Two of the sport's premier riders battled for first place in the World Cup equestrian cross country race but a string of accidents and a surprise death to a horse during competition dampened the excitement at The Event at Rebecca Farm on Saturday.
During a run in the Advanced division in the early afternoon, 8-year-old thoroughbred gelding Chauncy collapsed and died minutes later on the far north end of the course. Rider Suzy Elliott of Yelm, Wash., reportedly realized something was wrong and dismounted the horse just before it collapsed.
The death occurred in a solitary section of the course far away from the thousands of spectators camped along the acreage.
Following a necropsy in Kalispell later in the afternoon, event officials confirmed that the horse died from a cardiac hemorrhage.
"The organizers and officials of The Event at Rebecca Farm would like to extend their deepest sympathy to the Elliott Family and Aspen Farm," a Rebecca Farm press release said.
This is the third horse fatality in the nine years of The Event at Rebecca Farm, according to officials.
"I've had it happen before and you don't see it coming," current Rebecca Farm CIC3* leader Karen O'Connor said. "The horses are running at full form and they're doing what they want to do. All of a sudden all of the energy just is gone and you're not really sure what happened. From what I understand, Suzy recognized it right away and she pulled the horse up."
The news swept through the stables at Rebecca Farm, leaving fellow riders saddened and humbled by the sudden loss.
"She'll never forget that feeling, sadly," O'Connor said. "It's an unfortunate circumstance. It's like when the basketball player drops on the floor and all of a sudden everybody is saying why didn't we see it coming? Well, because you can't make life safer than life itself. It is a horrible, horrible experience and it's something we never want to see happen, but it is life."
Earlier in the day, the chase for World Cup positioning and $50,000 in prize money intensified on the second day's demanding and technical cross country course.
In FEI CIC3* action, Phillip Dutton and Truluck rode strong across the roughly 2 1/4 mile complex and moved back into first place after losing the top spot in the dressage a day earlier.
But alas, for the second day in a row, O'Connor and Mandiba swooped in despite a 20-minute delay following another rider's wreck and bested Dutton and Truluck to retake first place by a horsehair margin.
O'Connor and Dutton, two of the most consistently successful riders in the U.S. over the years, were the only two CIC3* riders on Saturday to "double clear," or finish their test without time or jump penalties.
The duo is neck-and-neck heading into today's show jumping finale.
O'Connor holds a slim advantage, 44.2 to Dutton's 45.8.
"I had that hold on course so that kind of changed things up for me but (Mandiba) gave me a great ride and he's not a horse that would be too bothered, as I found out, by the hold," O'Connor said.
The sudden stoppage in competition came after rider Maxance McManamy flew out of her saddle and landed hard near a patch of jumps and brush, prompting medical attention and an ambulance ride to a local hospital. Officials later confirmed that McManamy was in stable condition.
"It's one of those things where the first thing that goes through your mind is OK what happened? Who is it? Is the horse OK? Is the rider OK? So I was concerned about that," O'Connor said of what she was thinking when the stoppage occurred.
"Once I had that relief, then the minutes go on and you're thinking about OK how am I going to get this going again?"
Two other riders besides McManamy were ejected from their saddles during the cross country run, including last year's Rebecca Farm winner Kelly Prather. Another two riders were retired from the day's event after their horses refused jumps to make it five total competitors who didn't finish.
The scores are just as close after O'Connor and Dutton. Hawley Bennett-Awad riding Gin N' Juice is currently in third place with a score of 55.6 and Mara Dean and High Patriot are fourth with 55.8.
Buck Davidson and My Boy Bobby are fifth at 56.4 and Dutton, this time on Inmidair, is sixth with 56.6.
The fourth and final day of The Event concludes today starting at 8 a.m. with all-level show jumping competitions. The CIC3* World Cup event starts at 1:10 p.m.
The CIC3* will go in descending order with the current top place holders going last, which means the final two competitors - O'Connor and Dutton - could be in a nerve-racking position of win or lose with their every jump.
"For me, a lot of it comes down to who's the best show jump horse," O'Connor said.
"Phillip's an amazing show jump rider so I don't go into tomorrow lightly at all ... All of us including even those who are in fourth and fifth, know we have a good shot at it. Some of it's luck and some of it's experience and technique. Roll the dice. Everybody's going to be trying to win this thing."
With every lumbering step, Jil Walton heard the cheers from atop My Sedona during the cross country race.
Being the hometown girls has its advantages.
“That crowd support, it was giving me goose bumps,” said Walton, a Kalispell
resident who competed in the CIC3*. “It gives you a huge amount of energy and it’s cool how loud they were. Everywhere I went it felt like I was riding a celebrity around.”
Walton and the 12-year-old chestnut thoroughbred that was born in Polson and raised in Kalispell made an impressive showing as the pair moved up the standings on Saturday from 23rd to 16th.
At the middle of the course where the majority of spectators waited to watch the keyhole jump, Walton and My Sedona came zipping around the corner to growing cheers. They hopped through the keyhole into the pond, galloped through the water and in one swift stride cleared back-to-back jumps leaving splashes of blue dye in their wake.
Nothing to it.
“(My Sedona) had a great run today. She’s got confidence in herself and now I’m starting to trust her too,” said Walton, who has raced at Rebecca Farm the past four summers. “I was nervous about a couple things. But probably me being a little amped up works because she likes it when you challenge her. You got to run on her like you’re in first place and like you’re going to win.”
The Event at Rebecca Farm
1. Karen O'Connor/Mandiba, 44.2; 2. Phillip Dutton/Truluck, 45.8; 3. Hawley Bennett-Awad/Gin N' Juice, 55.6; 4. Mara Dean/High Patriot, 55.8; 5. Buck Davidson/My Boy Bobby, 56.4; 6. Phillip Dutton/Inmidair, 56.6; 7. Heather Morris/First Mark, 59.4; 8. Sara Mittleider/El Primero, 60.4; 9. Sharon White/Rafferty's Rules, 60.6; 10. Beth Temkin/Jude's Law, 62.2.