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May 8, 2009

Headley Britannia Sails To New Heights At Rolex Kentucky

Lucinda Fredericks admired her new Rolex watch after winning the four-star at Rolex Kentucky aboard Headley Brittania.

She and Lucinda Fredericks become the first horse-and-rider pair to claim three of the world’s most prestigious four-star titles.

Small, chestnut, mare. A limited stride, even at the gallop. A workmanlike, pony trot. With these qualities, Headley Britannia isn’t exactly the image of the modern event horse.

But she defied stereotypes at Rolex Kentucky, April 23-26 in Lexington, as she became the first horse to win the world’s three longest-standing four-star events: Rolex Kentucky and England’s Badminton and Burghley.

“It’s her heart; she’s tough,” said her rider Lucinda Fredericks. “On a gallop, if her nose is not in front, she pins her ears and gets angry. She’s a winner; she tries her guts out and has the attitude to do well. Which works out well, because I like winning too.”

Lucinda traveled to Kentucky from England on the urging of her husband, Clayton, who won the event in 2007 with Ben Along Time. And she made her intention to follow in her husband’s footsteps clear from the moment she set foot in the dressage arena, where she rode “Little Brit” with a fierce determination to notch up every point possible.

Her background in Grand Prix dressage didn’t hurt either as she rode into second place behind Bettina Hoy and Ringwood Cockatoo’s amazing score of 28.8, on a score of 32.3. And on cross-country, while they may have taken long routes exiting the Sunken Road and negotiating the corner in the Head of the Lake, Lucinda said she’s never gone so fast or had such an exhilarating ride.

“At Badminton the ground was hard, and I didn’t really let her go,” she said. “She was like a tiger around cross-country [at Kentucky], and that was so exhilarating. I’ve never had that feeling. It’s the fight she has.”

By the time she entered show jumping, Lucinda had a rail in hand that she wasn’t likely to need, even when announcer Nigel Casserley commented, as Lucinda approached the timers at the start, that each rail would be quite costly, since she was in position to win $80,000 along with a Rolex watch.

“I heard Nigel; I heard the crowd giggle, and I just felt at one with Brit,” said Lucinda, who went on to ride a foot-perfect round and finish on her dressage score.

The Best Event Horse In The World

Lucinda began her partnership with Brit in 2002, about the same time she’d switched from British citizenship to her husband’s native Australian, even though the couple is based in Wiltshire, England. (Lucinda nearly rode for the Australian dressage team at the 2002 World Equestrian Games, but her paperwork didn’t come through in time.)

Brit arrived in the Fredericks’ yard to be sold, but at 15.2 hands and with a temperamental attitude, she wasn’t eliciting much interest from buyers.

“No one wanted her because she didn’t have a good record,” said Lucinda. “She’s always been good, but she’s taken some work, certainly in dressage. She doesn’t move; you can see that in the trot-up. But dressage is all about acting, really. You have to convince the judges that it’s really quite easy.”

The pair won the Blenheim CCI*** (England) in 2002, then Lucinda took time off to have a daughter in 2004. She and Brit attempted their first four-star at Luhmuhlen (Germany) in 2006 but had a fall. When the mare returned home from that event, she contracted a serious, nearly fatal virus.

She recovered in time to go to Burghley that fall and win her first four-star. Then came a win in 2007 at Badminton and a team silver medal for Australia at the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong.

When she returns to England from Kentucky, Brit will likely have a break from competing and undergo another embryo transfer. She’s had two so far, both sired by the Swedish Olympic show jumper Jaguar Mail, producing the chestnut filly Little Britannia and the bay colt Britannia Mail. Lucinda hopes to someday breed a horse out of Brit for her own daughter, Ellie, to ride.

“I’ve learned a lot, and if I look after her between now and the [2010 WEG], I don’t need to run her again [before then], maybe at the World Cup [in Poland in August] for fun,” Lucinda said.

“I think she’s proven to be the best event horse in the world,” she added. “When she won Burghley in 2006, she was the first mare to have won that in 35 years, and at Badminton [in 2007], she was the first mare to have won in 53 years. She’s a little household name now; she goes to everyone’s hearts.”

The pair were hot favorites for double gold medals at the 2008 Olympic Games, but Fredericks said her mare just wasn’t herself at that event, and she wasn’t willing to put the pedal down on cross-country.

“Hong Kong just didn’t work. She was not right in the last 10 days,” said Lucinda. “I ended up riding a horse that was like a car on two flat tires, and I didn’t want to go fast.”

A few months after the Olympic Games, Lucinda took a hard fall from a two-star horse at Pau (France) and had five surgeries performed in eight days on an injury on her upper leg, where the horse had stepped on her.

“I was lying in the hospital for months, thinking, ‘Do I really want to go out in the wet and cold and keep doing this?’ If not for Brit, I would have hung my boots up,” she said.

Lucinda and Clayton now own Brit, since former owners Katinka and Neil Thorburn gave her to them in 2007.

Time To Celebrate

With two wins in the family in two starts, the Fredericks could be forgiven for thinking that a Rolex Kentucky title is more easily achieved than other major championships, but they both insisted that that’s not the case.

