Every sport has dominant players who become the stars and favorites, people who always seem to grab most of the media spotlight and the public attention. Joe Montana, Wayne Gretzky, Hank Aaron, Secretariat all seemed to be unbeatable in their eras.
Today, Michael Jordan remains the most dominant basketball player, despite his “retirement” and his recent knee injury. And, as the Triple Crown approaches, the preview shows are focusing on the horses D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert are or are not running, even though dozens of other trainers, from New York to California, have hopeful starters.
American eventing has always had its own stars, but they were far from media darlings until four or five years ago. In that time the Rolex Kentucky CCI has become a true public spectacle and even a media event. And that development has coincided with the maturation of four riders as competitors and horsemen, making them the most consistently dominant factors in the four runnings of this four-star event. Two of them have each won it once, another has been barely beaten twice, and the fourth once. All the while, each has won most of the other three-day events and major horse trials in the country.
I’m talking, of course, about David and Karen O’Connor, Phillip Dutton and about Kim Vinoski, who, as Jim Wofford says, is the best rider in the world who isn’t wearing the pink coat of her nation’s team. You’ve certainly read all about them for years in the Chronicle’Karen and David have together won 12 three- or four-star events in the last 20 years and three Olympic medals; Dutton has won two three-stars and two Olympic gold medals; and Vinoski, 10 years their junior, has won five two-star and higher three-days. Plus, David and Vinoski has each been our Overall Horseman of the Year, and they’ve claimed about half this spring’s advanced divisions.
That’s why, if an odds-maker offered a morning line on the event, Vinoski and Winsome Adante would probably be the 2-1 favorites. Last year they were second in the MBNA Foxhall Cup CCI*** and the victors in the Blenheim CCI*** (England), and this spring they’ve won two events and finished second once. That would be a testimony to how great a rider and trainer she’s become because at 3-1 would be David on Custom Made (his Olympic gold-medal horse) and his two other proven three-day horses, Karen on four horses who’ve won or placed in three-days, and Dutton on two more experienced winners. And at 5-1 would be Bruce Davidson, the dominant rider of the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s, on his three reliable mounts.
Kentucky gives all of us’in any discipline, whether a junior, amateur or aspiring international rider’a chance to study these riders’ ability to train their horses to be expressive, obedient and careful in dressage and show jumping while developing within them the courage, joy and endurance it takes to navigate the cross-country course. What makes these riders so hard for others to beat is that they’re as good at training as they are at competing, and all three phases give us a chance to admire their ability to almost always have the horse in the right position and balance to do the job.
But it’s entirely possible that none of them will win, that a foreigner will prevail again or that a rising star will make a breakthrough. After all, if the outcome were certain, there wouldn’t be much point in them riding or us watching, and that would be a loss.