William Fox-Pitt and Parklane Hawk jumped into the lead after a clear cross-country at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event in Lexington on Saturday.
The combination is sitting on their dressage score of 41.3 going into the final showjumping phase, after dressage leader Allison Springer (US) and Arthur had 2.8 time penalties to land in second with 42.6.
New Zealand’s Jonathan Paget has moved up from fifth to third after a brilliant clear cross-country on Clifton Promise.
The day got off to a nervous start when the first three riders on course failed to finish. Paget’s team-mate and pathfinder Andrew Nicholson retired Calico Joe after two refusals and a broken frangible pin at the rail into the coffin (fence 9a), the fence riders were most anxious about. The veteran rider is now in ninth with 55.8 penalties on his second mount, Qwanza, up from 25th spot.
Karen O’Connor (USA) suffered a ducking when she was unseated from Veronica at the narrow fence in the first water complex, and Becky Holder (USA) parted company with the veteran Courageous Comet when he swerved at the corner after the Normandy Bank.
Just 32 managed to complete a very challenging cross-country course, with just eight going clear and inside time – the two Kiwis both included in that illustrious list. Fifteen combinations were eliminated throughout the cross-country course, seven retired and three withdrawn before they even started.
William Fox-Pitt and his New Zealand thoroughbred Parklane Hawk had only the third double clear on the cross-country, and made it look easy.
Fox-Pitt, who won the event in 2010 on Cool Mountain, put in an exhibition round to finish seven seconds inside the optimum time of 11 minutes 14 seconds. “I was aware the course was causing problems, but you have to believe that you’re riding a good horse with good form,” he said afterwards.
“It’s great to have a good round here at the Rolex under your belt and really stand me in good stead for the 2012 season ahead. He went very well. He’s a good horse. He really ate it up and came home easily in the time.”
The ninth fence was particularly troublesome for riders, with five either retiring or eliminated there, and 14 more had stops. Fox-Pitt said seeing so many others having trouble was not inspiring, but he did not deviate from his plan fort he course.
“I thought yesterday there were a few tricks out there but there wasn’t anything to change. I had in my mind how I might ride number 9 if he hadn’t jumped in well but he was right on line and eyeing up that triple brush coming out very well and I think that was the real bogey fence today – that’s the one we’ve all been dreading and I was very happy to have that behind me.”
Fox-Pitt said his New Zealand thoroughbred was “superb, he is quite feisty and he can have opinions of his own. Once or twice turning was a little bit untidy but maybe I am being fussy – he was damn good!”
Parklane Hawk was previously ridden by New Zealand Olympian Matthew Grayling before being sold.
“He gave me some ride. He is a thoroughbred horse, he has raced in New Zealand, his grandfather is Danehill so I had a huge advantage. He is pure class. I was down at the beginning and you just need to settle him on this course. I knew that 15 seconds down on a horse like that is irrelevant and we just gradually crept back up and by nine to 10 minutes we were spot on and I just cantered home really – I didn’t have to use my legs – it’s a real luxury isn’t it!
“It’s another day tomorrow and I just hope he’s OK after today – that’s the first obstacle.”
However, he has no margin for error over Springer, who rode an inspired Cross Country round on the 13-year-old Arthur, a beautiful chestnut horse who has had mixed fortunes at CCI4* level.
“I’ve learned to read my horse and make decisions,” said an elated Springer afterwards. “He’s a gift to ride because it’s all so within his ability. We’ve been together a long time. I love this horse and have looked after him, and thank goodness, because we’ve got to get it right some time!”
Paget was delighted to be in third place, and said Clifton Promise was “an amazing horse”.
“He’s a warrior and fast and he just loves his job. It’s great to be on him. Hats off to (owner) Frances (Stead) because she really knows how to pick them.”
The combination had a little “sticky” moment in the lake where they nudged a log on the way in and ended up adding an extra stride, but Paget said it was just a matter of regaining momentum and they were away again.
