April 27—Lexington, Ky.
What’s better than being in the lead after cross-country at Rolex Kentucky? Sitting in first and second with a rail in hand—the position that New Zealand’s Andrew Nicholson took over after jumping double clears on Quimbo (38.0) and Calico Joe (40.8).
An uncharacteristic stop early in the course for dressage leader Chilli Morning led Great Britain’s William Fox-Pitt to retire the stallion. He still managed to move up from 10th to fourth with Seacookie TSF behind Buck Davidson on Ballynoe Castle RM in third (45.2), the highest-placed American rider. Davidson also won a two-year lease on a Range Rover Evoque for finishing closest to optimum time on Mar De Amor, who moved up from 20th to eighth place.
“Chilli Morning and William Fox-Pitt were making me look like a genius today, at least until fence 7, where my hopes of picking yet another winner for Rolex 2013 came to a crashing halt with Chilli Morning’s uncharacteristic refusal at the water,” said James C. Wofford in his Saturday update to his Rolex Kentucky predictions. 
“I haven’t seen any replay. Maybe he just overjumped the fence before and gave himself a bit of a shock over the hedge. Who knows?” said Fox-Pitt. “For him, there’s no point carrying on after the penalty. He’s a 13-year-old horse trying to do his best.”
“Andrew Nicholson is on fire,” said Wofford. “It’s too early to tell, but if he were to win—and with horses in the first and second positions going into show jumping, he has a better chance than anyone—he will set up the greatest clash of titans that eventing sport has ever witnessed. We will have two contenders for the Rolex Grand Slam. [Fox-Pitt is also in contention due to the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton CCI**** being canceled last year due to rain.] They are both qualified, both on their best horses, two of the bitterest rivals that the sport has ever seen, both of them riding at the top of their game. Waiting in the wings we have the double-gold medalist from the London Olympic Games and the individual gold medalist from the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, Germany’s Michael Jung on his gold medal horse, Sam. This is shaping up to be a marketing dream for Rolex and all of the press people surrounding Badminton. I’m only glad that I have the chance to see it.”
Wofford concluded that his longstanding caprice of provoking Davidson into a rage with his comments in his Rolex Kentucky predictions must be working.
“I said some very snarky things about Buck Davidson in my preview article. After watching the way he rode today, I can hardly wait for next year because he is going to be in a seething rage by the time he goes cross-country at Rolex 2014,” said Wofford with a twinkle in his eye.
“The course surprised the experts early because it looked incredibly easy,” continued Wofford. “And after the lunch break it looked incredibly difficult. That is one of the things about this sport that just makes you scratch your head.”
Only three riders had problems in the morning session: Madeline Blackman, who retired after two stops, Caitlin Silliman, who completed her first four-star with Catch A Star after a stop at fence 17, the Land Rover Hollow, and Becky Holder, who fell off Can’t Fire Me at fence 24, the Animal Water Park.
But when the course re-started in the afternoon, issues abounded. In addition to Chilli Morning’s unscheduled walk home, four-star veterans Mary King, Boyd Martin and Phillip Dutton all retired after stops. Ronald Zabala-Goetschel and Heather Gillette went swimming in the second part of the Head of the Lake, while Rachel Jurgens got dunked in the HSBC Water Park at fence 7. Marilyn Little, who was riding with a separated shoulder, tumbled off RF Demeter at the Land Rover Hollow, while Rolex rookies Alexandra Knowles and Lindsay Oaks were eliminated for stops on course.
“The morning was really good. Perhaps it rode better than everyone thought, I don’t know,” said Fox-Pitt. “It certainly caused a few more problems this afternoon. I’m not sure the reason for that. Watching it, it was a very good track. It was slightly unpredictable. You weren’t quite sure what the distances were going to be until you got there. The riders had to react and the horses had to react, which was good to see.”
“Derek [di Grazia] did a wonderful job,” agreed Nicholson. “It’s a big, bold course; the horses could see what they are going to jump. I think with the footing being in perfect condition and the air temperature being ideal for cross-country, that gave the horses a bit more jump and gallop than other times. I think the whole day has been very good for our sport.”
Kentucky sported a large crop of rookies, and seven of those riders have only one phase to go before adding a four-star finish to their list of accomplishments.
“As usual, some of the horse-and-rider combinations are not up to the test yet,” said Wofford. “However, there were several combinations that showed us that they are now at home on the international four-star stage. Our coach, David O’Connor, must be secretly rubbing his hands in anticipation because the talent that many of us have believed existed in this country for a long time is now being given the opportunity to shine.”
The 30 remaining horses will jog at 8:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, and show jumping begins at 1:15 p.m.