April 28—Lexington, Ky.
When the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton CCI**** (England) was canceled last year due to rain, excitement about the possibility of two Rolex Grand Slam contenders started to build.
Great Britain’s William Fox-Pitt had completed the difficult task of winning the 2011 Land Rover Burghley four-star (England) and 2012 Rolex Kentucky back to back, but he still needed to win the next edition of Badminton, whenever that might take place. In the meantime, New Zealand’s Andrew Nicholson snagged the Burghley win this past fall, setting up the chance for an epic clash of the titans if he could capture the title at Kentucky.
That slim potential grew into a reality this weekend when Nicholson added only 3 show jumping time faults to his dressage score, soundly besting his competitors by 5 points aboard four-star first-timer Quimbo.
“He’s an unbelievable show jumper. That’s what he’s bred to do, is to be a show jumper,” said Nicholson. “At all the big competitions I’ve been to, he’s gone in the show jumping ring, and he’s felt very different in the ring. He feels impressive in the warm-up, but in the ring he feels like he’s in a whole different world, [even more impressive].
“To go around and jump the last fence and you’ve gone clear is a little bit what you expect to do if you ride them half properly when they’re that good,” he continued. “But then you start to think that you’ve actually won a four-star on a young horse, its first time at four-star level, and then to win here in Kentucky is a great buzz as well. To go on to Badminton and to have the chance to win the purse, it all starts mounting up, and you realize it’s a lot more important than a normal four-star win.”
Calico Joe, Nicholson’s second-placed mount after cross-country, fell to third with three rails down, while Fox-Pitt’s remaining ride, Seacookie TSF, moved up two places to second with a double-clear round. He retired Chilli Morning on cross-country after a stop. Buck Davidson finished as the highest-placed American in fourth aboard Ballynoe Castle RM after dropping two rails.
“After briefly glancing at our scores today at Rolex, the only finishers in the 40s were Andrew and William,” said James C. Wofford in his wrap-up of the weekend. “Down to fifth and sixth were in the 50s. It will be very interesting to compare the scores to Badminton next week. I seriously doubt that a 50 gets you into the top 10. Our condition continues that we are not competitive with the best riders in Europe, even if they are not on their best horses. We know that both William and Andrew saved their best horses for Badminton.”
The two eventing legends have a plethora of four-star horses—Fox-Pitt initially had five entered for Kentucky, and both riders will have to make a final decision about which two they'll ride of the three apiece they have entered at Badminton. Last year Nicholson encouraged one of his owners to move another four-star horse, Armada, to fellow four-star rider Oliver Townend because he didn’t want it to sit in the stable while he competed the others.
Davidson admitted he was disappointed in himself for letting “Reggie” down with his two rails—they had a particularly heartbreaking 4 faults at the final fence.
“He’s been amazing this weekend, as he’s been his whole life. Of course I’m bummed to have two down. I sort of fell apart a little bit at the end,” he said. He also finished ninth with Mar De Amor and 22nd with Park Trader.
Davidson rallied to point out that this is his third time winning the USET Foundation Pinnacle Cup as the best U.S. finisher, first in 2003 with Mystic Mike behind Pippa Funnell, who went on to win the Rolex Grand Slam, and then again with My Boy Bobby behind Lucinda Fredericks in 2009.
“I’m pretty sure one of these boys is going to do it in another week,” said Davidson about the Grand Slam. “If I have to lose, it’s two good guys to lose to.”
Nicholson said he was flying home in time to do the last gallops on his Badminton horses on Monday.
“It’s a big advantage [to be at a four-star the weekend before Badminton.],” he said. “The more of this level you can do, the better. When you have a bit of a break from it, you feel the pressure an awful lot more. There’s a lot more razzmatazz to it. Even just the stop start for the show jumping with the television. If you haven’t done it, it can upset your whole system. This freshens us up for the next one.”
But he and Fox-Pitt remained realistic about their chances at the Grand Slam.
“At the end of the day it will probably be neither of us,” said Fox-Pitt. “Michael Jung, here we go. [They’ll be competing against reigning World, Olympic and European Champion Jung of Germany on his gold medal horse, Sam.] You still have to go to Badminton to win the event. So many things have to come off in a row. It’s got to be the same again next week. We both had a good prep run round here. Here we go.”
Fox-Pitt won’t be helped by the fact that he was sporting taped fingers at the press conference after injuring himself in show jumping today.
While Fox-Pitt and Nicholson were already on to the next event, some up-and-coming U.S. riders took the opportunity to savor the moment. Lynn Symansky finished fifth on her dressage score of 54.8 with off-the-track Thoroughbred Donner, despite her broken fingers. Will Faudree came in right behind her with Pawlow after lowering one fence.
“We had some people really rise to the occasion,” said Wofford. “I’m thrilled for Lynn Symansky. I thought Will Faudree looked very good. Kristi Nunnink, as far as her team chances, she came to the party a little bit late, but boy she brought the right dancing partner. ‘Rosie’ is an absolutely phenomenal horse.” Nunnink and R-Star finished in eighth with one rail down and a handful of time faults on cross-country.
Wofford had chosen Daniel Clasing to win his “Who Dat” award, given out annually in his Kentucky predictions to the Rolex first-timer who jumps up to surprise everyone with a great finish. “I think Meghan O’Donoghue won it and deservedly so,” said Wofford. “She looked really super all weekend.” She finished as the best-placed Rolex rookie in 12th aboard Pirate.
“I’m sure that by now it has occurred to Dan that if he’d jumped a clean round, he’d have finished in the top 10,” said Wofford. [He finished 21st with four rails aboard Houston after completing a double-clear cross-country.] “I don’t want to rub Dan’s nose in it, but I know that he’s going to be practicing in the year to come. He’s going to be polishing up his dressage and show jumping. He had an attractive looking cross-country round.”
Check out the Chronicle’s in-depth coverage of Rolex Kentucky in our May 13 issue.
For full results, visit RK3DE.org.