Lexington, Ky., April 29th, 2006 -- "I kind of feel like Cinderella at the ball. I'm waiting for my coach to turn into a pumpkin," said an amazed Becky Douglas Holder as she found her name at the top of the leaderboard for the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event at the end of a very unpredictable cross-country day.
I think a lot of us at the Kentucky Horse Park were just as startled as Becky to find her in first place at one of only five 4-star-rated events in the world. While she has been around for awhile, most notably with her former ride, Highland Hogan, the alternate for the 2000 Olympics, this was only her second Rolex outing--but the first to go well.
Her coach seems unlikely to turn into a pumpkin, since he is Courageous Comet, a glorious gray off-the-track thoroughbred who lived up to his name and sent her skyrocketing to glory on a course where others who are far more famous met their downfall today.
Most notably, that included 2004 U.S. Olympians Darren Chiacchia with Windfall II and Kim Severson with Royal Venture. They stood first and second after dressage, seemingly well-placed for a spot in the record books. And with Burghley winner William Fox-Pitt and Olympic gold medalist Leslie Law (both Brits) in the field, I expected the big guns to be duking it out. Will I never learn?
As course designer Michael Etherington-Smith told me: "You end up never being surprised by anything in this sport when you've been around the block as I have; you never take anything for granted. Things happen."
Oh boy, did they ever.
I got a wake-up call at the Head of the Lake when William--second to go this morning--had a horrendous fall there after Coup de Couer left a leg at the log into the water. The black gelding rolled over in the pond, and I didn't see his rider. Just as I was starting to fear that he was drowning, William emerged, Coup de Couer got up and they both walked away. I went back to visit Coup de Couer (third here last year with Leslie Law) at the end of the day and found him contentedly munching grass in front of his shed row, showing evidence of a few ugly scrapes but no permanent damage.
Wiliam's fall set the stage for a day of upsets before a crowd of more than 37,000 that got its share of spills and thrills.
Leslie had a stop with Shear L'Eau but managed to stay aboard at the aptly named coffin, part of a complex with a birch jump and a brush fence. Still, no point in going on after that and he bowed out shortly thereafter.
Darren had a stop at the ninth of 30 fences, the same birch rail complex where Leslie got into trouble, found himself with steering problems at the Head of the Lake and wound up crossing his own line (which counts as a refusal). He retired a few fences later. What do you suppose the selectors for this summer's World Equestrian Games were thinking? Poor Darren.
Kim's trip looked sticky at the first water, which she previously said she had some worries about, and ended at the second water, the Head of the Lake, where she fell off. So much for a shot at winning a fourth Rolex Kentucky crown.
That was what happened to first and second after dressage. Mara Dean's Nicki Henley, third after dressage, was eliminated for a fall at fence 14, the ditch and palisade.
And Becky, fourth in the first phase, made it to the top of the standings not only by her own performance, but also by the problems of others, because that's how it goes in eventing.
Britain's honor now rests with Polly Stockton on her newest horse, Tom Quigley, a bay with lots of presence. I asked if she felt pressure after her compatriots, William and Leslie, came a cropper.
"It rode harder than it looked," she said of the course, which several riders called "old-fashioned" because it was big, and not too technical. Polly noted the problems "did make me think. But there was no more pressure on me because of that; I put pressure on myself."
That worked. She was one of 11 double-clears, a number that included Becky and the USA's Heidi White on the ever-improving Northern Spy. Sunday's show jumping will be quite something, because Becky, with 43.7 penalties, has only a rail (4 faults) in hand, as they say in eventing, which means if she has more than one knockdown, or a knockdown and some time faults, the ball is over for Cinderella. Polly stands too close for comfort on 48.2 and Heidi's right behind her with 49.4. Fourth is Jessica Heidemann of the U.S. on French Twist, with 50.6, followed by Olympic medalist Amy Tryon aboard an unsung mount, Woodstock, with 51.1.
Amy told me Woodstock has been sidelined in the past with injuries, but he sure looked good here. She didn't run her 2002 WEG and 2004 Olympic mount, Poggio II, after finishing 15th in dressage with him because she felt it wasn't necessary, deciding instead to "save him for this summer" and hopefully, a trip to the Aachen WEG.
Well, when old favorites fail to measure up, it's nice to see a new generation of horses and riders making their mark. Courageous Comet and Northern Spy certainly have been ones to watch; now they're front and center.
We'll tell you how it all comes out tomorrow as Rolex 2006 winds up with its grand finale. But I'm not making any predictions; there's still the vet check in the morning and we all know the curves that jury can throw.
What am I hoping? That the leaders all will pass and make it to the show jumping arena, where we'll have another great day at one of the great pillars of equestrian sport.