“It was hard work out there, but great! Promise has pulled up looking fresh and feeling fine.”
Promise is known for his clear showjumping having taken only three rails in his four-star career.
“I figure he’s due to go clear again,” Paget said.
The third New Zealander at the event, Lucy Jackson, was eliminated on Kilcoltrim Ambassador two-thirds of the way through, after picking up an early 20 penalties at the troublesome fence nine.
Former Kentucky winner David O’Connor, who will take on training the American team after the Olympics, said he felt the course was “more intense this year – it’s been an educational day”. Certainly, Course Designer Derek di Grazia (US) had increased the emphasis on maintaining a route through the complexes, and riders soon found that when things didn’t go to plan the lines could be unforgiving.
Fox-Pitt is the only Briton left in the competition after California-based James Alliston retired Jumbo’s Jake with two run-outs and had a fall with Parker. Lucy Wiegersma, eighth after dressage, had a fall when Granntevka Prince twisted over the right-hand corner fence after the Normandy Bank. Oliver Townend retired the mare Pepper Anne after two refusals at the double of hedges and ditches at fence 27.
Andrew Hoy (AUS), who had already incurred 21 penalties for knocking the frangible pin at 9, ran into trouble at 27 when Rutherglen jumped down into the ditch at the first hedge and stopped.
Clark Montgomery (USA), third after dressage on Loughan Glen, also hit the frangible pin at 9, and was later eliminated.
Karen O’Connor (USA) cemented her relationship with new ride Mr Medicott and is now in fifth place on an equal score with Boyd Martin (USA) on his second ride Otis Barbotiere.
“He’s an experienced horse and he stays formatted in his body, which is nice to ride,” said O’Connor of the chestnut gelding who was originally produced in England by Nigel Taylor before winning an Olympic gold medal in 2008 at eight years old with Frank Ostholt (GER).
“He’s so scopey and big in his stride that you never have a moment’s worry about some of his decisions when he takes strides out.”
O’Connor revealed that she has been having help with stadium jumping from her pupil Marilyn Little-Meredith (USA), who only switched to competing in eventing from jumping two years ago. “So I’m hoping for a better result tomorrow,” said O’Connor.
The versatile Little-Meredith had a dream first CCI4*. She posted the first clear of the day, in relaxed style, for just 4.4 time penalties on RF Rovano Rex, 10th, and is also lying seventh on RF Demeter. Her two clear rounds put her in the same bracket as her far more experienced compatriots Phillip Dutton (USA), in 11th and 12th on Mighty Nice and Fernhill Eagle, and Boyd Martin (USA), who is also eighth on Remington XXV.
As a result, Little-Meredith is now in line to win the coveted HSBC Training Bursary for the best CCI4* debut, worth $1000.
Having claimed victory at the 2011 Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials, Fox-Pitt is now the current live contender for the Rolex Grand Slam prize. He faces the daunting challenge of following up his Burghley victory with back-to-back wins required at both Kentucky and Badminton, with just one week apart.
1 William Fox-Pitt/Parklane Hawk (GBR) 41.3 + 0 = 41.3
2 Alison Springer/Arthur (USA) 39.8 + 3.2 = 43.6
3 Jonathan Paget/Clifton Promise (NZL) 44.8 + 0 = 44.8
4 Boyd Martin/Otis Barbotiere (USA) 51.0 = 0 = 51.0
5 Karen O’ Connor/Mr Medicott (USA) 44.2 + 6.8 = 51.0
6 William Coleman/Twizzel (USA) 51.3 + 0 = 51.3
7 Marilyn Little-Meredith/RF Demeter (USA) 49.0 + 2.8 = 51.8
8 Boyd Martin/Remington XXV (USA) 45.3 + 7.6 = 52.9
9 Andrew Nicholson/Qwanza (NZL) 55.8 + 0 = 55.8
10 Marilyn Little-Meredith/RF Rovano Rex (USA) 53.7 + 4.4 = 58.1
Additional reporting: Kate Green