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November 6, 2008 -- U.S. eventing coach Mark Phillips was actually smiling as competitors rode in for the awards ceremonies at the Dansko Fair Hill International in October.
That presented a real contrast to his usual dour expression at the Maryland event, where his emotions in recent years have tended more to disappointment than elation.
But this time was different. If you were looking for the future of U.S. eventing, you could find it at Fair Hill.
Although it's not a 4-star, Fair Hill is one of the sternest eventing tests we have in this country because of the namesake hilly terrain. Endurance is key here, and a good gallop pays off. The twisty-turny routes where horses can't really get going are becoming the norm at a lot of places, to the dismay of many involved with the discipline. Fair Hill, however, is not like that and harks back to a time when the game was all about cross-country.
Molly Rosin, who led the 2-star after dressage and cross-country with Havarah's Charly, praised the route designed by Derek DiGrazia. "It encourages horses to cover ground and be brave and bold...it made a better horse," said Molly.
"When you get around the course at Fair Hill," noted Phillip Dutton, who made it with two of his three 3-star mounts this year, "you know you have a cross-country horse."
Mark saw a bunch of cross-country horses at Fair Hill; hence his smile. Discussing the fact that he now has a list of prospects, he said, "We needed it."
At the 2008 Olympics, where the U.S. finished a dismal seventh of 11 teams, Mark was understandably grim and had plenty of company to share his gloom. "There was a problem this time around, and it's even more of a problem when we look forward to 2010 (the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky) and 2012 (the London Olympics)," he said during the Hong Kong aftermath. "We're not seeing a whole new raft of young horses of world class coming through."
Yes, the depth we've been lacking is horses, rather than riders. As Mark pointed out, even a talent as great as Phillip Dutton can't be competitive if he's "riding a donkey."
At Fair Hill, however, the next generation had some pretty fancy mounts and even the veteran riders were showing off new equine faces.
Mark declined to say who he had his eye on at Fair Hill, fearing he would leave someone off his list. But it was pretty obvious from looking at the standings who the big players of the future could be.
Amy Tryon, someone on whom the team has been relying since 2002, won the U.S. Equestrian Federation's (USEF) fall 3-star championship with Coal Creek, a horse so willing to please that she said, "We call him the Labrador retriever." Coal Creek is only an 8-year-old, the same age as her other horse, Leyland. The latter encountered trouble in the stadium jumping, which Amy blamed on her riding, but he had a credible dressage test and only 0.8 time penalties cross-country. Leyland won the USEF's spring 3-star championship at Jersey Fresh, which means Amy had a 3-star championship clean sweep with her pair of Thoroughbreds. "I would love them to come out in two years and be candidates for the world championships," she said.
Another rider Mark undoubtedly has been watching is Will Coleman, third in the three-star with Twizzle, a 12-year-old Westphalian who looks like the real deal.
"I felt like I was jumping around a preliminary (course)," Will said about the 3-star cross-country, since Twizzle made it so easy. "He's a superstar. He loves the job. If a horse could smile, he was showing his teeth when he passed the finish line."
Will rides 10 horses a day at home, the kind of dedication that could pay off for the U.S. at a team competition down the road. "This is my job. I'm not eating lobster dinners, but I'm enjoying it," he declared.
Having a 2-star for the first time at Fair Hill offered a broader showcase and an opportunity for developing horses and riders.
Will also was a factor in the 2-star, where he finished second on Nevada Bay and ninth on a new mount, Cool Connection, who came from Heidi White-Carty on a deal finalized the weekend before Fair Hill.
"I think he's an exciting prospect. He runs in a nice rhythm," said Will. "The 2-star was as tough as a 2-star gets," he pointed out, though the last three minutes "were really open" enabling competitors to make up time.
The 2-star winner, Kelly Prather, was riding Ballinakill Glory, a horse she found while living in Ireland as a working student. Having foreign experience like that will pay off for her.
Sinead Halpin, who just came back from a sojourn in Britain where she worked with that nation's superstar, William Fox-Pitt, now has the background that will enable her to do even more. She learned from William to trust her horse and let him handle a challenge. Some of the safety experts say part of the problem with accidents on cross-country is that people over-ride their horses and when a horse gets in a tight spot, he isn't able to get out of it on his own.
Sinead finished third with Manoir de Carneville, just ahead of Molly. Havarah's Charly had only one misstep, a knockdown in stadium jumping that his rider blamed on herself. So count him in as one of the good prospects, too.
Allison Springer and Destination Known distinguished themselves by rising from 15th after dressage to fourth when the ribbons were handed out, and everyone was talking about Syd Kent, the high-jumping ride of Jan Byyny. There were others, too, who had some notable moments and could well be on Mark's radar screen.
Sure, there were also frustrating moments with horses who looked like they have potential. Kim Severson, whose great mount Winsome Adante is retired now, has a prospect in the big gray, Tipperary Liadhnan. Though he was second in dressage, he had two refusals at the corners two-thirds of the way around the cross-country course, and she withdrew. Phillip Dutton sustained a rib-cracking fall with Loose 'n' Cool, obviously still a work in progress.
That's Smart, who was withdrawn after the 2-star dressage with Amy Tryon aboard, will be a new ride for Karen O'Connor. She didn't compete because she lacked a horse for Fair Hill. This one was bought by Dick Thompson, who owned Biko, Karen's U.S. Eventing Association Hall of Famer.
One big lesson of Fair Hill was the fact that eventing hasn't yet been downgraded, as some have feared, into a dressage and/or a show jumping competition. Cross-country still counts, at least at this venue, and the other phases have their relative importance, too. Fair Hill this year showed that there is still plenty to like about eventing, despite all the discipline's well-publicized problems.
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