2006 Rolex in Lexington Kentucky

In one of the most topsy turvy cross-country days in recent Rolex Kentucky history, the standings after dressage were completely upended, with the top three completely out of the competition, and only three of Friday’s top ten managing to stay there.

The day started off with Buck Davidson and Hyperlite putting in a workmanlike performance with just a few bobbles, going clean and just three seconds over the 11:14 optimum time. “It was a big course. I had to go two long routes so I picked up some time,” Buck explained. “[The course] takes some jumping. You need to be more accurate than it appeared when you walked it. It certainly is a four-star. The last four fences take some jumping … you can’t use up everything you’ve got.”

Davidson and Hyperlite were followed by Great Britain’s William Fox-Pitt and Coup de Coeur who looked quite good around the course until they took a serious tumble at Fence 20A, the drop into the Head of the Lake. Thankfully both horse and rider were able to walk away.

Phillip Dutton, several time Rolex runner-up and U.S. transplant via Australia, was next on course with Connaught. The pair made their way around without any serious mishaps, but were six seconds over the time. When Dutton’s countryman and Olympic teammate Andrew Hoy was also unable to make the time on Yeoman’s Point, many began to wonder if crossing the finish line at or under 11:14 was an impossible goal for the rest of the field.

The next on course, Amy Tryon and Woodstock, put any concerns firmly to rest with a gritty performance that finished on 11:13 and moved the pair up from 14th place to fifth, on a two-day score of 51.1. Woodstock, a 12-year-old Thoroughbred gelding, is new to this level of competition and relied on Tryon, a four-star veteran, to get him around. “It rode well, but it was tough,” Tryon said after her ride. “This course is a lot of hard questions that just keep coming at the horse. It’s a cumulative effect on the horse…. I’m thrilled with him.”

2002 WEG gold medallist and 2004 Olympic bronze medallist John Williams gave longtime partner Sloopy the grand Rolex tour (this was Sloopy’s second four-star after placing 18th last year at the Burghley CCI****). The pair came very close to having a stop in the Head of the Lake after attempting the direct route. They handled the max 6’6″ drop into the water, but then slithered over the first 3′ 10″ duck, element B, when Williams made a hard tug away from the second duck at C, and finished up utilizing the long option. If it hadn’t been for that bobble, the pair probably would have made the time, but instead were four seconds over, still moving up from 26th place into a tie for 13th, on a score of 59.8.

Several rough rides later, including retirements by Penny Rowland and Garry Roque, the crowd was treated to an impressive round by Heidi White of Aiken, South Carolina and Northern Spy, her 13-year-old Thoroughbred gelding. “The course was really wonderful…. Phillip [Dutton] (pictured left on Amazing Odyssey) gave me great advice. He said ‘get up, get his confidence, and then go.'” Following that advice helped move White and Northern Spy up from tenth place to third on their dressage score of 49.4. Dutton was not so lucky, finishing the day tied for 13th with Connaught and in 28th place with Amazing Odyssey.

The next few rides saw quite a bit of angst, including a fall at the Lexington Bank (Ursula Brush aboard Bru Maguire—she was fine and finished the course), and a run-out at Fence 7B The Pond (first time four-star competitor Kristen Bond aboard Blackout, though amazingly the pair finished six seconds under optimum time). But it was Mara DePuy and Nicki Henley that had the worst luck, going from a third place position to mandatory retirement after Henley jumped into, rather than over, the relatively straightforward Fence 14, Ditch and Palisade. After a few tense seconds to untangle, the pair was able to walk off the course together.

Donna Smith and Call Me Clifton were next, managing to make it around with no jumping penalties, but way over the time, adding 17.6 time penalties to their dressage score, ultimately dropping from sixth place to 17th.

The next several horses through were relatively uneventful. Kristen Bachman and Gryffindor had a refusal at the second fence of 16AB, Shelter and Stumps, two offset, very narrow tree stumps on a forward three stride. Laine Ashker and Eight St. James Place looked very confident on course, jumping clean and ten seconds over optimum time, moving up 24 places from 46th to 22nd on a score of 71.9—quite an improvement over last year.

2000 Olympic veterans (team bronze) Nina Fout and 3 Magic Beans followed by jumping clean but almost a minute over time, moving up ten places to 34th, on a score of 103.7. Fout, who will retire her 16-year-old partner, said after her ride: “It’s a major course. All the questions were good, challenging questions. They were spread throughout the course, which was appropriate. It’s good that you have the best course designer in the world designing here … we couldn’t have been more fortunate. It’s very fitting that Beanie has done a Mike E-S [designer Michael Etherington-Smith] course as his last four-star.”

One of the best performances of the day, hands down, came next. Becky Holder and Courageous Comet (pictured left), her husband Tom’s ten-year-old gray Thoroughbred gelding, were relaxed, focused, and confident as they bound around the Kentucky Horse Park after a few looky fences early on, coming in 14 seconds under time with Comet still looking ready to take on go. He’s going to need that enthusiasm tomorrow since he and Holder now lead the pack in first place on a score of 43.7. About her ride, Holder said: “You have to keep your pedal to the metal. It was touch and go at the first water and coffin … he was very careful. At the four-minute marker he clicked into gear and turned it on.”

