The biggest eventing competition on American soil, held April 28th through May 1, was a “weekend of almosts” for top-level eventer Laine Ashker and her ex-racehorse Thoroughbred Anthony Patch.
They were almost perfect in so many steps along the way that at times Ashker felt they just might win the prestigious Rolex Three Day. But like clockwork, something unexpected got in their way.
A misstep and spook in the dressage test, a downed rail in the jumpers, and a stop and refusal at the coffin jump in cross country, were small events that hobbled an otherwise brilliant ride, she says.
“We had a very long ray of brilliance in every phase, but there was one thing that put us down,” Ashker says. “This year there were moments where we were winning, but that one mistake made me feel like we were taking one step forward and three steps back.”
Beginning with the complicated dressage test, which had them in 7th place until a misstep and small spook dropped their score, and concluding with an all-out gallop over a cross-country course on which, three years earlier, Ashker sustained life-threatening injuries, the entire competition was marked with rising and dropping expectations.
Race name: Alex’s Castledream
New name: Anthony Patch
Barn name: Alex
Dam: Aimee Alexis
Age: 12In the dressage ring, she was in perfect rhythm with her horse.
So fluid and balanced was their trot work that Ashker began to think they had it won. Among all the world-class riders who would enter the sandy ring that day to prove their horse was most supple and most collected, victory would be hers, and that of her failed racehorse who proved to be a natural eventer.
“I was on a horse that could win the flat and I knew it,” she says. “And his trot work was winning.”
But as they eased into the canter, Anthony made a slight move toward the wrong lead, and then had a small spook, which ultimately caused him to “get behind” Ashker’s leg and present a tense canter.
It was not the ride Ashker was hoping for.
“I call the Rolex Three Day our weekend of almosts,” Ashker says. “As hard as I tried, I couldn’t make it happen, and the mistakes were pilot error. They were not his.”
Challenges continued as they embarked on the cross-country course, the scene of a devastating accident three years earlier. In 2008, Ashker sustained life-threatening injuries in an accident that claimed the life of her beloved horse Frodo Baggins.
Ashker was airlifted to a nearby hospital with two collapsed lungs, and multiple broken bones, including all of her ribs, and her jaw. She recuperated in the hospital for two months, and regained her strength to ride over the next year.
When she returned to Rolex last year, it was the first time she’d been back since the accident.
Riding the course last year was more about proving that she could. This year was about winning!
“Last year I rode to face the demons since my accident. This year I was going to win it,” she says.
The cross country started out smoothly, but trouble ensued at Jump 7, a three-phase obstacle.
Anthony spooked at something, possibly a jump outside of the eventing course, and Ashker panicked. “I couldn’t get my brain and my legs to engage quickly enough,” she says. Rather than urging her horse on, she panicked and pulled back the reins, she explains.
He wound up stopping at the ditch of the coffin jump and running out.
“At this point I was too unseated and I couldn’t make him do it,” she says. “It was completely my fault.”
With 45 jumps ahead of her, the pair regained their confidence and jumped the sunken road beautifully. From that point they had a fabulous ride.
While she did not achieve the score she strove for (she finished 10th nationally and 20th overall), she came out of the experience a better rider on a more confident horse.
“A couple of years ago, I may have thrown in the flag. But I knew it was important to finish,” she says. “And my horse came back happy and more confident.”
This growing confidence and experience combined with the brilliant aspects of all their rides provided the silver lining to a show she’d hoped to win, she says.
“In a lot of ways it was a foil to my accident three years ago,” she says. “It wasn’t life or death, but it was about getting knocked down and having to get back up again.”
Is she disappointed she didn’t bring home the Rolex watch? “Heck yes,” she says.
Is the disappointment going to stop her from pushing on toward her Olympic dream? No way!
Ashker continues to train hard with Anthony Patch, and is aiming to win a scholarship to compete at the prestigious Burghley Horse Trials in England this September, with the end goal being the Olympics in London next year.
She is philosophical about Rolex. Perhaps she won something after all.
“In a way, I did come out on top at Rolex because I left with a sound, healthy horse who is much more confident than he’s ever been,” she says. “And I’ve come out of it a better rider.”