A chaotic morning of cross-country competition tripped up several veteran competitors: New Zealand's Andrew Nicholson, Karen O'Connor and Becky Holder all were eliminated on their first horses, to the disappointment of fellow riders and thousands of fans packed along the course, eager for equine action.
"It looked like a very nice course, but there were a few tricks there," said William Fox-Pitt, the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event leader after Saturday's cross-country phase, which drew 18,490 spectators. "It's been a fantastic day. Parker (Parklane Hawk) was as good as I hoped he'd be. You had to get out there and ride as positive as you can. Those who didn't fell foul of that number 9, that horrible skinny brush thing," a skinny fence that proved the bane of many a well-laid riding plan.
Olympic veteran Andrew Nicholson of New Zealand on Calico Joe was eliminated there.
That woke up a lot of riders, said Jonathan Paget, Nicholson's junior teammate. "You know you're in for a bad day when Andrew walks home."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
Paget took full advantage of the openings, though, riding Clifton's Promise cleanly with no faults or time penalties to move from fifth place to third.
Nicholson, a bronze medalist at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, made up for his morning showing with a clear ride on Qwanza that left them in sixth going into show jumping on Sunday.
But after the morning's drama came Fox-Pitt, the British Burghley champion who is chasing the second leg of the $350,000 Rolex Grand Slam.
The 2010 Rolex Kentucky champ, Fox-Pitt made the slippery cross-country course at the Kentucky Horse Park look like just another happy country jaunt.
He and 12-year-old Parklane Hawk, now almost sure to be his mount at the Summer Olympics in London, took all the problem jumps in stride to finish without any missteps, within the 11 minutes, 14 seconds allowed.
American Allison Springer, the leader going into the Saturday's cross-country, wasn't quite as lucky. Despite a gritty ride, she and 13-year-old Arthur finished a few seconds over the time limit, earning 2.8 penalty points, dropping them just behind Fox-Pitt in the standings.
"I'm thrilled with my round," Springer said afterward. "It wasn't textbook. Coming home I was close to the time. It was always my plan to go the long route on the last one."
She considered changing to try the shorter route to possibly shave off a few seconds but thought, " 'Don't do it, Springer.' It was good just to get home."
Others were less lucky. American Clark Montgomery, who had been in third place on Loughan Glen, was eliminated by a mistake at the third-to-last jump.
Although 19 out of 54 horses retired on course or were eliminated — three others were withdrawn earlier —none appeared to be seriously injured. And no riders seemed to be hurt either. Rolex Kentucky officials were checking on the condition of Parker, ridden by James Alliston of Great Britain, who was checked by vets and resting comfortably after a fall.
Of the 32 horses that finished, 22 horses had clear rounds but only seven were within the time allowed.
The last ride of the day proved momentous: Boyd Martin on Otis Barbotiere rode a clear round, moving into fourth place, tied with fellow American Karen O'Connor on Mr. Medicott going into Sunday's show jumping championship phase.
The show jumping could be tense: the top three riders are separated by less than four points, the cost of knocking down one rail. But they will have to knock down more than two to open up a spot for Martin or O'Connor.
Looks as if the Rolex Kentucky is Fox-Pitt's to lose.