Under the changing autumn leaves of Fair Hill, Md., the Fair Hill CCI***, Oct. 13-17, represented a little of the old and a little of the new in the ever-adjusting sport of eventing.
While the event ran as a CCI without steeplechase for the first time in its 15-year history, its winner came from the old school of the sport–an off-the-track Thoroughbred who rose to the top with a fast cross-country round and perfect show jumping.
Phillip Dutton and Annie Jones’ The Foreman steadily climbed to the lead from a fourth-placed dressage test, which was more than 10 points behind Kim Severson’s winning ride aboard Royal Venture.
“Kim is so brilliant–when you’re down 10 points, you don’t expect to beat her,” said Jones.
Jones nearly won the event three years ago–Dutton was leading after cross-country aboard her horse Cayman Went. But after spending the night at the hospital with his wife Evie, who was delivering their twin girls, Dutton pulled one rail the next day to give David O’Connor and The Native the win.
“So we’ve been on the other side of it too,” said Jones, of Coatesville, Pa. “Sometimes it’s meant to be, and sometimes it isn’t.”
For Dutton, who also won Fair Hill in 1996 and in 2000, this year’s victory had special significance. Racing trainer Bruce Fenwick contacted Dutton about The Foreman more than five years ago, but it hasn’t been an easy transition from racetrack reject to CCI winner.
“Phillip is the one who always had faith in him,” said Jones. “He’s a quirky horse, and it really took Phillip’s ability to get his confidence.”
While Jones likes to hunt her young event prospects before Dutton takes them over, The Foreman wasn’t eager. “He didn’t want any part of that,” she said with a laugh. “He has a panic button, and he’s a little [attention-deficit disorder]. You never know what will set him off.”
The Foreman had a moment of panic before entering the start box at Fair Hill, threatening to rear over or lay down. But Dutton, of West Grove, Pa., harnessed that energy to produce the day’s only double-clear round. “There is a real chemistry between him and Phillip,” said Jones of her horse.
“He really tries, and every time he wins another one, I like him even better. He’s gotten much more handsome in the last year,” she added with a laugh.
The Foreman had also attempted to lie down in the awards ceremony at the Virginia CCI*, where he finished third in the young horse division in 2002, and another moment of panic once led him to put his head through the roof of Jones’ two-horse trailer.
“When he’s wound up, he doesn’t have a lot of self-preservation,” said Dutton, who rode the horse to 17th in the Saumur CCI*** (France) this spring and has won numerous advanced horse trials with him.
“It’s very rewarding for me [to win on him],” added Dutton. “The owner has had faith in the horse and in me. He’s a bit of an underdog. You look at him in the stall and don’t get too excited, but he goes out and tries. He’s a likeable horse.”
Dutton didn’t think the new CCI format without steeplechase would necessarily prevent him from choosing horses like The Foreman in the future. “I would still look at Thoroughbreds,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of horse–it just has to be a good mover and jumper–the importance of the dressage and show jumping is so enhanced now. There is still a place for the Thoroughbred, but it has to be quiet and a good mover and jumper.”
It may be no accident that Dutton, known especially for his cross-country excellence, has won three of his four three-star titles at Fair Hill (his fourth win came in 2002 at the Foxhall Cup CCI (Ga.).
“The cross-country always plays a part at Fair Hill, and the sport has gotten away a little bit from that,” he said. “Fair Hill is one of the last events, because of the terrain, where the cross-country is going to be pretty influential. I look forward to it because of that.”
Dutton also vaulted from 35th after dressage to fifth overall, with just 2.8 time faults, followed by a clean show jumping round, on Amazing Odyssey.
Steady rains on the night before cross-country made the course even more challenging. Despite adding 6 seconds to the time, which was determined to have been wheeled too tightly, on Friday, The Foreman was the only horse to make the time.
“I had to push to get the time,” admitted Dutton, who was especially pleased with The Foreman’s clean show jumping round after his efforts on Saturday. “It’s much harder to ride in conditions like these. There’s not as much room for error. It zaps the horse’s confidence more if you leave long or have a hairy fence.”
