Clear rounds were the order of the day on the cross-country at the Rolex Kentucky Horse Trials in Lexington on Saturday.
Britain’s William Fox-Pitt has taken over the lead on Bay My Hero after a day of 19 clear rounds within the time. All but one of the top 10 were clear and inside time, and of the 39 still in the field, 10 picked up jump faults. It seems the middle section of the course proved the most challenging.
Having completed another superb clear round on his second ride of the day, Fox-Pitt judged the time perfectly and sits in pole position going into the final show jumping phase on Sunday.
“I think the course really encouraged forward riding and as your saw a lot of horses did go well – I was delighted with how the course rode,” Fox-Pitt said.
“I knew for my two horses that it was a decent track and a big test. I was thrilled with both my horses but particularly Bay My Hero, who’s much less experienced. He was a little bit surprised by the Head of the Lake but it didn’t seem to matter, I know that with him when he can see where he has to go he will go there – he is as clever as a cat and super genuine and I was delighted with him and he carried his tubby little body around in the time as well so that was a bonus!”
Fox-Pitt, the winner in 2010 and 2012, admitted he is feeling nervous already about the Jumping. “I’ll still be feeling pretty sick as there are a lot of riders close to me and the arena at Kentucky is one of the most famous in the world for atmosphere.”
Bay My Hero, by Cult Hero, was bred in Ireland by Bryan Maguire. He has been ridden by Fox-Pitt since the 2010 season and was previously ridden by John Marsden and Brett Kenyon. He is one of three Irish bred horses in the top 10. Third placed Mr Medicott, bred by Dr D Geaney and by the famous Irish Sport Horse Cruising, is third, and in sixth is the Ramiro B bay gelding Ballynoe Castle RM, bred in Ireland by Sylvester Cullen.
Fox-Pitt is also in 16th place on last year’s runner-up, Seacookie, after adding 7.2 time penalties. He reported that the German-bred gelding tends to be a deliberate jumper and added in some strides; they also took the long route at the angled double of hedges.
The overnight leader after the dressage, Allison Springer (USA) riding Arthur, came unstuck at the Normandy Bank with a run-out, which cost her a hefty 20 penalty points, dropping her to 26th. “I just needed to kick, and I held. I didn’t get there in three strides, and I had a run-out,” Springer said.
Phillip Dutton has two rides in the top 10, where he is lying in third on Mr Medicott and ninth on Trading Aces, on whom he is deputising for an injured Boyd Martin. Dutton rode Trading Aces to the Land Rover Best Ride of the Day, an award to the US rider who finishes closest to the optimum time of 11:12, with no jumping penalties. The fifth rider on course, Dutton finished exactly on the optimum time, and he won a two-year lease of a 2014 Range Rover Evoke as a result. Dutton also won $5000 from SSG Gloves for finishing closest to the optimum time. Dutton said he would not be sharing the car with Martin, because he’d won a different model of car with Trading Aces earlier this year.
Jumping specialist Marilyn Little (USA) also has two in the top 10 with her rides lying in fourth (RF Demeter) and 10th (RF Smoke on the Water) position. Mensa G and Michael Pollard are now fifth.
The top dozen or so has changed little, but Fox-Pitt does not have a jumping fence in hand over Lauren Kieffer (USA), who had a great clear round on the Dutch warmblood mare Veronica to rise a place to second.
Karen O’Connor, who suffered from a career-ending neck injury in October 2012, previously rode both Veronica and Mr Medicott at the four-star level. O’Connor won the Kentucky Three-Day Event in 1999. Kieffer began riding Veronica, the horse with whom O’Connor fell, shortly after that, and Dutton began riding Mr Medicott, the horse O’Connor rode in the 2012 Olympics, in mid-2013.
Dutton said he enjoyed his round on Mr Medicott, a 15-year-old Irish Sporthorse gelding. It was their first three-day event together. “Mr. Medicott has been around so many courses all around the world that I was just hanging on and letting him do his job,” said Dutton.
“I think we’ve gotten along pretty well,” Dutton said. “He goes like a Thoroughbred horse, and I learned my trade on hot Thoroughbred horses, so it’s sort of been like coming home. I’ve had to give in to what he wants to do, and he’s had to be a bit respectful to me. So we’ve tried to form a partnership that way.”
