Saturday, April 28, 2007

Another Amazing Ride

Can I say once again what an incredible honor it is to be a tiny, insignificant part of such an amazing sport? I was a fence judge today for the Cross Country portion of the only **** (Four Star) Three Day Event in the US, and I am humbled, excited, and awed all at the same time. What a ride!

The day couldn't have been any nicer; any threat of rain was thwarted by the amazing Kentucky sunshine which burned away the clouds and led to a glorious, semi-cloudy, breezy day, perfect for cross country. And the day couldn't have started with a more exciting, high-energy ride than Karen O'Connor on her "bionic pony" Theodore (Teddy) O'Connor. They literally flew around the course, never letting up. They were fast, athletic, and there was no hesitation on the part of the pony OR on the part of his rider. What power! If those little legs were longer, he would have made the time for sure. As it was, he only had 4.4 time penalties, moving him up from 15th place to 10th place (possibly 9th--more on that later).

My jump was an interesting one--it was jump 12, the Red Oak Rail immediately after jump 11, the open ditch. It's about 3'10" with a 5'6" spread--so it's no cake walk. Gail was the main judge (I was the assistant), and across from us was Mary and my former acquaintance from last year, Nancy Their, whose son John is likely to show up in either the next Rolex or the one after that. My eventing partner in crime, Donna, came with me and was drafted to help out as a divvit-stomper and as a possible stopping guard, in case we needed to stop a horse (Carolyn Borgert, who is the goddess who administers all of the fence judges, told us to pick the bravest/dumbest person to wield the red flag if we needed to stop a horse, because they're coming at us at about 35 mph...!). So Donna, who looks and, at times, still feels like she's in her 20's, volunteered.

The short of it: We didn't have any problems at our fence (that were recorded, at least). The long of it: our fence, while not completely consistent, was a fairly good indicator of who would succeed, and who would have problems. Those like Karen and Teddy, who took the fence boldly and either picked a spot from a long way back and adjusted early, or who just came on, usually took the fence well; those who tried to adjust too close to the fence had problems. I guess that means we had a "rider" fence--it was clear and relatively easy/straightforward for the horses, but if the riders got spooked and tried to mess with things, that's when trouble started.

Some folks who took the fence really well: Karen and Teddy, and also Karen and Upstage. They were bold, they were confident, and they both sailed over the fence beautifully. What a professional! Philip Dutton, too, on both of his rides (Connaught and Truluck) was spot on consistent--quiet and letting the horse do the work, helping without getting in the way. Philip's protégé and Fellow West Texan Will Faudre had an absolutely perfect jump on Antigua, too. Ian Roberts on Napalm had a lovely jump--that is one athletic horse. So did Kristin Bachman on Gryffindor, the current leaders after a double clear round. And first timer Melissa Hunsberger had a solid ride on her own horse Just Fun Stuff. Karen and Upstage had a unlucky break in that they were stopped on course before the hammock (because Heath Ryan had fallen and needed medical attention), and I'm sure it threw their rhythm awry, and they ended up with time penalties and a refusal. I believe the rest of the riders I mentioned moved up in the standings based on their rides.

I was thrilled to see Melissa at Rolex, for I've met her before: when I was trying out Guinness, my Oldenburg gelding, at Phyllis Dawson's Windchase Farm in Virginia. She rode Guinness to show me his gaits, jumping, etc., then I got on. Long story short, I was sold, and I bought him--and he's my partner now. I knew Melissa as a hard-working, straight-shooting person, and it warmed my heart to see her do so well; after a difficult dressage test, she incurred only 9.6 time faults to move up from 33rd place to 17th place. The pair had a good, solid clear ride, her first time at the four star level, and I'm terribly proud of her (and at how hard she's worked to get here). I am pulling for her to move up again tomorrow!

