Postcard from the 2001 Fair Hill Three-Day Event

Fair Hill, Md., October 27, 2001 — Is there any prettier setting for a fall equestrian competition than the Fair Hill Natural Resources Area? The backdrop of autumn leaves here in these wide-open spaces is spectacular, and when you put a galloping horse in front of them, it’s real art.

I think I got as much of a workout as anyone competing in the Fair Hill International three-day event while I was trying to get around to all of the fences on the cross-country course designed by Derek DiGrazia. And let me tell you, this hilly ground takes no prisoners.

So you could just about forget what went on in the dressage phase of the 3-star on Thursday and Friday. Australian double-Olympic gold medalist Phillip Dutton moved up from a tie for 16th to take the lead on ex-racehorse Cayman Went, after motoring around the course with only 0.4 time penalties. That’s a pretty big leap.

“Cross country had a tremendous influence today, which is great for the sport in a lot of ways,” said David O’Connor, who is now second by 0.4 penalties on The Native, tied for 19th in dressage.

“When you go around Fair Hill, the terrain, like Burghley (the British 4-star), takes a huge toll,” David continued. “That’s why generally the most experienced riders tend to do better here. I think it’s one of the hardest pieces of ground, terrain-wise, in the world. It’s always a real education. You learn a lot about your horses. This year, he (DiGrazia) added width to a lot of fences. And the fences come up so quick. You have to have your ducks in a row.”

If anyone had an excuse for not having his ducks in a row, it was Phillip. His wife, Evie, went into labor Friday and early today she delivered twins, with her husband by her side.

But the defending champion did his job despite lack of sleep and being obviously awestruck at becoming a father. “I’m going to take Phillip out and get him royally drunk,” said David, revealing his strategy for a winning show jumping day tomorrow.

“I’m Australian. I ride better that way,” Phillip retorted. In case both men are seeing pink elephants tomorrow, David’s wife, Karen, is ready to step in. She stands third, 4.2 penalties back of Dutton with the New Zealand-bred Grand Slam. Her chestnut kept his placing from dressage, though he added 7.2 time penalties. I should say here that only two of 92 starters made the 10-minute optimum time on the course, which had undergone a lot of redesign since last year.

Karen called the course “the nicest Fair Hill I’ve ridden, and I’ve ridden just about all of them, in terms of asking every question of horse and rider. The horse has to be very brave, very fast; he’s got to be very good at corners, narrows, bounces, water and ditches.”

That just about sums up the challenges I saw as I hiked around. Awesome. Everyone called it a very strong 3-star; I thought it looked like it was verging on a 4-star. The crowd loved watching the horses face the challenge. As competitors galloped uphill after clearing the Hunter’s Blind hedge where several horses had to retire, the spectators always gave a big cheer to spur them on.

Well, tomorrow’s stadium jumping should be interesting, too. The arena is brand new this year, and you know how new footing can be. I watched the cones section of the driving in there today, and as U.S. Equestrian Team four-in-hand champion Jimmy Fairclough noted, “the footing’s very deep and it slides around. You think you have it and it slides a little bit. In some places, it grabs more than other places, so you can’t even judge what the footing is.” That’s the reason there were no double-clears in cones, and plenty of double-digit penalties.

Jimmy is sitting behind a team of Swedish warmbloods he got a year ago from Swedish driver Nicke Pahlsson. The group of blaze-faced bays is owned by Baseball Hall of Fame Chairman Jane Clark.

Though Jimmy had some problems in the first hazard on the marathon, his competitors suffered worse. Tucker Johnson went through a tip-over of his carriage when one of his wheelers moved away from a post Johnson didn’t see and crowded the other wheeler, throwing everything off balance. He finished second, far behind Jimmy. Chester Weber, the other driver in the division, missed a gate in the first hazard, and that was it–elimination.

Perennial pairs winner Lisa Singer did it again with Mimi Thorington’s Morgans in her division, but she couldn’t overtake another Morgan driver, Nancy Johnson, in the race for the Jaguar Triple Crown of Driving. Nancy won the singles section and the crown, which goes to the top singles or pairs driver from the Laurels, the Gladstone Driving Event and Fair Hill.

Unfortunately, my fingers are too numb from the cold to type any more. I’m going to go warm up, but I’ll be back with you tomorrow, when I tell you how the stadium jumping wound up.

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