Canada’s Mike Winter and King Pin had trouble at The Pond (7B) and retired. Jenna Schildmier and Tumble Dry went clean but 21 seconds over the time, moving up from 49th to 26th on a score of 81.4. Fellow Canuck Lesley Grant aboard Timber Spirit jumped clean but way over the time, adding 23.2 time penalties.

Buck Davidson on his second of three rides, Private Treaty, was among many who had trouble at Fence 8 and 9AB, Uncle Frani’s Birch. Their refusal at 9B, the birch railed brush after the ditch, plus 9.6 time penalties put them in 33rd place on a score of 98.7.

All eyes were on the next to go—three-time Rolex champion Kim Severson and Plain Dealing Farm’s Royal Venture, who not only stood in second place but were expected to be in contention for a spot on the U.S.’s World Equestrian Games team later this summer. Royal Venture looked tentative over the first half of the course, sticky off the ground and looking at both the water at The Pond and several of the ditches. Severson rode him every step of the way, including an aggressive ride at the drop into the water at The Head of the Lake, since her mount is a bit iffy at water. She was successful in getting him to drop into the Lake, but lost her reins before her horse even touched down, and then couldn’t stay in the saddle after the landing, dropping over Royal Venture’s right shoulder. Unhurt, she stood up, met up with her horse, and walked off the course.

Another WEG contender, Gina Miles with McKinlaigh, was next on course. The pair looked very impressive over the first half of the course, bounding through the combinations, including taking the straight route through the Head of the Lake (one of just a few pairs who managed that feat). By the time they came to the Banks and Splash McKinlaigh was struggling, and after jumping 26A broke into a trot down the hill into the water, where Miles pulled him up and retired, just four fences from the finish line.

It was becoming apparent that many of the horses were beginning to tire around the nine minute mark, and then struggling to navigate the last major question on course, Fence 26ABCD, the renovated Lexington Bank, now called Banks and Splash due to the added water element. The direct route involved a 3’10” vertical log on top of the first mound, down into the water element with a narrow 3’5″ brush in the middle, and up the next bank and over the 3’11” thatched cottage. While practically every rider took this route, many of their mounts were slow of the ground and laboring to get up the hill and over the last element.

This was not the only complex causing trouble on course. The Pond, Fence 7ABC, Uncle Frani’s Birch at 8/9AB, and the Sunken Road, 11/12ABC each saw their share of rough rides and refusals throughout the day, including the next to go, Germany’s Kai Ruder and Edward 16 who were eliminated at the Sunken Road.

Molly Hooper Bull and Kiltartan, both four-star newbies, made an impressive debut, going clean and just ten seconds over time, moving up from 50th to 25th place on a score of 76.9. Jessica Heidemann of Bellingham, Washington and French Twist, her 15-year-old Thoroughbred-Belgian Warmblood gelding, tackled their second Rolex course with barely a bobble, coming in six seconds under time and moving up from 11th place to fourth on a score of 50.6. This pair looks likely to improve on their 2005 13th place finish.

Reigning Olympic gold medallists and two-time Rolex competitors (seventh place 2002, fifth place 2003), Great Britain’s Leslie Law and Shear L’Eau, looked out of sorts early on, with two stops at the ditch at 9A, Uncle Frani’s Birch, followed up with a refusal at 15ABCD, The Hollow, at which time Law retired his Olympic partner.

Longtime Rolex veteran Ralph Hill made his way around the course with Bad Boy Billy, enthusiastically calling to the spectators along the way. The pair earned the crowd’s cheers, jumping clean, including an impressive direct route through the Head of the Lake, and finishing with 14 jumping penalties, moving up from 35th place to a tie for 23rd.

Bonnie Mosser and Jenga were making their first Rolex appearance, and second four-star attempt, after finishing 23rd last summer at the Luhmuhlen CCI****. After a bobble dropping into the Head of the Lake, they took the long option, and finished without jumping penalties, but quite a bit over time, adding 17.6 penalties for a two-day score of 85.6, moving up from 43rd to 27th place.

Balmoral Cavalier and Emily Anker of Australia were up for a U.S. four-star course after placing 20th at last year’s Adelaide CCI**** in Australia. They jumped clean and ten seconds over the time, moving up from 23rd to 16th place.

Nathalie Bouckaert Pollard and West Farthing must have impressed the U.S. team WEG selectors with a confident and aggressive ride, jumping clean and ten seconds under the optimum time, moving up from 20th to seventh place on their dressage score of 55. Sara Mittleider and El Primero made their 3,000-mile trip from Kuna, Idaho worthwhile, taking the straight routes throughout and finishing their second Rolex cross-country course clean and ten seconds under the optimum time, moving up from 41st to 18th place on a score of 65.4.