In fact, Dutton pulled up his first ride of the day, Connaught, around the 25th fence. He felt the horse tiring as early as the third minute of the 10:18-minute course. Connaught was scoped when he got back to the barn, and the veterinarian determined that he had a trapped epiglottis. Dutton expects wind surgery to help his performance next year.
Severson said the questions asked on Derek di Grazia’s cross-country course were significantly harder than this summer’s Olympics, where she won team bronze and individual silver medals with Winsome Adante. “It was a lot harder than the Olympics–the terrain, the questions, the size,” she said.
And while the cross-country played a major role in the results at Fair Hill, with 11 horses retiring, one elimination, and 20 of 48 finishers incurring jumping penalties, Severson sees a new direction for the sport. “You’re going to need a fast warmblood if you want to be competitive, because of the dressage,” she said. “We’re going to have to pay attention to the horse we’re buying next.”
Nevertheless, Severson fared quite well with the Australian Thoroughbred she rode into second place. Yet securing the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s fall championship–since Dutton rides for Australia–didn’t mean as much to Severson as seeing her 14-year-old partner feeling his best.
Last fall, before the Burghley CCI**** (England), “Venny” colicked, requiring two surgeries in England. He returned home to Plain Dealing Farm, Scottsville, Va., in January but colicked again over the winter, requiring a third surgery.
He started back to work late this spring, and Severson ran him intermediate at Menfelt (Md.) in September. But since she fell from a young horse at the American Eventing Championships (N.C.) before she had a chance to ride her advanced horses, her only advanced start with him since last summer was at Morven Park (Va.), just two weeks before Fair Hill.
“He absolutely has a new lease on life,” said Severson with satisfaction. “He’s thrilled to be here and doing it. You hear people talk about having a near-death experience and enjoying life more, and that is what I’ve seen with this horse.”
Severson found the footing deep from the final water jump (fence 27) to the end of the course, as well as between fences 13 and 14. She incurred 7.2 time penalties, still one of the day’s faster rounds and good enough to maintain her overnight lead.
Although she entered show jumping in the lead, Severson didn’t dwell on the rail that fell at fence 11, which Royal Venture barely touched. “I’m still thrilled. He was nearly dead a year ago, so I don’t care if he’d pulled every rail. He’s still amazing,” she said.
Severson’s student, Molly Hooper, also made her three-star debut, finishing ninth aboard Kiltartan and earning the first-timer’s award.
Spotlight On Blackout
Third-placed Stuart Black is also known for his cross-country riding, and he didn’t disappoint, as he galloped Elkins Wetherill’s Fleeceworks Blackout around the course in the day’s second-fastest time, just 2 seconds slow, to leap from 20th to third.
The top finish marked the end of a tumultuous season for Black, who was named to the Canadian Olympic team but controversially removed at the last minute. Then, in September, his change to U.S. citizenship came through, and he won the Radnor Hunt CCI** (Pa.) the weekend before Fair Hill on Fleeceworks Starlight.
“This has been a very emotional fall for me. It’s been controversial, and I’m glad it’s come out in a good fashion,” said Black, who’s married to U.S. rider Momi (Akeley) Black. “Mr. Wetherill has stuck by me when I was sick [with Crohn’s disease], supported me with my appeal this summer, and there is not a better man on earth. I hope this makes him feel a little bit better.”
Black started riding Blackout in April, and Fair Hill was just their fourth competition together. The 9-year-old Thoroughbred raced over fences in New Zealand until he was 7, and Kelli Temple started his eventing career, taking him to the advanced level.
To prepare his horse for the cross-country, Black, like most of the other riders, had a gallop two hours before his start time. But he also chose to jump some fences at that time. “I wanted him to be steady and quiet at the beginning [of the cross-country],” said Black. “He was more sane and had the edge taken off. I galloped him for two minutes at three-quarters speed or less, just enough to get him breathing and switched on at the jumps.”
Black preferred this format to the traditional steeplechase format, because he could pick the ground he galloped over, and he didn’t have to run for four or 41