For the first time since 1978, there will be no Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event this week. Instead of a Kentucky Preview issue, the Chronicle’s April 20 & 27 Classic Kentucky issue features some of the people and horses who’ve made the event unforgettable over the years. We’ll also be highlighting some of our favorite memories all week on coth.com to honor Kentucky.
In 2002 John Williams had two horses entered in the Rolex Kentucky CCI5*-L: Carrick and Hazmat. Carrick was a supremely talented mount who would win team gold and finish fourth individually later that year at the FEI World Equestrian Games (Spain), then go to the 2004 Athens Olympics and help Team USA take bronze. Hazmat was a diminutive Thoroughbred who came to upper-level eventing late in life.
“I got him when he was 11, and all he had done was beginner novice and novice,” Williams said. “He was actually quite good as long as you could overcome his desire to be a bit barn sour and nappy and get the message through that he wasn’t going to spin you off and run back to the barn without you, which is what he spent most of his life doing to the lady that I got him from.”
As cross-country day at Kentucky drew closer, the weather forecast took a typical turn for the worse: A strong front was scheduled to come through Saturday afternoon.
Williams went early on Carrick, jumping a foot-perfect round that would help the pair finish second behind Kim Severson and Winsome Adante.
“Within a couple of hours’ time it was a completely different competition,” said Williams. “We went from good footing, 75 degrees and sunny, couldn’t be better, to cold rain. People wouldn’t imagine running in those conditions these days. Today it wouldn’t even be a discussion about whether you were going to postpone and cancel, but times change.”
Williams climbed aboard Hazmat in that driving rain.
“The rain was heavy enough and blowing strongly enough that you could not keep your eyes open going around the steeplechase,” he said. “You’d keep your head down and try to glance out of the side of your eye occasionally to make sure you were pretty close to the roping. At some point you knew a fence was coming up, so you’d try to catch a glance. There came a time on the way to the steeplechase fences, the anxiety of jumping the fence would overcome the pain in your eyes from the rain so that you could kind of keep your eyes open for the last few strides.”
Hazmat was running quite well, jumping out of deep mud in stride. Still, when it came time to contest the course, Williams had misgivings from the start.
“Going around the course, I kept thinking to myself every jump he’d jump, ‘Just pull up now … OK, well that one went well, well let’s jump another one and see how we feel,’ ” Williams remembered. “Halfway around the course we somehow had a weak moment jumping into the water, and he landed in the water not really going anywhere. We must have been locked onto the line, so we had no choice but to go to the next jump or get a 20 [penalties]. Usually there’s some way you can wiggle your way out of what you know is about to be a problem. We ended up having a stop at the corner in the water. I decided that’s enough. I’d been telling myself for the last 5 ½ minutes that I should pull up and walk home anyway.
“As I was walking around the edge of the water looking for a way out of the roping somebody handed me a beer,” Williams continued. “All the people in raincoats and umbrellas standing around and still watching.”
Williams has ridden at the Kentucky Three-Day Event multiple times before and after 2002, but having his best and worst rounds in the same year makes that edition the most memorable.