Lexington, Ky., April 28, 2006 -- There's an extra buzz in the air here this year, beyond the usual intense excitement that the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event (CCI****) always provides.
It's the promise of far bigger things to come at the Kentucky Horse Park, in the form of the 2010 World Equestrian Championships [known as the World Equestrian Games (WEG) for the last time this year at Aachen, Germany]. The sense of pride and promise is everywhere on the grounds, from the grandstands to the trade stands.
There's an incredible amount going on as a result, but first let me tell you about the competition at hand.
Even without three-time Rolex winner Winsome Adante ("Dan"), there's quite an impressive field assembled here for America's only 4-star-rated event. Kim Severson wisely kept Dan, her bay superstar, at home. He has proven in this spring's horse trials that he is really on form and (though no "byes" have been given for the WEG) he is a lock to make the U.S. team for Aachen if he remains sound and fit.
But Kim is still a presence here, and this morning she put in an impressive 39.5-penalty test to go to the head of the class temporarily with her other horse, Royal Venture ("Vennie").
But if I'd had to make a bet for dressage supremacy this year, it would have been that Darren Chiacchia's ride, the black Trakehner stallion Windfall II, would be leading the way at this stage in the proceedings, following two days of dressage. And he is.
In the lead on the first day was Mara DePuy Dean atop the personable Nicki Henley, who had the leading score of 43.2 penalties. Mara, who you may remember as an individual (rather than team) rider who finished sixth in the 1996 Olympics, turned in a decent test overall but left the door open after a break in the second flying change.
Kim took advantage of that with her ride on the Australian-bred Vennie, who was quite smooth and businesslike. There was still plenty of room for Darren to manuever, however, and so he did, with a score of 33 that is first place at this stage of the proceedings.
"Vennie's always sort of been the bridesmaid to Dan," said Kim, who's rooting for her second-stringer, also a candidate for the WEG, but with less credentials than his stablemate.
Still, she said, "depending on how this goes, he might have a little edge on Dan right now."
Darren had to decide whether to play it safe or go for it. If you know Darren, you know what he did. He's got a lot of the showman in him, and he has gained more confidence from his work with multi-Olympic dressage medalist Robert Dover, who is training the U.S. eventers in that discipline.
Darren conceded he thought briefly about being conservative with his 2004 Olympic mount, but then noted "my competitive nature took over."
Though he may have executed a better trot in one test previously, or a better canter in another, this afternoon yielded what he called his best performance ever "as a package, getting the whole thing done...It felt great," he said with a big smile.
Darren had quite an audience. There were 18,046 people on hand, and they ran out of tickets at the gate. This was record attendance for a Rolex Friday, and just another harbinger of great things to come in four years.
The dressage really was fascinating. One foreign rider, who shall remain nameless, decided not to ride his horse on contact. I think this one would have been good in a hunter under saddle class.
Two-time world champion Bruce Davidson did all he could to contain Jam, a jangling gray who spooked wildly even before going into the arena. It hasn't been a great two days for Bruce. Yesterday, he had a difficult ride on Little Tricky, who scored 74.1 penalties and was withdrawn from the event afterwards. Jam outdid that, with a 77.8. No word yet on whether Jam will run cross-country. This is a tough game, and for some, the dressage is the hardest part.
Phillip Dutton received a huge response from the crowd after his ride on Amazing Odyssey. While this U.S.-based Australian usually plays it close to the chest, he took his hat off to the fans in a huge, uncharacteristic sweeping gesture to acknowledge them.
I love the way the horses are turned out, especially those from the top stables. Most have coats with a mirror shine, many have quarter marks on their rumps, and their tails are long, luxurious, and cut straight ("banged") at the bottom. They could canter right into a Munnings painting with the classic look.
Tomorrow, of course, they'll be dressed for speed, not show, as they set out on cross-country. They'll need everything they've got to do it right. Everyone has commented on the size of the jumps, and course designer Michael Etherington-Smith offered that he has put together something "a little bit bigger and a little faster" than in 2005. Even so, its lack of technicality between the fences makes it "a little softer," in his opinion.
It looks plenty tough to me, especially the newest wrinkle, the third water obstacle, "The Banks and Splash," that will also be used as a hazard in the driving marathon (with no jumping involved, of course!) in the World Equestrian Championships.
By the way, the Kentucky WEG officially is the FEI Games because the FEI (the international equestrian federation) was told by some marketing genius that the world games' name should include only two words. Neither word was "equestrian" or "world," so the Kentucky folks have had to do some fancy footwork that incorporates World Equestrian Championships with FEI Games. Even the most informal man- or woman-on-the street survey would have trouble finding anyone anywhere who knows what the FEI is, much less that it has anything to do with horses!
Now as to what else has been going on: The biggest deal outside the arena so far was the announcement that para-equestrian competition would be part of the 2010 championships, in effect, making it eight disciplines that will be offered there.
This is the first time the WEG (or WEC) has offered para-equestrian since it came into existence in 1990. And it's a bigger stage in one sense than even the Olympics, because the paralympics come after the rest of the Olympics, while at the WEC, paralympics will be part of the fabric of the event itself. It will be woven in with the jumping, driving, eventing, reining, dressage, endurance and vaulting.
Paralympians Keith Newerla and Lynn Seidemann both spoke eloquently about how much this inclusion means to them, as their sport moves from the shadows to center stage.
We also had an interesting gathering with Karen and David O'Connor yesterday for the announcement that they are involved with equestrian properties that will bear their name and more importantly, be approved by them and professionally run and managed.
What Arnold Palmer is to golf courses, Karen and David will be to equestrian communities, we were told. So look for the "O'Connor Signature" on these branded facilities, where Karen and David will make sure they're run right and offer yearly clinics.
I'll be back with you tomorrow on EquiSearch.com after cross-country to tell all. I think Darren could hold on to first, or Kim possibly could move ahead if Vennie lives up to her belief in him. Watch out for Olympic individual gold medalist Leslie Law of Great Britain with Shear L'Eau, that ethereal-looking gray who looks like he just emerged from a dream. Leslie is tied for seventh on 48.2 penalties with his countrywoman, Polly Stockton (on Tom Quigley) and could climb the ladder. Even though he has a lot of ground to make up, he's the guy who can do it!