April 27, 2014 -- The stands were packed to the rafters for the finale of the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, as fans watched an epic show jumping face-off between William Fox-Pitt, a two-time Rolex winner, and Lauren Kieffer, who had competed just once before in the USA's only 4-star.
Neither rider disappointed, each turning in an artful clean round, but William kept the 2.7-penalty edge he held coming into the last leg of the competition at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.
As he came off the final fence, William jabbed the air in triumph, looking just as excited as he had when he initially won the event in 2010. The backdrop of the colorful and vocal crowd underlined the importance of what he had done with Bay My Hero, who had competed in only one 4-star previously.
"Each win is very special for its merit," explained William.
"Every one, you still can't believe it happened. You think the odds are always stacked against you...I didn't come here expecting to win. I had two lovely horses and was hoping they would go well. It's just fantastic and very special."
And that was even more so because of the personality of his Irishbred mount.
"I've had Bay My Hero since he was five," William noted.
"He's part of the team, part of the family and a very special horse. We have great fun with him. He's a great character. He knows he's the best."
Lauren's second place with Veronica won her the national spring championship for the best performance by an American rider at Rolex.
It was destiny that brought Lauren to that pinnacle. She rode the mare when she was imported by Australian Scott Keach (who has done a good job coaching Lauren in show jumping) and New Zealander Sharn Wordley. Lauren worked with Veronica as a project, but then broke her arm and Karen O'Connor took over the ride.
Then when Karen had a terrible fall in an event with Veronica, Lauren got the ride back and has kept it for the last year, because Karen's injuries mean she can no longer event.
Rolex demonstrated the effectiveness of the time that Lauren and Veronica have spent working on their partnership.
"She really came out this weekend and felt like it had come together," said Lauren.
Buck Davidson also had a perfect trip on his longtime pal, Ballynoe Castle RM, the horse he rode when the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games were held here in 2010. That boosted him from a tie for sixth to third place.
"Reggie's been a consistent horse his whole career. He had an injury last year," said Buck, noting it was quite upsetting because "the horse had never missed a day of work in his whole life. That's amazing for a horse who started at (age) 6."
Buck brought him back to work in November after skipping the fall season, and had a setback when Reggie contacted pneumonia, so it took extra time to get him going again.
"The heart that horse has is unbelievable," said Buck. "Basically, you tell him it's Kentucky and he'll go."
Despite William's victory, the U.S. won the low-key informal team competition, with Britain second and Canada third.
Rolex is a big part of the British program, with riders funded by the country's lottery coming here annually to hone seasoned horses and see what their less-experienced mounts are made of.
"We are so well-greeted here and the organization here has been fantastic, so thank you to everyone involved at Rolex," said British coach Yogi Breisner, who is a fan of Bay My Hero.
"I've always liked him, so he's always been on my radar. I'm delighted he's fulfillled the promise that he's shown," Yogi said.
Defending champion Andrew Nicholson of New Zealand, the world's number one-ranked eventer (William is number two), was not a factor after being tied for sixth going into the show jumping. He had a Spinning Rhombus round aboard Avebury, dropping six rails and adding a time penalty to wind up 21st. Spinning Rhombus was the horse he rode in the 1992 Olympics, when a gold medal was on the line. He had seven fences in hand, but dropped nine. It was a historic equestrian disaster as the gold went elsewhere.
The first two days of Rolex seem like they're a long time ago, so perhaps you need a reminder that after the dressage phase, Allison Springer was leading with Arthur. That was short-lived when she had a refusal at the Normandy Bank on cross-country, dropping her to 26th. She had two rails and a time penalty today to finish 24th.
I talked to her this morning after the final horse inspection, and asked her how she continues after a big disappointment when Arthur had seemed primed to win.
Allison's is not the only sad story.
Expedience sustained a broken pastern in the Head of the Lake yesterday. Her connections had planned that this would be her last event, but they certainly didn't want her career to end that way. The good news is that four screws were put into the pastern and she is retiring to be a broodmare.
Meanwhile, Mr. Medicott, who had been third after cross-country, was not presented at the horse inspection. This is a horse that is a big hope for this summer's WEG squad, having done two Olympics. But when I asked rider Phillip Dutton what was wrong with him, he responded, "I don't know." He seemed totally mystified. I hope that whatever it is, it clears up soon. The USA needs that horse.
Speaking of team prospects, Marilyn Little has done an amazing job, going from grand prix show jumper to well-regarded eventer over the last four years. RF Demeter was fourth after cross-country, but dropped a rail in show jumping to finish sixth. She would have been third if the pole hadn't fallen. But Demeter definitely is a WEG candidate. I talked about the mare with Marilyn today.
Marilyn actually finished higher, in fifth place, with her other horse, Smoke on the Water, who moved up from tenth to fifth with a clear round.
People are still talking about Derek di Grazia's cross-country course, so I decided to go to the source and discuss it with him.
Here are Derek's thoughts about his design, and how it turned out.
I can't believe Rolex is over for another year. And I never made it to the trade fair or that new bar across from the grandstand. I'll give them a shot in 2015; something to look forward to.
If you want to relive Rolex, we've got loads of photos at www.facebook.com/practicalhorseman and www.facebook.com/equisearch.
My next postcard, in two weeks, will be sent from another event -- Jersey Fresh. There will be some familiar faces there. Allison Springer, for one, plans to compete Copycat Chloe, such an eye-catching gray mare. She pulled up Chloe here after a refusal and is dropping her down to the 3-star for more experience. I'll tell you how it all comes out.