Lexington, Ky., April 23, 2004 -- As I got ready to head off to the Kentucky Horse Park this morning, I came across the SPF 30 sun block I had packed in a burst of optimism.
"Won't be needing that," I said to myself and boy, was I right. The Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event has been deluged with rain for the last two and one-half days. Luckily, it's supposed to be sunny for the cross-country tomorrow, but course designer Michael Etherington-Smith (who we call Mike E-S) isn't taking any chances. He has stockpiled 30 tons of grit strategically around the course to make sure it can be distributed fast if the going gets rough, or like chocolate pudding, as the case might be.
It's important that the conditions are as good as possible under the circumstances, because this is a very important Rolex. It's the key U.S. selection trial for the Athens Olympics this summer. For the first time, Rolex is running what they call a modified 4-star. This is the same format as the Olympics, with no steeplechase. It's a big experiment. No one's ever staged this type of event before at the 4-star level, and data will be collected like mad to see how the horses make out.
The extremely charismatic Mike E-S will be the technical delegate in Athens, so he has more than a passing interest in how the modified works out. He's really had to do double-duty this year, because Rolex also is running its traditional 4-star CCI. It's for foreigners who shipped in and others who want to qualify so they're eligible for Olympic selection. The modified, on the other hand, is open only to North American riders and foreigners based here, all of whom must already have qualified for the Olympics. (No, you can't just go ahead and compete at the Games without fulfilling aptly strict criteria to prove you're up to the challenge, should your nation choose you to represent it there.)
As you can imagine, there's quite a line-up of eventing stars here from eight countries, including the U.S. One of my favorites from abroad, the stately and handsome William Fox-Pitt, who was educated at the legendary Eton, has brought two horses for the CCI. The world's No. 2 rider for 2003 was leading on Thursday in the dressage with Coastal Ties, an Australian Thoroughbred, but lost his edge today to Kim Severson on the willing and elastic Winsome Adante, and Australian double team-gold medallist Phillip Dutton, who sneaked in for second on Nova Top, six penalties behind Kim and just 0.4 ahead of William.
Everyone thinks Kim is the greatest rider, an incredible natural talent. Even U.S. coach Mark Phillips speaks of her with something approaching awe. So you might ask why she's in the CCI instead of the modified. Here's why: Hard to believe, but Dan isn't qualified for the Olympics. Between Kim's broken leg last year and his colic surgery, the two missed all the other qualifying events. That means this is it, and I can guarantee you that if Dan and Kim are sound, they are wanted on our Olympic team.
This afternoon, they made up for lost time. Kim and Dan, Rolex winners in 2002, turned in their best dressage test ever today to earn just 37 penalties and the top placing in the division.
"The reason that it was his best test was that he was absolutely 100 percent with me and paying total attention to me," said Kim about her horse's fluid performance, which glowed with expression and cooperation. That was no small feat, considering that even on a mucky Friday afternoon, many of the stands were filled. Kim noted with some wonder that despite the physical problems she and her horse suffered, they are now closer than ever before.
Kim likes the looks of the course, which she plans to ride "aggressively and carefully." Though it seems made for her, she is cautious about predicting the outcome, saying "you never know." I've seen enough freak things happen cross-country to understand exactly what she's talking about. And on this course, as she put it, "there certainly is plenty to do."
William Fox-Pitt, who is also seventh with Ballincoola, said he didn't make the trip here thinking he could beat the Americans in dressage. Unspoken, however, was the thought that maybe he could beat them cross-country. After all, William has been here twice before and never won Rolex, so the third time could well be the charm.
Whoops. Let me not give short shrift to the charming Natalie Bouckaert, who is trying for the U.S. team, though her father, Carl, has ridden for his native Belgium. Natalie, who will be married in July to fellow event rider Michael Pollard (you should see the gorgeous round diamond she's wearing), is atop the leader board in the modified aboard West Farthing, with 37.4 penalties. Second is Pan American Championships individual gold medalist Darren Chiacchia with the stunning black Trakehner stallion Windfall II. Darren is great in dressage, and he could have been first this time around except for a missed lead change. He asked, but Windfall didn't deliver.
"Miscommunication," said Darren.
Natalie has had cross-country problems in the past with West Farthing, who she took on after her father had a bad fall. But Mark Phillips has been working with her, training over corners and "skinnies" in the ring using all different approaches and paces to hone her skills.
Still, Darren is within more than shooting distance with his 40 penalties on this one, and his experience could put him on top by tomorrow night. Of course, he's got a whole herd of good ones just behind him in the standings, including John Williams with Carrick and Amy Tryon with both Poggio II and My Beau, the early leader in the modified dressage. John and Amy were on the 2002 U.S. World Equestrian Games gold medal team with David O'Connor, who didn't fare as well in the division.
David, the 2000 individual Olympic gold medalist with Custom Made (who's retiring here Sunday morning), had some trouble with his modified mount, Tigger Too. I knew David was prepared for the worst when he failed to take off his top hat during his first salute to the judges. The test actually went fairly well, though Tigger was overbent at times, until the last canter before the final halt. It was as if Tigger came to life and said, "Where am I?" as he turned along an angle on the centerline and looked around in amazement. Thirty seconds more, and David would have had it nailed. As it was, I breathed a sigh of relief when he finally hit that last halt and yes, took off his hat.
I asked David what was up with Tigger, since I thought his problem was show jumping, which was what took him out of the top placings at Burghley in 2003. "He's been very emotional in the dressage all year for same reason, he's been truly out of the park," said David. "So I'm actually ecstatic with him. All of the things we've been playing around with for the last two weeks leading to that five minutes (in the dressage ring) worked. I'm very proud of him."
Proud or not, he's only tied for 25th, so my guess is that Tigger is not going to Athens, despite his stellar rider.
But David did better in the CCI with Courting Danger (is that a perfect name for an event horse, or what?) where he stands sixth and could move up after tomorrow.
Speaking of tomorrow, I'm really looking forward to sending you another postcard then to fill you in on cross-country and all the other doings at one of the horse world's greatest competitions. Wish you were here!