I'm also pulling for fellow West Texan Will Faudre, who grew up and started his career a mere three hours south of where I live--nothing in "Texas Time" (remember that Donna and I have to drive at least 6 hours to get to any eventing venue at all....). It's great to see the partnership that has developed between Antigua and Will--they really seem to have one mind (something he said was necessary in an interview on the Talking Equine Network Podcast. Even though Antigua is the oldest horse at Rolex this time around (17 and a half, I believe), he went double clear, and moved up based on his dressage score. Last year he placed 6th, his best finish ever; this year, I believe he has a chance to win it (and he's sitting in 5th, possibly 4th place right now).

Several "big names" had problems on the course: Darren Chiacchia on Better I Do It had a refusal and several time penalties, moving him down significantly in the standings (even though he had a nice ride over my fence). Poor Bonnie Mosser on Jenga (who had a pretty big fan club at my jump!) had a fall later in the course, and also heavy time penalties, moving her close to the bottom. Jan Byyny on Waterfront had two refusals and time faults. Polly Stockton had a refusal. John Williams, Bruce Davidson, and Buck Davidson all retired on course after refusals or unintended dismounts. Once again, Rolex became the leveling of expert and novice, of hard working and talented horses.

One of the favorites of everyone--including me--was Amy Tryon, who's another person who is hard working, committed to this sport, and who is an excellent ambassador for the sport. She's been in the Olympics and in the WEG, and every time has proven herself to be a team player. I read an interview with her in the Lexington newspaper in which she talked about her dressage test yesterday, saying she'd had a horrible warm up, and expected a terrible test--but she, being the professional she is, worked really hard to communicate with her new horse, Le Samurai (who was here with Robin Fischer before, and who has a reputation for being "difficult"). He put in a superb test, and she was number one after dressage.

She was strong to our fence, but the pair bickered a bit about the take off point; he wanted to take off earlier than she did. Amy let her horse have his way, and they took off long but with enough scope to make it (with everything but a slightly scraped back hoof on the intimidating fence). I could see fence 20 from my spot, and I saw a similar, but less intense disagreement there, and once again Amy allowed Le Samurai to decide, and he handled it beautifully. I can see a lot of negotiation, of give and take, in that pair, and it seems to be working, and working really well. However, after the pair finished, with just 3.2 time faults, we heard on the walkie talkies that they left one of their shoes at the last fence, and later we heard that she was withdrawing her horse. I don't know the details, but I think the injury is serious. I'm saddened that such a hard working and emerging duo who had a real chance to win this time having to wait until next year--or maybe longer. So though she was in 2nd place after cross country (and still is listed in the leaderboard), she seems to have withdrawn, affecting the standings of other riders. Rolex is a tough master.

Another pair who had a bit of successful negotiation going on was Heidi White Carty and Northern Spy. They came down the hill from the Hammock at a good clip, regrouping at the slight turn before our fence, and while they didn't have a perfect spot (he took an extra half stride before the fence), they took it in good form. They had a double clear round, and they're sitting in 3rd/2nd. I was impressed with this pair in dressage, and I wasn't let down in cross country. They hung in to come in second last year; they have an excellent chance to win it all this year.

One of the disappointments for me was Becky Holder on Courageous Comet. I was pulling for them to win it this year; she was in first place last year after XC, and then it started raining during her stadium round, and her horse slipped, never really recovering....and four rails later, she's not even in the top 10. Her dressage was solid, and she had a strong, radiant ride over our fence--but something happened later on in the course, and she retired on the course. I was hoping for her to reclaim her victory at Rolex this year...but I guess I'll have to wait until next year.

Two of the brits, Ian Stark and Mary King, took my fence boldly and, despite a few iffy moments, both went on to improve significantly in the standings (Mary had a double clear, I believe). Well done!

Once again, I was reminded that the people in this sport are dedicated and hard working--the volunteers all were focused and friendly, serving as ambassadors of the sport on a very human level. The TDs and Stewards weren't cold and condescending, and they might have been, but were gentle, willing to listen, and yet efficient. Overall, I was impressed with the sport, the people who participate in it, and the people who come to watch. An excellent day. I can't wait to see what happens tomorrow!

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