Lexington, Ky., April 25, 2008 -- For racing fans, the big Kentucky moment is the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs, about an hour from here, where they run the Derby.
For eventing fans, the Kentucky weekend they dream of all year is the last one in April, when the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event makes its magic.
Can you believe 13,000 people turned out for the first half of eventing dressage yesterday? And there were even more today, though we didn't get a crowd count yet.
Becky Holder on Courageous Comet, the leader after dressage at the 2008 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event | © 2008 by Nancy Jaffer
The trade fair, seeing old friends, walking the verdant grounds of the Kentucky Horse Park--all are part of the lure of America's only 4-star-rated three-day event. But it's the competition itself that is the biggest draw, of course, and as always, it's a doozy as anticipation continues to build toward tomorrow's cross-country test.
Becky Holder, who has had some big moments and some big disappointments here, is on the upswing again in this Olympic selection trial. On her birthday yesterday, when she turned 39, she managed to achieve nearly the same score as her age, earning 39.3 penalties for a test on the aptly named Courageous Comet that was a pleasure to watch. And this was no present; she deserved her good marks.
Her gray gelding is one special horse. Oh, but let Becky tell you about him.
Listen: Becky Holder, the leader after dressage, talks about the character of her horse, Courageous Comet.
Two years ago, Becky and Comet were leading after cross-country when four rails down in show jumping tumbled them into 13th place. In 2007, Comet refused at the fifth fence on cross-country, the Sycamore Corners, and Becky retired. Last fall, they both had a hard fall at the first of a pair of corners jumps, and I wondered if they were finished.
But Becky's back, and when I asked her what she did to overcome the way last season ended, she said, "I started all over again. I went back to the basics, both with myself, my own fitness and my horse's confidence," she said. Becky also worked on her dressage with Kim Severson (whose most famous mount, Rolex perennial winner Winsome Adante, is being retired here Sunday).
Today, she walked the course four times and waited to see if any of the 40 other riders in the competition could beat her score. "I have to admit I was sweating bullets the entire time. I was hoping I was good enough," she confessed.
Coming just close enough for discomfort was Heidi White with Northern Spy, the lop-eared bay, who was so harmonious in his movements it seemed as if he was doing the serpentines and flying changes effortlessly, and the judges gave him a total of 40.6 penalties.
Philip Dutton had his hands full when Connaught executed a dramatic flying change. | © 2008 by Nancy Jaffer
The flying changes weren't so effortless for Connaught, third with Phillip Dutton aboard. They have been a bit of a sticky question for the bay gelding who, like Northern Spy, is a veteran of the World Equestrian Games (WEG). One change right in front of the judges looked more like Connaught was rearing as he dramatically switched leads with a leap. He still got a respectable 41.3 for the rest of his work.
The others in the top six are all close. Stephen Bradley started and finished like gangbusters with From, who got 9's for his halt and beautiful reaching trot, but had trouble with his changes and wound up doing some cross-cantering. His score is 42.6, nearly one point ahead of Corinne Ashton and Dobbin (43.5) while Young Rider Emilee Libby turned in a businesslike performance with Cahir to earn 44.8 penalties. After that, scores went into the 50s.
Fans didn't get to see Theodore O'Connor, who last year became the first pony to compete at Rolex, doing his best test. When they applauded the announcement of his name before he entered the arena he got fractious, backing into the gatekeeper. His flying changes put the emphasis on the flying part, and he stands 24th with 58.2 penalties.
The competitor who came furthest this year was Polly Stockton of Great Britain, ninth with Charles Owen Tangleman (52.2), who has done better tests when he is more focused. Usually, there's a large British contingent at Rolex, but the lottery funding that brought them here is going instead to get them to Hong Kong. Polly got private sponsorship for the trip, reflected in the Charles Owen prefix for the helmet manufacturing company. She has two horses starting at Badminton next week and couldn't ride a third. Tangleman is too old (15) and too heavy, in her opinion, to try for the Olympics in Hong Kong and has done well here in the past, so that was her reason for bringing him.
I asked this very experienced rider for her assessment of the cross-country course, and here is what she told me:
Listen: Polly Stockton of Great Britain sizes up the course.
