Elkton, MD – Karen O’Connor and Mandiba did not take the easy road to the 2009 Dansko Fair Hill International CCI***, but they delivered on the second day of dressage and put in a dynamite test for a score of 39.6, making them the only pair to go under 40 going into Saturday’s cross country.
Also serving as the USEF National CCI*** and CCI** Eventing Championships, Fair Hill International showcased some very professional dressage rides on Friday. O’Connor, who broke her shoulder blade in September in a motorbike accident after falling off Mandiba at the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials, had a score to settle. Using every ounce of her Olympic experience, she guided Joan Goswell’s 10-year-old Irish Thoroughbred to a confident, accurate and very obedient test.
“It’s been awhile since I sat in this position so I am a little excited,” said O’Connor.
Good lateral work, a great rein back and very square halts highlighted the best test of the day. O’Connor (The Plains, VA), a multiple former winner of the CCI*** at Fair Hill, had Olympic teammate Phillip Dutton ride Mandiba while she was recovering from her injury and regain the horses form after his atypical performance at Burghley.
“He’s been a great horse, he’s been a work in progress,” said O’Connor. “He’s been going really, really well, I’m very lucky having broke my shoulder only five weeks ago. David (O’Connor) has been preparing the horse for the competitions for Phillip. I was a student and I watched them work on things that maybe I hadn’t noticed having worked with this horse so much.”
The rain is set to return Friday night, but O’Connor thinks the course will hold up and the course builders (Eric Bull and his crew) are working around the clock to ensure the best conditions for the horses tomorrow.
“I have a tremendous amount of confidence in the course designer, Derek (DiGrazia) is amazing,” said O’Connor. “We know Fair Hill can take a ton of water. I am really thrilled that it is still taking the water. They are going to do everything that is possible to make it work for the horse’s safety.”
The cold weather and gusty wind made for some lively conditions around the dressage ring today, and John Williams (Southern Pines, NC) held on to a top spot after a good performance on Thursday with Sweepea Dean for a score of 42.6. The level-headed 10-year-old Thoroughbred cross tried very hard and delivered in his first CCI*** with a very good performance.
“He’s a good horse, I don’t spend a whole lot of time on him, I’ve been a bit busy doing other things over the last few years, so I’ve let him down a little bit,” said Williams. “So it’s been nice to focus on him over the last few weeks and I could show him off, at least partway, to his potential. He’s a very laid back horse. This horse is rather green, he’s only done a small handful of advanced horse trials. I didn’t really come here to set the world on fire. I’m just planning on cantering around not too quickly tomorrow, hopefully the ground will slow everyone else down too.”
Mara Dean (Round Hill, VA) typically is reliable in the dressage and her performance with Nicki Henley certainly did not disappoint. The 1996 Olympic veteran and Nicki Henley put in a very determined effort after a two year hiatus for the 14-year-old Irish-bred gelding. Their score of 43.6 left them in third place going into Saturday’s cross-country.
“I’m very happy with my test, he’s coming back from a little layoff,” said Dean. “He gave me the best he could today, but there is still room for improvement. It’s just great to be riding him, he’s not supposed to be back here, so it’s great.”
Leslie Law was first in the ring on Thursday morning and his score of 45.3 held until the very last horse in the ring on Friday afternoon. Canadian Rebecca Howard put in an elegant performance with 11-year-old Roquefort to inherit the lead on a score of 42.2.
“My horse was really good, it was a long day waiting until the very end,” said Howard. “I was trying to basically figure out how to keep him warm all day. He’s a real worker and he tries real hard. He went to work out there which was nice.”
“I’m just getting to know him still,” said Howard. “I think I will know a lot more about him after tomorrow. I’m going to watch quite a bit before I ride and be careful with the ground I’m riding over.”
Law lays less than a point ahead of Lauren Keiffer (The Plains, VA) and Ultra Tim. Keiffer, being the top placed American, leads the USEF National CCI** Championships. The 22-year-old works for the O’Connors, and has produced the 10-year-old Thoroughbred gelding after he was bought for an unpaid bill by owner Abigail Gille.
“He’s pretty green, so he’s pretty good for $700,” said Keiffer. “I got him a year ago, I wasn’t really looking to move him up to Intermediate this year but he was clocking around Prelim this spring. He was pretty quiet out there but I don’t think he really knows what’s going on. He’s pretty classic, he’s not much to look at in the barn.”
Despite her horse’s inexperience, Keiffer is looking forward to the cross country.
“He’s a real genuine cross country horse,” said Keiffer. “He’s just chicken enough that he’s careful but he’s really
genuine. I think it looks great, if they come off it well then they are pretty much ready to move up to advanced.”
Keiffer is also catch riding Radio Flyer for Karen O’Connor in the CCI***, the experienced chestnut Thoroughbred gelding has completed Fair Hill before with his former rider Dorothy Crowell.