Three-time Olympian Karen O’Connor and longtime partner, Dick and Vita Thompson’s Upstage, looked every bit the four-star veterans, going clean and 12 seconds under the optimum time. The pair stand in tenth place after moving up 19 places, with a score of 58.

Great Britain’s Polly Stockton and Tom Quigley were the top foreign performers of the day, going double clear to move into second place on their dressage score of 48.2. They were followed by 2004 Olympic U.S. alternates, Will Faudree and Antigua, who jumped clean and just three seconds over the time to move up into 11th place from 23rd, with a score of 58.3. Emma Winter and Mahogany Chief also jumped clean, but 16 seconds over, for a two-day score of 66.2 in 19th place.

Rolex and Olympic veteran Kelli McMullen Temple gave Paris II a solid education at his first four-star. Other than a run-out at the second of the Shelter and Stumps, they put in a solid performance, but the 20 jumping plus 23.2 time penalties dropped them from ninth to 30th place. They were one of the few pairs to have just one disobedience on course and still finish. In fact, of the 58 that started the competition, only 37 remain, and of those 37, only seven have jumping penalties. There was little middle ground today.

No pair was proof of that more than Darren Chiacchia and Windfall II, Timothy Holekamp’s 14-year-old Trakehner stallion, who went into cross-country with a 6.5-penalty lead. Their round looked similar to many other big names, including Severson and Law, with trouble early on, including an unexpected stop at the last element of Uncle Frani’s Birch. After working that out, they tried the direct route at the Head of the Lake, only to come to grief with a stop at 20B, the first duck. When they had a third stop at the last element of the Banks and Splash, Chiacchia pulled up and walked Windfall off the course.

Buck Davidson’s made it only half way around the course with Idalgo, his last ride of the day, retiring at The Hollow. William Fox-Pitt seemed to be having a good ride on his second mount, Mr. Dumbledore , when he unexpectedly pulled up after the Footbridge, the last fence before he would have made his way across the Park toward the Fence 19, the Fish, which would have been followed by the Head of the Lake.

Stephen Bradley, who had withdrawn his other mount, From, before cross-country, had a very nice ride on Brandenburg’s Joshua, jumping clean with seven time penalties, moving up ten places to 12th place on a score of 59.7. Phillip Dutton didn’t fare as well with Amazing Odyssey, having a run-out at the second squirrel at Fence 12ABC, the Sunken Road. Despite adding 20 jumping and 6.4 time penalties to their score, the pair still moved up from 35th to 28th place with a score of 87.7.

The final ride of the day also proved to be the fastest. Andrew Hoy and Master Monarch tore around the course, jumping clean and finishing 19 seconds over the time. They stand in sixth going into show jumping, and Hoy might wish he had a few of those seconds back tomorrow.

After the day was done, Holder talked about her unexpected lead: “I kind of feel like Cinderella at the ball. I keep waiting for the coach to turn back into a pumpkin.”

This is her second attempt at Rolex with Courageous Comet. In 2004 she was forced to retire him early on cross-country due to foot problems.

What a difference a year makes. She explained the key to today’s success: “For me I set out at a positive pace, but not too aggressive, and partly that’s because my horse is just ten and he was still getting confidence early on the course. By the fifth minute marker he’d already grown up quite a lot and I was able to pick up the pace and I could put my foot down and carry on to the end. I think you had to save a bit of horse at the nine minute marker so that you knew you could jump strong through the water [Banks and Splash] at the end of the course and keep coming.”

When asked how she handled the pressure knowing that the U.S. WEG selectors would be assessing her performance, she said, “I tried to pretend that no one else was watching. It was kind of hard to do that when I could hardly see the galloping lanes with all the spectators…. I took it one little stretch at a time to see if I could master each of those pieces.”

It was the general consensus of the riders that this year’s course was harder than originally expected, and more difficult than year’s past. “I think the course was probably harder this year,” Stockton said . “To start we thought it was a bit easier and when we started watching everyone, it was definitely apparent that it was a more difficult course.”

When asked to comment on the surprising difficulties experienced by many of the world’s top horses and riders, White said, “It certainly was a surprise to all of us. We all did say it was very big, old style was the word everybody used. It was a lot of very big fences for 11-and-a-half minutes.”

Course designer Michael Etherington-Smith of Great Britain said he felt that the course was a bit easier than last year. “One or two that were off their game got found out, and those that were on their game did fantastically.”

The top three lady riders all agreed that the new short format (without steeplechase or roads and tracks) has had no impact on the amount and type of conditioning required for proper preparation, outside of more sprints prior to the event. “We kept it as it was a long format,” White explained. “For the last couple years we’ve learned that for the short format they have to be as fit, if not fitter…. The only thing I did a little bit differently was giving him a little bit longer of a warm-up.”

In her quest to fit into the glass slipper and continue her fairy tale story, Holder will go into tomorrow’s show jumping with a rail in hand, 4.5 penalties ahead of Stockton and Tom Quigley. “Show jumping has been a big focus of mine this spring,” she said. “It’s a phase I’ve been working really hard on to improve. My plan is to sleep well tonight if I can, to really have a good plan for the show jumping.”

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