Top British hope William Fox-Pitt ran into trouble at the Rolex Kentucky four-star when Coup de Couer’s exuberance bubbled over in his dressage test. The black gelding, who was ridden by Leslie Law until he moved to America, broke on the two-loop serpentine as William prepared for the flying change, netting him a bevy of 3s and 4s from the judges.

There were a few other mistakes, including one in the rein back, but the partnership wound up in sixth place, just behind the top contenders, with a score of 50.7pen on the first day of the competition at the Kentucky Horse Park.

Fox-Pitt, who is a veteran of Kentucky, couldn’t help but think of what might have been. Coup de Couer finished third in Kentucky last year with Leslie Law.

“He’s capable of doing 15 marks better. I’m disappointed,” said Fox-Pitt. “He got a little fractious. I don’t know him very well; it’s early days.” And, he added, “going second is not a great draw.”

With strength in numbers, Americans dominated the top spots on Thursday. Olympic veteran Mara DePuy Dean leads aboard Nicki Henley, David O’Connor’s 2004 Radnor two-star winner. A break into the trot as she attempted a flying change when she collected the horse, but didn’t have a leg on him, netted her a 4, a 2 and 1 for the movement. She finished on 43.2pen, but like Fox-Pitt, couldn’t help thinking of what might have been. U.S. technical advisor Mark Phillips felt she could have had a mark in the high 30s without her mishap.

Standing just 0.5pen behind Dean are Becky Holder and Courageous Comet.

The only foreign rider among the first five was Donna Smith of New Zealand on Call Me Clifton, marked at 45.6 for fourth place, less than two points behind the USA’s Stephen Bradley and From (43.9).

But the picture could change with the second day of dressage. Fox-Pitt has another chance with Mr. Dumbledore, while the other British riders, Leslie Law (Shear L’Eau), Polly Stockton (Tom Quigley) and U.S.-based Emma Winter (Mahogany Chief) are also on the schedule.

A total of 58 horses were set to start in the event, though two-time World Champion Bruce Davidson already withdrew his homebread Little Tricky after a dodgy dressage test that netted him 74.1pen.

The real test, of course, comes Saturday on cross-country, and with rain predicted for the first short-format Rolex Kentucky, the course could increase in difficulty.

Designer Michael Etherington-Smith called the rouye “a little bit bigger and a little faster” than 2005, but feels it is “a little softer” than its predecessor because it is less technical. If the weather is good, he believes anywhere from eight to 12 starters could be double-clear. But all bets are off if, as predicted, it rains.

Current positions

1. NICKI HENLEY (Mara Dean) USA 43.2
2. COURAGEOUS COMET (Becky Holder) USA 43.7
3. FRÖM (Stephen Bradley) USA 43.9
4. CALL ME CLIFTON (Donna Smith) NZL 45.6
5. NORTHERN SPY (Heidi J. White) USA 49.4
6. COUP DE COEUR (William Fox-Pitt) GBR 50.7
7. WOODSTOCK (Amy Tryon) USA 51.1
8. WINDSWEPT (Penny Rowland) CAN 53.3
9. YEOMAN’S POINT (Andrew Hoy) AUS 54.6
10. HYPERLITE (Bruce (Buck) Davidson, Jr.) USA 56.3

Photo copyright Nancy Jaffer 2006