October 19, 2014 -- As Jennie Brannigan galloped Cambalda around the big arena at the Dutta Corp. Fair Hill International with a tri-color ribbon fluttering from his championship cooler this afternoon, the victory pass symbolized more than just a triumph over 52 other entries in the 3-star division.
It also was a way to put to rest the perennial specter of a tragedy that took place in the ring five years ago, when her wonderful gold medal Young Rider mount, Cooper, suffered an injury during the stadium jumping phase of the event. The gray Dutchbred gelding, her beloved partner, underwent surgery, but then colicked and could not be saved. Jennie's heart was broken, and she still thinks about Cooper every day.
"This is an emotional place for me," she admitted.
But her achievement with Cambalda, known around the barn as Ping, demonstrated the value of guts and perseverance in overcoming misfortunes--which didn't end with Cooper's death. Jennie has had all kinds of problems in CCIs in the last few years--in 2013, Ping got loose while longeing before dressage at Rolex Kentucky, tumbled on the asphalt, for Pete's sake, and couldn't compete. There were falls in competition and misdirections but through it all, Ping's owners, Nina and Tim Gardner stuck by gutsy Jennie and today it paid off big time.
Jennie, who gallops horses for former show jumper-turned thoroughbred trainer Michael Matz, is a diligent worker who puts everything she has into her professional life.
As the awards ceremony proceeded, and for quite a while afterwards, her face alternated between tears and smiles, much as the clouds over the Fair Hill Natural Resources Area slipped around the sunshine this morning.
"This is a heart-breaking tough sport and everyone's got to pay their dues," she said.
Watch this video to hear more of Jennie's thoughts on her victory, and Fair Hill.
To claim the title, Jennie needed to get around the lead of Boyd Martin, who she gracefully acknowledged had helped her when she first started riding Ping. Boyd moved to the top of the 3-star standings with Master Frisky in dressage, and held on through a testing cross-country segment, the type of Fair Hill experience that prompted Boyd to call it the toughest 3-star, and probably 2-star as well, in the world. He knows: He's been around, from Europe to Australia (where he was born) and New Zealand, as well as Canada and the U.S.
Jennie, who was standing second, put the pressure on today with a perfect show jumping trip. And then she turned her back. She just couldn't watch as Boyd, who had not a rail to spare, lost his edge with a pole down at the last element of the triple combination and two time penalties, putting him second. Jennie emphasized she never wished a friend bad luck, but Boyd was sanguine about being second.
"I was pleased with my bloke today," Boyd said of his Irishbred mount.
"He jumped very well. Obviously, I was praying for a clear round."
Still, Boyd said of his horse, a real 4-star prospect, "He's great. He's new to the 3-star level...I would have loved to win it but I was pleased with the way he jumped...and happy for Jennie."
Interestingly, only one 3-star competitor had a cross-country trip free of jumping and time faults. Can you guess who it was? No, not Boyd, not Jennie. Both had a tiny sprinkling of penalties for going over the 10-minute optimum time.
The answer was Kevin Keane, an amateur, riding Fernhill Flutter. That's right, an amateur, a cool guy and a veterinarian who takes care of some of the country's best eventing horses, including Boyd's and Phillip Dutton's.
Naturally, Kevin was extremely proud of such an achievement, so he was happy to share his thoughts with me. Listen to his soundbyte, and you'll get a good tip if you're trying to make time in an eventing competition at your level.
Things didn't go as well in stadium jumping, so Kevin, who had moved up from 19th in dressage to fifth after cross-country, had to settle for eighth place with two rails down. But at Fair Hill, just completing the event is an achievement, which means Kevin knows he has quite an accomplishment to the credit of himself and his horse.
Fair Hill lives up to its name; that is, it's hilly, which is a major part of what makes it such a pivotal event. The horses who succeed there often go on; the 2-star horses to 3-stars, the 3-star horses to 4-stars and international championships. Course designer Derek diGrazia is the man who sets the standard, and we chatted about what he was trying to do this year, when it had a fresh look.
In the 3-star, Derek said, "I wanted to take a new direction. Pretty much, we reversed the track and it gives the course a whole new flavor." He was pleased with the way the horses finished, and looks forward to doing more with the route in coming years.
The 2-star, with a record 110 horses competing, had dozens drop out along the way as they found the course was too much for them. Only 76 came through to start in stadium jumping this morning, but Derek noted that's to be expected. "There were a lot of different riding exercises using the terrain, trying to make it an educational course for both horse and rider, and some of the people weren't quite able to get everything done," he observed.
The footing was a factor after a heavy rain on Wednesday, but it dried as cross-country day went on, though he noted it might have been holding to a certain degree in the morning.
Several riders I spoke to felt there were spots where jumping out was a bit more difficult than would have been expected under sunny skies.
In the 2-star, Victoria Jessop bested Derek's challenge during her first ride at Fair Hill, turning in a fault-free trip with former steeplechaser Desert Mystery. She moved up to the lead following her second place in dressage when the winner of that segment, Matthew Brown--who came all the way from California with Happenstance--had a refusal and saw his standing plummet.
I enjoyed talking with Victoria, a native of Great Britain, who retains her citizenship while running a horse business in Virginia.
Watch this video to learn more about her.
Sadly, just as it had with Boyd, Sally Ike's stadium jumping course stole her hopes of a trophy. She had two rails down to finish seventh, but got a consolation prize when she was named the division's top foreign rider.
Two Olympic veterans took over at the top. Julie Richards turned in a smashing double-clear with Urlanmore Beauty, who had been a Young Rider horse, to win over Kim Severson by a mere 0.6 penalties. Kim, who also was double clear and who you'll remember as the perennial Rolex Kentucky winner with Winsome Adante, has a superstar in training, Cooley Cross Border.
I had a chance to talk to her about this interesting guy, who can eat up the ground. That's something she said takes a little getting used to.
Third went to Marilyn Little, also double-clear, on RF Quarterman, three penalties behind Kim. Marilyn scouts for horses in Europe, and she knows just where to find them. However, she didn't get the back story on this guy. But she did remark that his papers have a weight stamp. That means, she said, he must have originally been scheduled for slaughter.
When Marilyn looked at him, the man she dealt with told her the horse didn't jump. She put him over one fence, and that was enough for her. She could see his potential and grabbed him. He's a newbie to eventing, since she bought him as a jumper, but he loves cross-country and obviously has quite a future in the discipline.
Tim Dutta, founder of the company that ships horses all over the world, is all smiles about sponsoring Fair Hill, and announced he will do so for another six years. But he doesn't plan to leave it as it is. Tim thinks big, as in giving the U.S. a second 4-star (Rolex Kentucky is the country's only competition at that level presently), upgrading the stabling and having the parties to go along with it.
We can't wait. Fair Hill is a fabulous facility and if you haven't been, don't wait for the 4-star. Come along next autumn to enjoy the brightly colored leaves fringing the former DuPont estate.
I'm changing gears, pulling off my rubber boots and getting dressed up for the Washington International this week. Come back next Sunday night for my postcard on that exciting show, and I'll fill you in.