New Zealand rider Andrew Nicholson is the rider to beat after Saturday's phenomenal rides in the Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event.
He is in both first and second places going into Sunday's show-jumping finals, with scores of 38 on Quimbo, his black Spanish-bred horse, and 40.8 on Calico Joe, an off-track British Thoroughbred.
To lose, he would need to knock down two fences with both horses. It seems unlikely: Nicholson rode the 4-mile Kentucky Horse Park course twice Saturday without a single mistake, slip or even a second over the time allowed, to the delight of the 26,872 in attendance. Still, he wasn't taking victory for granted.
"You can never have too much of a cushion in the show jumping," Nicholson said. "Calico Joe, it's not his strongest phase, show jumping. He's surprised me a few times and jumped clear rounds and won some competitions I didn't think it was possible for him to win. Who knows? If things go right, he might leave them all up.
"Quimbo is a very, very nice jumper. If I ride him half right, he normally does the rest himself."
Nicholson could become the second rider to finish first and second, as Britain's Mary King did in 2011. That would set up an interesting match race at the Badminton Trials in England next weekend: if Nicholson wins the Rolex Kentucky, he and William Fox-Pitt both will be chasing the Grand Slam of Eventing.
The $350,000 prize for the rider who wins the Rolex Kentucky, the Badminton and the Burghley has been won only once before, by British rider Pippa Funnell in 2003. Last year, when Fox-Pitt was chasing the prize, the Badminton was rained out. That's why winning this year's Badminton would count as a Grand Slam for either Fox-Pitt or Nicholson.
Nicholson, a six-time Olympic veteran, is the top-ranked rider in the world. He was captain of the bronze-medal-winning 2012 New Zealand Olympic team and won an individual bronze medal at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Kentucky.
Fox-Pitt, already a two-time Rolex Kentucky champion and on the silver-medal-winning British 2012 Olympic team, went into Saturday's arduous cross-country jumping test with two horses as well.
But he retired on course after his top-placed ride, Chilli Morning, refused at the first water jump. "He got a knock on the last jump and, who knows, he just shut down mentally," Fox-Pitt said afterward.
But he went clear on his other horse, Seacookie, to stay in fourth place with a score of 46.2.
Between them is the top American rider in the Rolex Kentucky, Buck Davidson, with a score of 45.2 on Ballynoe Castle RM, known as "Reggie." Davidson also is in eighth place on Mar de Amor, with 55.2, and in 23rd on Park Trader with 72.7.
Davidson said he was particularly happy for the chance at redemption for Reggie, who has had his share of troubles in Kentucky.
"He's been an amazing horse for me. His whole career was sort of wrecked by a stop in the World Games at the Sunken Road, and he was chased by a dog the year before that," Davidson said. But after a surgery to fix his windpipe, "he's a new horse," he said.
Several Americans had unlucky days: Paris-based Allie Knowles, who had been in fourth place going into cross-country, was eliminated after her horse Last Call three times refused a jump at the Sunken Road.
Becky Holder fell at the fifth jump from the finish. She was eliminated, but neither she nor her horse, Can't Fire Me, were hurt.
Phillip Dutton and Boyd Martin both retired on course after refusals. Marilyn Little, who was placed ahead of Davidson, also fell.
But there was no one jump taking a toll. Riders said the beautiful but challenging course rode smoothly. In all, 27 horses out of the 41 who attempted it made it around cleanly.
The Rolex Kentucky concludes Sunday with show jumping in Rolex Stadium scheduled to begin at 1:15 p.m. NBC will air an hour of highlights from the three-day event at 4.
Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: @janetpattonhl