The trio who were 11th equal after the dressage now fill the next three placings on 51.7: Buck Davidson (USA), the last rider on course, was visibly elated with his round inside the optimum time of 11 minutes 12 seconds on Ballynoe Castle RM. He is now in sixth place, on the same score as Sinead Halpin (USA) with Manoir de Carney and Rolex Grand Slam contender Andrew Nicholson, who had a foot-perfect round on Avebury apart from a sticky moment when the grey gelding left a leg at the first water complex.
The pressure is now on Nicholson to see if he can repeat his winning form from 2013, which would put him one competition away from the coveted $US350,000 Rolex Grand Slam of Eventing Prize.
Nicholson said: “We were a bit casual at the first water (fence five), but we got it back on track after that. I thought Avebury was very good.”
Of the water jump, he said: “It was a bit my fault there. Avebury always lands after a jump on his left lead which means a turn to the right you lack a bit of distance, so I thought when I walked the course if I just took my time and do four strides where it should be three. But I jumped in too big and I should have kept going on the three but I tried for the four and the fourth was very deep – but he’s experienced and that’s what he’s fed for!” he said.
“It’s a big day tomorrow we hope. We’ll go back and make sure the horse is all good – he’ll get washed off now a few times, cool him off and try and freshen him up for tomorrow and it will be pretty much the same for me!”Jan Byyny slipped out of the top 10 to 11th place with 3.2 time penalties on Inmidair, while Will Faudree (USA) was one of six riders to retire, pulling up Pawlow at fence 12, having had an earlier run-out.
Ten combinations were eliminated on the cross country. Five, including New Zealand’s Mark Todd with Oloa, withdrew before the cross-country. Oloa, who struggled in the dressage, would now probably be tilted towards Luhmuhlen, another of the top four star events.
In contrast to the previous day’s windy conditions, spectators enjoyed a sunny cross-country day in which faults were evenly spread around the track and horses returned looking happy.
Fox-Pitt answered criticism that, with exactly half the field completing the course without jumping faults, the course wasn’t sufficiently demanding.
“I don’t think any of us thought it was easy. There were still quite a few that didn’t get around, and I think it’s very important to strike a balance,” he said.
“The ground was perfect, and the result shows the quality of the field. Hopefully it set them up to compete well at the World Equestrian Games in France late this summer.”
Nicholson also had praise for the Derek di Grazia course. “I thought Derek’s raised the game a bit more since last year. I thought last year that he had a lot of smooth turns in the combinations that we all, of course, liked. This year those turns were sharper. A few years ago we would have all said it was too twisty, but they rode smoothly. You have to keep challenging everyone – that’s what makes better riding. Derek does a great job – he really knows what horses jump safely.”
With Kieffer in second, Dutton in third, and Marilyn Little in fourth in RF Demeter, the US team has a comfortable lead in the Dubarry of Ireland Nations Team Challenge. Their score of 147.5 leads Great Britain’s total of 163.8 and Canada’s total of 184.9.
Saturday’s paid attendance was 35,471.
Sunday is shaping up to be a vintage final phase with the scores perilously close – one jumping fence covers third to 11th places. The jumping phase starts at 1.15pm local time.
Results after the Cross Country Phase
1. William Fox-Pitt/Bay My Hero (GBR) 44.0
2. Lauren Kieffer/Veronica (USA) 46.7
3. Phillip Dutton/Mr Medicott (USA) 49.5
4. Marilyn Little/RF Demeter (USA) 51.3
5. Michael Pollard/Mensa G (USA) 51.5
6. Bruce (Buck) Davidson Jr/Ballynoe Castle RM (USA) 51.7
7. Andrew Nicholson/Avebury (NZL) 51.7
8. Sinead Halpin/Manoir De Carneville (USA) 51.7
9. Philip Dutton/Trading Aces (USA) 52.5
10. Marilyn Little/RF Smoke on the Water (USA) 52.5
Additional reporting: Kate Green, Rod Kohler, Marty Bauman