A very familiar face will square off with a relative newcomer in the show jumping finals of the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event on Sunday.
After a beautiful day of cross-country competition, William Fox-Pitt of Great Britain took the lead on Bay My Hero, an 11-year-old Irish sport horse.
"This was the first time Bay My Hero has done a three-day where he's gone up and down hills," Fox-Pitt said. "He was a bit surprised ... he's clever as a cat. And he carried his tubby little body round the course inside the time as well."
A two-time champion at Rolex Kentucky, Fox-Pitt has a slim lead over American rider Lauren Kieffer, on Veronica, a 12-year-old Dutch Warmblood.
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Kieffer had to stop briefly on course during her ride after another rider's horse was injured.
But Kieffer said they maintained focus. Kieffer and Veronica have been around the Rolex Kentucky track once before, but separately. The 2014 Rolex is their first four-star or Olympic-level competition together.
"I was thrilled with my mare," Kieffer said. "She really fought for it."
Going into the show jumping, Fox-Pitt cannot afford to knock down a single fence: he is ahead by only 2.7 points, with 44 points to Kieffer's 46.7.
Slightly further back in third with 49.5 points is American veteran Phillip Dutton on Mr. Medicott, a 15-year-old Irish sport horse.
Dutton rode in the morning on Trading Aces, a horse normally ridden by fellow American Boyd Martin, who is recovering from a broken leg. That made the afternoon, with Dutton's second mount, a piece of cake. "Mr. Medicott's been around so many courses around the world I was just hanging on and letting him do it," Dutton said.
Right behind the top three are five riders separated by less than a point: Marilyn Little on RF Demeter, Michael Pollard on Mensa G, Buck Davidson on Ballynoe Castle RM, Andrew Nicholson on Avebury, and Sinead Halpin on Manoir de Carneville.
Nicholson of New Zealand is the top rider in the world standings and won last year's Rolex Kentucky. He also was just declared the winner by default of last year's Burghley competition, so Nicholson is once again going after the Rolex Grand Slam of Eventing — winning three Olympic-level competitions in a row. He's in seventh place going into the show-jumping, so the odds of Nicholson winning are long.
Show jumping competition starts at noon Sunday, with riders jumping the 14 fences in reverse order of standing so the leaders will go last.
Saturday's four-mile cross-country course took a toll on Allison Springer, the leader after dressage on Arthur, a 12-year-old Trakehner Thoroughbred. Springer missed a skinny brush fence at the Normandy Bank, six fences from home. That costly runout dropped them from first to 26th place.
In all, 19 riders made their way around the course inside the time allowed of 11 minutes and 12 seconds. Dutton on Trading Aces finished exactly on the time, winning Dutton a two-year lease on a Land Rover. (Asked if he'd share the car with Martin, Dutton said the horse had already won Martin a Mercedes, so no.)
But the clock was costly for American rider Jan Byyny, who would have tied for third with Dutton if she'd finished nine seconds faster.
Ten horses were eliminated on cross-country and six more retired on course, leaving 39 to finish the 27-jump course.
One horse, Expedience, ridden by Kaitlin Spurlock, was taken by van to veterinarians for evaluation after catching a right front leg on a jump at the Head of the Lake. According to Dr. Kent Allen, the treating veterinarian, the horse sustained a foot fracture and was stabilized. The horse was taken to an equine hospital for surgical evaluation.
That was the only cloud on an otherwise sunny day: the perfect weather Saturday thrilled long-time and new fans. Attendance for the day of 35,471 may have set a new one-day Rolex Kentucky record, officials said.
Melissa Gierman of Chicago brought her family for their first trip: husband Tony, daughters Brianna and Hannah, and French bulldogs Peanut and Boomer.
Suffice it to say Rolex is a new tradition.
"We ride horses so we wanted to come and see one of the most awesome events," Gierman said. "We don't have anything like this around Chicago, this openness, this peace. I am completely amazed by the ability of these horses, and the mental stamina it takes to endure these three days. I'm in awe. I would love to come back every year."
At the tailgating area up on the hill overlooking the course, Sabrina Ripley offered a massive picnic, breakfast and lunch included, for between 50 and 100 friends. Ripley, who is married to Darren Ripley, CEO of Equestrian Events Inc., which puts on the Rolex Kentucky, said she gets plenty of help from friends, who like the view over the course.
"It's a process," she said. "It gets bigger and bigger every year."