April 26, 2009 -- This time, it was the wives' turn to win the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event.
Australia's Lucinda Fredericks, who held a comfy lead going into today's show jumping, was trying to emulate the victory of her husband, Clayton, at the Kentucky Horse Park in 2007. Her chief rival was Bettina Hoy of Germany, whose spouse, Andrew (another Australian) was the Rolex champ in 2006.
This was a neck-and-neck rivalry, a match-up of champions, with both executing fault-free show jumping rounds (though they did hit a few rails) before a packed stadium at the Kentucky Horse Park in their quest for the title. In the end, Lucinda prevailed, courtesy of the perfectly timed cross-country round she put in yesterday with the plucky little mare, Headley Britannia. She finished on her dressage score of 32.3, far ahead of Bettina's 38.4 mark with Ringwood Cockatoo, who at 18 wasn't able to hit the optimum clocking on cross-country in the heat and had time faults there that made it impossible for her to win today.
Lucinda and Headley Brittania, all 15.3 hands of her, have now won Badminton, Burghley and Rolex, the 4-star-rated components of the Rolex Grand Slam, which is worth $250,000. However, since Lucinda didn't take them in succession, it doesn't count--though she joked that she thought Rolex owed her a watch because her record stopped Andrew Hoy from earning the challenge purse three years ago. Anyway, she got her watch today, and added another laurel to the remarkable record of Brit, who is now the first mare to win at Rolex. Understandably, this incredibly genuine crossbred--whose willing attitude reminds me of Brentina--is beloved by many far beyond her immediate family.
Bettina was just thrilled with Cockatoo. After all, at 18 he won't be competing for much longer, and to come back the way he did in oppressive temperatures in the mid-80s (about 16 degrees hotter than normal this afternoon) was pretty amazing. It was obvious as Bettina put her hand up to her face and cried with joy and relief after her round that she was very proud of her gallant gray gelding.
Because of the connection with their husbands, it was quite interesting to see these women face off for the $80,000 winner's purse, but I don't mean to intimate that they were the only ones with a shot at the prize.
Buck Davidson also was double-clear on My Boy Bobby, but his 40.2 penalties after cross-country couldn't be improved by his show jumping effort. He did manage to retain his third-place standing for a personal best, however, and also was 15th on his other mount, Ballynoe Castle RM.
I sought out Buck after the competition, as the riders were getting lined up to return for the awards ceremony, and asked his reaction. Frankly, it was obvious he was a little disappointed, but he handled that like a sportsman.
Buck's father, Bruce Davidson--who won the world championships here in 1978 when the "stadium" was just a big field--is still going strong at age 58. He finished 19th on Cruise Lion and turned in a clear round with Jam, who was 32nd.
Buck comes from good stock and there's a funny story involved with that. At the first riders' meeting, the competitors received little plastic ponies with fortunes inside. Buck doesn't have much faith or interest in that sort of thing, but his ears pricked up when he read his message: "Winning is the result of generations at work." Wow. No wonder the pony is his new lucky piece.
The top seven finishers were all double-clear in show jumping over Richard Jeffery's course, and eight others among today's 35 starters had the same record. Some thought that meant the course was too easy (remember my question to Buck?). But what is the purpose of show jumping as part of an eventing test? It isn't really to rearrange the standings; it's more to demonstrate that the horses are fit to go on after cross-country, so it shouldn't be anything tricky or too demanding.
We lost two horses before the start of the show jumping. Ralph Holstein's mount, Arctic Dancer, who had been 17th, did not pass this morning's horse inspection. Critical Decision, who had been standing 13th for Missy Ransehousen and was third last year, suffered an allergic reaction to something that required a trip to the veterinary hospital, so he didn't start.
It's too bad; that's an awfully nice horse, and Missy's mom, U.S. dressage team interim chef d'equipe Jessica Ransehousen, told me this morning that the eventing team was interested in the long-legged bay and he was supposed to undergo a veterinary check toward that end tomorrow with other team prospects.
As I look back on this eventful weekend, I am thankful that cross-country day ran smoothly, aside from the sad death of Mike Winter's Kingpin, who bled into his abdomen, dying of what apparently was natural causes.
Last night, Rolex gave a party at Gainesway Farm near the Horse Park, and I was able to catch up to cross-country course designer Michael Etherington-Smith. Mike, who will end his designing career by laying out the route for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games here, had some interesting insights on how things went this time.
This really was the unofficial test event for the WEG, though the formal event is scheduled for next year. But anywhere you went on the grounds, the WEG seemed to be foremost in everyone's mind.
A big issue is taking care of all the people who will come here. There was a test VIP tent, where the food and service both were fabulous, as they were at Aachen for the last WEG. Kim Bennett, who is in charge of the VIP hospitality, and I chatted about the level of the Aachen presentation and she assured me, "I think we will raise the bar." If you want the best in food and concierge service, the top ticket is a stadium table. They go for $49,000 but hey, they seat eight people. And can you believe, one-third of them already have been sold! There are also suites in the new indoor arena for reining and vaulting, and Kim said the reining suites are sold out.
These are not the only options, though. Care must be taken of all the people who come from outside the country. No one is better at that than Rosemary Barlow of Great Britain, who chatted with me about what's being considered.
It was wonderful to see the 15,000-seat stadium packed to the gills today, while another 4,000 or so folks wandered the grounds. The enthusiastic fans made a fabulous backdrop for the jumping. But I must say, as I have in the past, that the seemingly endless presentation ceremony does no one any good. The queue of people waiting to give out trophies and prizes stretched so long that as one wag noted, "it looked like the line for the bathroom." I love the way they did the prize-giving at this month's World Cup finals in Las Vegas. They kept people in their seats with entertainment "bytes" and made the ceremonies themselves short, sweet and meaningful. What's the point of going on and on when the stands are emptying?
The turnout for all four days of Rolex was 80,599, about 20 percent down from last year, but most of that can be attributed to the economy. While there is a lot of local interest, many people usually fly or drive long distances to get here, and these days it's understandable that some had no choice but to stay home.
Let's hope the economy improves and that there is a great turnout not only for Rolex 2010, but also the WEG. So save your pennies and make it your priority; it's a once-in-a-lifetime chance for people who love horses but don't want to leave the country to see a remarkable showcase for the sport.
Be sure to check for my gallery of Rolex photos this week, which I hope will give you more insight on what an incredible time this was. My next outing, in two weeks, is the Jersey Fresh event, when many of the same players (on different horses) will be competing.