Fayette County

British rider leads Rolex after dressage

After the 51-hour trip around the volcanic ash cloud, the $2,500 taxi ride from Paris to Madrid, and a day's delay in competing, top British rider Oliver Townend is within striking distance of his $350,000 goal.

But to get there he will need to get past at least five other riders to win the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event and the Grand Slam of Eventing, this sport's version of the Triple Crown.

It doesn't sound as if anyone is feeling particularly generous about letting him get there.

In first place going into Saturday's cross-country phase with 42.8 points is fellow British rider William Fox-Pitt, who also had to scramble to make it to Kentucky.

At 4 a.m. Monday, Fox-Pitt talked a friend into flying him and the owner of his horse, Cool Mountain, down the French coast to Madrid, where he hooked up with Townend for a charter flight to Miami. The two shared a room at the airport overnight before arriving in Lexington on Tuesday.

Fox-Pitt, 41, said Friday that he wasn't expecting to be sitting in this spot. "I'm not expecting him (Cool Mountain, his horse) to win, but I'm not letting go without a bit of a fight," Fox-Pitt said.

Although he said he doesn't think the cross-country course at Kentucky Horse Park looks as taxing this year as in some previous years, he doesn't think it will be a walk in the park.

"The weather could do anything tomorrow, could completely change everything," Fox-Pitt said. "I led after the dressage in 2002 and didn't even get to the cross-country because I got so many time faults on the steeplechase because of the rain we had on the lunch break."

A quartet of American riders stands between them. Two are tied in second place with 43.7 points. Karen O'Connor and her horse Mandiba are both veterans of U.S. Olympic teams, but Allison Springer, on Arthur, is a relative newcomer.

"It's great to be here for sure," said Springer, 35. "This is a place I've always dreamed to be, with my friends here." In previous Rolex Kentucky rides, Springer finished 13th in 2008 and 14th in 2009.

O'Connor, 52, said her horse is rebounding well from poor showings in the last two years, and she is determined to keep on top of her time Saturday. "That's my plan ... not making any mistakes," she said.

Three-time Rolex Kentucky four-star winner Kim Severson, riding Tipperary Liadhnan, plans to keep a tight rein in her score of 44.8. Becky Holder, on Courageous Comet, rounds out the top five with a score of 45.2.

That leaves Townend, 27, with his best horse, Ashdale Cruise Master, in sixth with a score of 46.2. His other horse, ODT Master Rose, is in ninth place, behind previous Rolex Kentucky winner Phillip Dutton and two of his horses. Dutton's third mount is just behind in 10th. (Equestrians can ride multiple horses in the Three-Day Event.)

Of his dressage scores, Townend said: "I'm not hating them. The horses were both as good as they can be ... I'm pleased with the performances."

He was succinct about his plans for Saturday: "Go clean inside the time."

Last year, Townend finished eighth in the Rolex Kentucky before winning the other two legs of the grand slam, Badminton and Burghley.

Only one other rider, Pippa Funnell, has ever taken the triple. Funnell did it in 2003.

To British riding fans, who follow Townend's love life almost as closely as they follow his horses, he is known as a hard-riding heartthrob from Huddersfield, a bit of a "bad boy" with beautiful gray horses. (Several of his top mounts, out of the dozens in his barn, just happen to be gray.)

Although he has a lot riding on this competition, he also is looking down the road to the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, which will be held here in September, and the 2010 Olympics in London.

"The grand slam is clearly a huge thing," Townend said, but for the future "the more we can get the really top horses into this sort of atmosphere, the better."

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