April 25 2014 -- Eventing dressage. It's kind of boring, right? Something the riders need to get through so they can have dessert, a crack at the cross-country course. Something the spectators watch so they can say they rooted for their favorites through the whole competition.
But today at Rolex Kentucky, there was electricity and excitement as the dressage phase wrapped up. We had to wait for the last rotation of competitors to see William Fox-Pitt on Bay My Hero (love that name! Wish I'd thought of it...). I figured he was going to do well, but his ride on the mahogany-coated Irish sport horse by Cult Hero surpassed my expectations and he took over the lead from the morning's star, Lauren Kieffer and Veronica (46.7 penalties) with a 44.
Bay My Hero is very cute, both in looks and personality. As William put it, "He's a little like a big pony. All he wants to do is eat."
William, a familiar winner at the Kentucky Horse Park, got rousing cheers from the crowd that filled much of the Rolex Stadium grandstand. The fans remained through wind and ripping rain in the morning, dedicated to staying the course.
But the excitement was far from over when William left the ring. Three horses later, Allison Springer put in a successful bid for total domination with Arthur, the horse on whom she was second here in 2012. Her score was 39.5, prompting a foot-pounding response and cheers from stands, as she led the USA to first place in the informal team competition being held here for the first time.
It was an impressive performance, and an emotional one. Those who didn't know what Allison went through earlier this year might have just thought as she wiped her eyes that she was overjoyed at Arthur's performance. Yes, of course she was. The 15-year-old Irish sport horse is "not a more mellow guy" than he used to be, but he gave his all for his rider.
However, the shadow hanging over the day, especially seeing Allison and William together at the press conference, was the memory of Lionheart.
Allison had a syndicate that bought William's 2012 Olympic mount, and there were great hopes she and the horse would be a big factor for the U.S. in this summer's Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. But he colicked and had to be put down in January, a sad ending to a short saga.
I asked William how, in view of that, he felt about Allison and what she's been through.
William is a true gentleman and such a sympathetic soul. The sincerity of what he said really moved me.
There are so many back stories at an event like this. It seems as if there's a tale to tell about every horse and rider. But I can only focus on a few.
As the sun finally came out, a smile broke over Phillip Dutton's face after his ride on Mr. Medicott. Speaking of hopes for the WEG, this combination is a big one. Phillip usually keeps his emotions to himself, but he was thrilled with his mark of 49.5 penalties, doffing his hat and waving to the crowd. At the end of the day, he found himself in a three-way tie for fourth with the first day's leader, Michael Pollard and Mensa, as well as Inmidair and Jan Byyny (who has come back from a fall that nearly killed her).
But at the lunch break, Veronica was leading and Mr. Medicott was tied for second. I spoke with Karen O'Connor about her feelings, since she had connections with both horses. She rode Mr. Medicott in the 2012 Olympics, where she had the best American score, and was Veronica's rider until the two suffered a terrible fall in an event. Veronica was muscle-sore but recovered. Karen, however, broke her back and lives with a rod and screws in it, a situation that means she can no longer compete in the sport she loves (though she is riding in jumper classes).
But she was glad for Phillip and Lauren, as we talked about what it was like to watch them on the horses she undoubtedly wished she were riding.
The wonderful thing about Rolex is being able to stay in America and see so many terrific riders from other countries. In the opinion of many, the greatest eventer ever is two-time individual Olympic gold medalist Mark Todd of New Zealand.
I met Di Brunsden and Peter Cattrell, who are among the owners of Mark's ride here, Oloa, a British-bred liver chestnut. I wondered what it was like to have someone as legendary as Mark (oh, whoops, I forgot he'd been knighted) someone as legendary as Sir Mark Todd riding your horse.
Unfortunately, it wasn't Oloa's best day. He ran through a test that looked rushed, jigging at the walk and not getting with the program. I felt quite sorry about it, especially since I liked Di and Peter. On the other hand, it's comforting to know that on the odd day, Mark can have difficulty gettig a horse to cooperate with him, just as we all do on occasion.
Another New Zealander whose ride I anticipated with high expectations was that of last year's Rolex winner, Andrew Nicholson. Not only do I like seeing this master perform, but the decision earlier this week to take down Jock Paget as the winner of last year's Burghley 4-star (because his horse tested positive for a banned substance) elevated former runner-up Andrew to the winner's podium (figuratively, anyway, since there hasn't been a ceremony).
That means if he wins here, he has a shot at the $350,000 Rolex Grand Slam, should he also win at Badminton in England next weekend. Lots of ifs, but a fun thing to ponder.
Anyway, his test on Avebury had its moments, good and bad, so he's tied for 11th with 51.7 possibilities. Considering his cross-country acumen, he likely will be farther up the leaderboard by tomorrow night.
Naturally, Derek di Grazia's course is going to be a game-changer, as it should be.
"There's quite a bit to do out there," assessed Allison. "I think the angled hedges (the offset brushes at 16A and B) are about the most severe angle I will have ever jumped."
In his observations about the course, William said, "It's out there to be attacked. It's going to encourage the forward horses and the forward riders."
He jokingly suggested that riders are squinting when they view the angled brushes to make them look better.
For her part, Lauren commented, "Derek's a genius as a course designer," but she warned, "you just can't lose your focus for a second."
I'll be sending another postcard tomorrow night to tell you how it all worked out. In the meantime, be sure to look at all our photos on www.facebook.com/practicalhorseman and www.facebook.com/equisearch.