Fair Hill, Md. – Oct. 19
Have a plan, but don’t be wedded to it was the message of the press conference as the leading three- and two-star riders gathered to discuss why they ended up on top of a leaderboard that experienced a huge amount of shake-up in both divisions at the Dutta Corp. Fair Hill International.
Jan Byyny moved up from fifth to first place in the three-star with Inmidair with just 2.0 time penalties by sticking to her plan, despite being held briefly on course when Nora Battig fell from Steppin’ Out at fence 7, the Sunburst Ditch and Wall and Wedge.
“I felt like I could ride my plan, and it went as it planned. That doesn’t happen that often,” said Byyny.
Will Coleman, who sits second on Conair (50.2) after moving up from 12th with a double-clear round, still wasn’t sure how he was going to ride several combinations at noon, despite a 1:10 p.m. start time for the three-star.
He joked but was also serious when he said, “About 30 minutes before I went, from a distance I caught Dougie [Payne, who sits third with Crown Talisman] doing the five to a three [at fence 13, The Dutta Corp. Farm Yard, which involved a keyhole and two corners in the main arena,] and I thought it looked pretty good.”
That combination caught out 10 of the three-star combinations, including knocking dressage leaders Jennie Brannigan and Cambalda down the leaderboard when they incurred a runout there.
Rodney Powell produced Conair to the three-star level, and then Mark Todd catch-rode “Joey” around the Blenheim CCI*** (England) in 2012 to finish second. But Coleman’s only had the ride for a few months.
“I really don’t know this horse very well,” said Coleman. “Whatever plan you leave the box with, you’ve got to be confident with it. Maybe it’s not even leaving the box. As you’re coming down to that question, you’ve got to know what you’re going to do. You’ve got to execute it. None of this stuff is written in stone. Things can change in an instant. You’ve got to be ready to react.”
Payne said his plan changed as he was riding the course. He thought he’d get two strides with “Tali” after the ditch to the C element of the coffin, at 16, Rachel’s Walls, where Sally Cousins had a serious fall with Ideal Contini. (She went to the hospital but was discharged later in the day.)
“The two-stride after the ditch was quite long,” said Payne. “I went out of the box thinking [21, a log drop to a steeply angled brush] would be three or four [strides]. My priority was to go for the four. But after the two was quite long, I made a choice.
“The coffin sort of mimics what happens later on: You had a ditch two strides to an angle going away right to left,” he continued. “That’s a similar question to what would be asked later in the course. It gives you some insight into how stuff later on is going to ride. If you went out on the box with a concrete plan, potentially you might have been in trouble later in the course.”
This set two-star leader Sharon White to laughing hysterically. She admitted that she’d been concerned about 21 as well for her three-star horse, Wundermaske, who sits seventh after a clean round.
“I didn’t like the combination at the end where Doug got the four,” said White. “I went to [course designer Derek di Grazia and said,] ‘I’m thinking the four.’ He looked at me like I had four heads and said, ‘There is not a four there.’ I came on down there faster than I wanted to go, and I did the three. Both worked. Lots of different things work.”
But for many combinations, 21 was another bogey fence on course. Sinead Halpin popped out of the tack from Manoir de Carneville there, and four others had problems, too.
Sometimes you don’t have to make many decisions at all. For her leading two-star horse, Under Suspection or “Pippy,” White said, “She was amazing everywhere. I really felt like I was along for the ride and enjoyed it immensely.”
Allie Blyskal-Sacksen, who moved up from eighth to second with her Connemara-Thoroughbred cross Sparrow’s Nio in the two-star, piped up to say she stopped watching other people go.
“I was out watching the course as well, and I watched a couple come through the ring in the two-star,” she said. “I watched a couple not-so-good rides, and I decided to walk away from it. Ride the horse I have underneath me. Every horse that went through did something different. At the end of the day it’s what you’re sitting on you need to ride.”
“I was the first person out today,” said Ryan Wood, who on Fernhill Classic is tied for third with Canada’s Colleen Loach on Freespirit in the two-star. “In a funny way it was kind of nice not having the question about what someone did there. I just went and did it, and it all worked out. There was no thinking, ‘Should I do this?’ It’s got its advantages going first.”
Of the 41 horses that left the start box in the three-star, 27 finished, 17 went clear and only four went clean and inside the time.
The numbers were similar in the two-star. Sixty-four started, 26 jumped clean, and 11 made the time.
The riders universally praised di Grazia for being ingenious in his course design. “Fair Hill has always been an event that’s won by arguably the best in the country. If you look down that trophy, there aren’t many one-hit wonders,” said Coleman. “This track and particularly the terrain, the courses that have been set up here for the last 13 years are pure tests of the level.”
The horse inspection begins at 8 a.m. on Sunday, followed by the two-star show jumping at 10 a.m. and then the three-star at 1 p.m.