“The British have their way paid to come here as a trial for [the WEG] next year,” said Clayton. “We have to fund ourselves, so we had to have a chance of winning to come.”

“I didn’t want to go back to Badminton and be second,” added Lucinda, who admitted that she hasn’t been easy to live with for the last month or two while planning the trip to Kentucky. “Even though it would be a lot easier to nip down the road to Badminton, an hour away. I wasn’t even sure I was coming until the end of March, when she was third at Fontainebleau [France]. I’ve been a little stressy the last month.”

One thing the couple learned from Clayton’s win two years ago is that they weren’t going to fly home Sunday night right after the show jumping. They wanted time to celebrate any good fortunes that might come their way.

“To come here and experience this amazing place [at the Kentucky Horse Park]—we don’t have anything like this in England or even really Europe,” said Lucinda.

Hoy did have to leave to catch her flight back to Europe before even participating in the victory lap after the awards ceremony. So she had no time to enjoy what may be one of her last hurrahs with Ringwood Cockatoo, her 18-year-old partner with whom she earned team gold for Germany at the 2006 WEG. They’ve also won at the 2007 Luhmuhlen CCI***, the 2008 Pau CCI**** and this spring at the Fontainebleau CIC***.

After winning the dressage, only their 9.6 cross-country time penalties kept them from another victory, but Hoy had said from the get-go that she wasn’t going to push her old campaigner.

“Cockatoo doesn’t owe me anything; I owe him,” she said. “I want him to enjoy it, and every competition he does is a bonus now.”

A Breakthrough Year

Buck Davidson doesn’t usually engage in superstitions, but he couldn’t help but stow a good-luck charm in his pocket this year while competing at Kentucky.

At a riders’ briefing early in the week, competitors were given tiny plastic ponies with fortunes inside. And for Davidson, whose father is enshrined in a statue outside the new arena at the Horse Park, the words were almost eerie: “Winning is the result of generations at work.”

Bruce Davidson Sr., who also competed two horses at Kentucky this year at the age of 59, is a two-time World Champion who is largely responsible for the creation of the Rolex Kentucky event and the Kentucky Horse Park, since his win in the 1974 World Championships at Burghley brought the championships to the United States—and Kentucky—in 1978. Buck’s maternal grandmother, Nancy Hannum, is also a foxhunting legend, and his mother Carol Davidson a top rider in her own right.

“As I get a little older, I start to appreciate what [my father] has done for the sport. To come here to a place that might not be here without him and to see that statue is pretty cool,” said Buck. “He’s worked hard for a long time and been a little better than everyone for a long time. [Since he’s my father], there’s no question people knew me before I’d done anything. They have good or bad opinions, and they don’t know me, and I don’t care. As I get older, I’m more and more proud of what my dad has done and what he’s brought to the sport.”

Buck’s third-placed finish on My Boy Bobby made him the top U.S. rider, a title he also earned in 2003, when he finished fourth with Mystic Mike, and he was the top young rider in 1996 and 1997 with Transamaflirt. But with the 2010 WEG on the horizon and two top horses, this may have been his most meaningful Rolex event yet.

“I would take the chance to ride here in 2010 on anything,” said Buck, whose only U.S. senior team appearance to date has been as an individual on the 1999 Pan American squad. “It’s been a dream of mine.”

Buck’s results all spring have shown that his horses are going better than ever, with wins at The Fork CIC*** (N.C.), Southern Pines (N.C.) and Rocking Horse (Fla.) for My Boy Bobby and a win at Rocking Horse and several top-three finishes for Ballynoe Castle RM, both owned by Carl and Cassie Segal. But the question remained whether these heavier horses, with Irish and Belgian blood, would be up to the speed and distance of a four-star cross-country course.

When he was riding in England last summer as a short-listed rider for the Olympic Games, Buck took advantage of the opportunity to train with Hoy in dressage, and his third-placed test on My Boy Bobby showed the fruits of that work.

But finishing two nearly perfect cross-country rounds seemed almost like more of a relief to Buck than anything else. He said he didn’t enjoy himself until he crossed the finish line on My Boy Bobby.

“Quite honestly, it was not at the last jump, not two strides before, but the finish,” he said. “He was so good through the Head of the Lake to keep going on a long stride to the corner [where Buck got four strides from the drop instead of five]. It definitely got hot, and he dug in. He stuck in there and tried as hard or harder than I thought he would. I’m really proud of him.”

His round on “Reggie,” the first horse of the day, was marred only by a loose dog who chased the horse and bit him above his hock as he approached the Sunken Road. Although Reggie stopped at the first element of that combination, the ground jury agreed with Buck that the dog had distracted the horse and removed the 20 penalties and the time faults caused by the stop. They ended up 15th.

While Buck admitted to having plenty of nerves on Saturday morning, he said he was oddly tranquil before his show jumping rides on Sunday.

“I wasn’t nervous at all, why I have no idea,” he said. “I just had a good feeling about today. If I’m not nervous, I usually walk around telling people I am to get myself nervous. But these horses are so good I would have had to be an idiot to do something wrong.”

Even while he took pride in his own results, Buck had great respect for the winner: “It’s a wonderful feat Lucinda has done with her mare,” he said.

 

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