A fractious Theodore O'Connor became a firecracker when he heard the crowd welcome him to the dressage ring. | © 2008 by Nancy Jaffer
There are some discrepancies about the difficulty of the course. While Polly isn't intimidated, others are certainly wary, and I can see why after the annual media trip around the cross-country course on a hay wagon pulled by a tractor (it would be even more fun if it were pulled by a pair of Belgians!) We get to see the jumps close-up, but even better, we also hear course designer Michael Etherington-Smith's assessment of the changes in his route.
Mike has to be considered the world's leading course designer. Not only is he doing this summer's Olympic Games in Hong Kong, but he also will be designing the cross-country layout for the 2010 WEG, which are being held at the horse park.
Naturally, he already is looking forward at what he'll do for the WEG. Some of his ideas, he said, "I have not done, I have put it in the bank for 2010. It will have some different lines, a different feel, a different flavor to the course."
There are a lot of different flavors in this year's course, too, but he won't rank it with what he did last year or the year before.
"It's very difficult to compare the degree of difficulty from one year to the next," said Mike, explaining the layout involves variations on themes he has used through the years. One innovation is the double-diamonds, a set of corners halfway through the course that offers three options--all difficult, as far as I could tell. As solid as it looks, it is one of several jumps on course set with frangible pins, which drop a rail down when it is hit hard, rather than (one hopes) causing the horse to fall--though it is no guarantee that won't happen, this being a risk sport.
It takes a ton of technical expertise to even think of tackling a course like this these days. I can remember walking the course at the 1996 Olympics and thinking, "I could jump this," or "I think I could do that." Of course, I meant I could clear them only as individual fences, making sure I showed them to my horse first. But there isn't one fence on this course that I could even have dreamed of clearing on the best day of my low-level competitive career. The course is artful, but infinitely challenging.
Rolex Kentucky cross-country course designer Mike Etherington-Smith | © 2008 by Nancy Jaffer
I had a question for Mike about what he'll be doing as the horses take his test:
Listen: Course designer Mike Etherington-Smith talks about what he's going to do on cross-country day.
While the competition is intense, there's also some fun. Last night was the competitors' party at Spindletop, a gracious old mansion where "heavy" hors d'oeuvres were served, along with bourbon (a Kentucky staple). It was a great occasion for socializing. There was a drawing for a Rolex watch, won by Canada's Selena O'Hanlon, and the most stylish riders in the first trot-up, Stephen Bradley and Jessica Steinberg (who wore a big hat, perhaps in honor of her horse, Mr. Big) received those Dubarry boots that everyone is wearing as their prize.
I chatted with Will Faudree, who was disappointed not to be competing the 19-year-old Antigua here. He was held at the first vet check, and Will decided not to represent him and "embarrass him in front of all those people." Turned out to be nothing but an abscess, and he's fine now, so Will is still hoping to go to the Olympics with his campaigner who did his first three-day in 1998.
"The journey I've been on with him is unbelievable," Will told me. "Selfishly, I hope it continues, but if it doesn't, that's okay. This horse doesn't owe me anything."
The other drop-out from the line-up was Gina Miles' mount, McKinlaigh, who colicked and received medication that kept him from taking part in the competition.
Speaking of chatting, I saw Ralph Hill today in the Kentucky Horse Park tent. He has made a remarkable recovery from a fall that doctors thought could have killed him last year. He was in a coma for six weeks. One leg was broken in 40 places, he told me--quite cheerfully, I might add. He's riding again and has even jumped two little fences, though he didn't want me to tell anyone. Yet I thought he was kind of proud, so I didn't feel it would hurt to share it with his many fans. I know they will be glad to hear this 55-year-old rider is on the comeback trail.
Ralph will be honored this weekend with other U.S. and Canadian riders who competed in the 1978 world championships here (he was fourth on Sergeant Gilbert.) That was the event that started the horse park on its road to glory and the WEG, so it and the riders who were part of it are viewed with veneration.
I'll be sending another postcard your way tomorrow evening after what we all hope will be an incident-free cross-country test.