision when he is trying to get the job done. Connaught is amazing, jumping so high that Phillip sometimes thinks it's a detriment (but not when he leaves all the fences standing, as he did today). Listen to this, though: He's not sure Connaught will be his Olympic horse. Phillip is what the Brits call "spoiled for choice." In addition to this boy, he has Woodburn, who finished 10th after dropping two rails and scoring time penalties (but hey, he's green at this level); Tru Luck and the Foreman, neither of whom competed here. As Phillip noted, however, Hong Kong isn't your usual competition site; it's extremely hot and humid, and you need a horse who can handle those conditions.
But Becky Holder, who couldn't hold her lead from dressage and cross-country in today's test, has only one shot at the Games. And it's some shot, the fabulous Courageous Comet.
Okay, he dropped two rails, which put him second on 47.3 penalties behind Phillip's score of 41.7. Yet that's a lot better than 2006, when Becky came into the arena as the leader and had four knockdowns to finish 13th. This time, she was much more together after deciding to buckle down and address her fitness issues.
"I'm thrilled for Becky," U.S. coach Mark Phillips told me. "She's put a lot into it and got herself in much better physical condition this time."
I wondered if I'll be seeing her in Hong Kong this August. So I asked whether that's her goal.
Missy Ransehousen, who was 12th after dressage, moved up impressively with Critical Decision to finish third, even with one rail down. She was 10 penalties behind Becky, but this was the highlight of her competitive career. She's a very cool lady who coaches our paralympic team, which requires a special type of person with both dedication and great knowledge.
If the name Ransehousen is familiar to you, it's because Jessica Ransehousen, who was the US dressage chef d'equpe for eons, is her mother. I remembered Jess told me once that watching Missy go cross-country wasn't easy on her nerves, so I asked her if that's still the case.
Jessica shares coaching duties for her daughter's dressage with Robert Dover. Missy noted that mom tends to "sugar coat" her criticism, while Robert isn't afraid to raise his voice in an attempt to improve her riding. She can take it, and she appreciates it.
Sadly, Missy has to sell Critical Decision because the Ransehousens need to have their farm make money, and we all know how tough that is. Maybe you're interested in owning a stately bay who was double-clear cross-country?
Richard Jeffery hasn't been the USA's show jumping course designer of the year eight times for nothing. His route was interesting and challenging, playing to a packed house of 20,462, part of a record crowd of 103,521 over four days.
The jumps are so handsome, representing Kentucky landmarks such as Churchill Downs or breeding farms, including Calumet.
Handsome, but formidable. There were only two double-clears, Connaught and Stephen Bradley's Brandenburg's Joshua, who finished fourth just 0.2 penalties back of Critical Decision.
Even Theodore O'Connor, who shared crowd co-favorite status with Connaught, knocked the last two fences down. He's had a rough season in the run-up to Kentucky, with problems in dressage and cross-country, but his double-clear cross-country round here bodes well for a trip to the Olympics, since his busy engine and wiry body type should handle heat well. He moved up to sixth; not bad considering the little firecracker was 24th in dressage.
But poor Karen didn't compete on her other horse, Hugh Knows, who was held at this morning's trot-up. She decided not to re-present him; he had a heel grab and a bruise. Two other horses, Bonner Carpenter's Acapulco Jazz and Waylon Roberts' Paleface were spun before thousands of knowledgeable spectators who cheered when someone was passed, and sympathized when they were not. In the end, 27 of 41 starters finished the event. Rolex is tough, no doubt about it.
And now I get to the sad part of my story. You know from yesterday's piece that Frodo Baggins, the adorable black New Zealand-bred gelding who was in the first Lord of the Rings movie, had to be put down after somersaulting at the fifth fence on cross-country. His injuries included a fractured skull and lung damage. His owner/rider, Laine Ashker, is still in the intensive care unit of the hospital with a broken jaw, ribs and collarbone as well as collapsed lungs. She is expected to recover.
Then this morning, we heard that Sarah Hansel's horse, The Quiet Man, who fell at the 13th fence, the wide footbridge, was destroyed after an evaluation showed a badly broken right shoulder. The prognosis was very poor for both horses, and their owners didn't want them to suffer, so they made the only decision they could. Sarah wound up with only minor injuries and was released from the hospital after a check-up.
But these are just the latest in a series of hideous misfortunes that have struck eventing in 2006 and 2007. Ironically Laine's first ride cross-country, was a double-clear she turned in on Mazzetto. His owner was killed in an event last fall, part of the chain of unfortunate events that have cast a cloud over the sport.
The U.S. Equestrian Federation and the U.S. Eventing Association are trying to figure out what's going wrong and how to fix it. Sometimes, though, there's just a "miss" on the way to the jump.
I discussed this with USEF President David O'Connor, an Olympic individual gold medalist, when we talked about Laine's accident this morning, and here is what he said:
There are many aspects to eventing's problems, but looking at the big picture, it's obvious that whatever solutions are developed, they won't always work. It's a risk sport, like so many others, including racing. When an animal is involved, it makes the situation more difficult than if it is just something dangerous--like mountain climbing or auto racing--that a human does on his or her own.
I asked David for his thoughts on that:
The eventing world has a lot to consider, and I know discussions already are under way to make things as safe as possible.
We'll see how it goes in two weeks, when I head for the Jersey Fresh 3-star. I hope this event and everyone in it has smooth sailing. I don't want to write another sad report.
Check out our 2008 Rolex Kentucky Photo Gallery available online.