Great Britain’s William Fox-Pitt overtook all the U.S. riders with a dressage score of 42.8 late on Friday afternoon, April 23, after the sun had reemerged at the Kentucky Horse Park. He and Cool Mountain, a 10-year-old British-bred Thoroughbred, displayed a lovely canter and nice changes, a floating extended trot and just a few low marks for the walk half-pirouette and the reinback.
He has a narrow lead over Allison Springer (Arthur) and Karen O’Connor (Mandiba), who are tied for second on a score of 43.7. Kim Severson also jumped up into the top slots, riding Tipperary Liadhnan to fourth place (44.8) with lovely canterwork and just a few glitches in the counter canter.
Fox-Pitt said he didn’t expect to win the dressage in the horse’s first four-star. “I didn’t think I’d be at the head of affairs at the minute,” he said with a smile. “I’m not expecting him to win, but who knows, I’m not going to let go without a fight.
“He is a very talented horse on the flat,” he added. “He’s a pleasure to train always, very straightforward. He’s not always found everything easy, but he’s always had a go. He’s been working well this week, really come on, and to produce his best test on a day like today, that’s exciting for his future.”
Oliver Townend’s much-anticipated rides left him sixth and ninth aboard Ashdale Cruise Master and ODT Master Rose, respectively, as he attempts to win his third consecutive four-star event and the Rolex Grand Slam.
“I’m not high enough,” he said simply of his placings. “The horses were both as good as they could have been, just about. But it’s a four-star; there’s top competition here, and they’re both relatively green. I’m pleased with their performances, but tomorrow is another day.”
Tomorrow’s cross-country could be complicated by severe weather that's being predicted: thunderstorms with high winds and a possibility of tornadoes. So the course that designer Mike Etherington-Smith said is just a bit softer this year could end up as quite a stiff test in driving rain.
“It’s a little more straightforward than last year, but that is a dangerous opinion to take,” Fox-Pitt said. “I’m relieved. But the weather could do anything tomorrow and completely change the competition.”
Fox-Pitt led the dressage here in 2002 but never got to cross-country because he had so many steeplechase time penalties that he was already out of contention. “If it rains it will be huge,” he said, adding that he wished there was not a break at lunchtime. “There’s enough out there and plenty of chances to make mistakes. But I think the top horses will have super rides.”
O’Connor is planning to make that the case with Mandiba, who had difficulties on course at the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong and the 2008 Burghley CCI**** (England). But he started getting back on track last fall at the Fair Hill CCI*** (Md.), where he finished second.
“I’ve been working hard this winter getting his confidence. He’s more confirmed than before, and his experience matches the questions he’s going to see tomorrow,” O’Connor said. “I’m not making any mistakes.”
Springer and Arthur won the dressage last fall at the Blenheim CCI*** (England) but had some penalties on course there after also having troubles at the Burghley CCI**** (England) a few weeks earlier. She's glad to have another chance at a top placing at Rolex Kentucky. "It’s great to be here [in second] for sure," she said. "I’ve been working really, really hard to improve my consistency in the performance of my horse and myself in all three phases. This is a place I’ve always dreamed of being with my friends here. It’s wonderful."