This year's Rolex CCI**** cross-country course was the biggest in the history of the event. Along with raising the heights, spreading the widths, and increasing the technical nature of many existing jumps, course designer Michael Etherington-Smith added five entirely new combinations to the course.
Nobody could predict exactly how these new fences would ride on the day of competition. Those unfortunate enough to draw an early time based their strategies on educated guesses. Those lucky enough to ride later in the day hovered around television monitors in the ten-minute box and back at the stables to watch the early rides. Many changed their plans of attack throughout the day as reports came back from riders finishing.
The Lexington Bank
The first unknown quantity on this year's course was the new complex on the Lexington Bank, which could be ridden in a variety of ways. The first horse on course, Drizzle, gave Phillip Dutton a sticky ride through the bounce on the top of the bank as he tried to add a stride between the "cottages." Drizzle had trouble with the firm, slippery footing on the turns, too, so Phillip quickly opted to take the long route over a log pile instead of the tight left turn to the corner at the bottom of the bank.
Bruce Davidson and Eagle Lion, probably the most experienced pair competing, jumped the bounce in better style but still opted to take the log pile. Experienced Brit Karen Dixon and her 2000 Badminton partner, The Honourable Bob, did the same later in the day. She explained, "I couldn't stop! I'd planned to go the short way, but everybody had said the ground's really skiddy there. I slipped my left rein [over the cottages] and he was just off--so I went around."
Canadian veteran Stuart Black and Midnight Magic were the first to crack the code and jump all the fast routes of the complex. Riders later in the day knew to attack the bank up to the bounce with plenty of energy. Those with greener horses wisely chose the long route on the top of the bank. Some circled left between the cottages, some circled right?-and some took the long way at the bounce but the short way over the final element, a corner.
Overall, the complex caused only three refusals and one fall. But many riders picked up time penalties for taking the more circuitous long routes. The day before, Michael Etherington-Smith had said, "I expect most to jump the corner." Although the opposite proved true (because of riders' worries about the slippery footing), he later commented that ?the bank is a real rider fence. It looked much easier than it actually is."
Rails, Ditch and Rails
Another new complex in the first half of the course was a challenging "coffin." Although event horses see variations of this type of fence throughout their careers--and there was no hidden "trick" to this combination--it caused the most problems of any complex on course. The rails were straightforward but big--the first element was 3 feet 9 inches and the last was 3 feet 11--and the ground sloped sharply downward to the ditch and back up again afterward, demanding extreme confidence on the horse's part.
"Those that rode it well jumped it well," said Michael. "Those that were a little bit suspicious or tentative were not that tidy." Among the combination's victims were Kimberly Vinoski and Jerry McGerry, placed fourth after dressage. They retired from the course after Kimberly fell at the first element. Several riders picked up twenty penalties as their horses hesitated at the first element and either hung a leg on it and drifted past the last element--or ran out of gas. More cautious riders--like Susanne Andreotti, who made it around her first CCI**** Course jump-penalty-free with Buehler, chose the serpentine-like ?slow but steady? route here.
Head of the Lake
The scores at the end of the day don't always reflect the excitement of each ride on course. Case in point: David O'Connor and Custom Made's trip through the Head of the Lake. The distance in the water from the island to the final bank out was either a steady five strides or a forward four. David had gotten the five with his earlier ride, Giltedge, and planned to do the same with Custom Made. But, as he later said, they reached the bank mid-stride: ?on a 4.3. If he had tripped up that step, that would have been the end of it. He was very catty to get his feet up and get out OK."
Root Cellar to Double Brush
One of the new combinations on the second half of the course was a maximum drop fence with a bending line to a maximum brush spread. Riders could add or subtract strides by taking a more or less direct route. Again, the slippery footing was a factor here. David O?Connor thought this was the only place on course where he might have gone faster on Giltedge (the eventual Rolex 2001 winner), who finished just four seconds over the optimum time. "When I went to turn, he didn't feel like his feet were underneath him. So I took a couple of extra strides there, then made the move [to the brush]."
Although the bending line was forgiving for some, the size of the brush jump left little room for error on takeoff. The British pair of Katie Parker and Springleaze Macaroo rode a bending eight-stride line but tried to leave out the eighth stride, taking off far too early to clear the brush. The big Irish gelding crashed across the jump, unseating his rider on the other side. (Katie remounted and rode the rest of the course brilliantly.)
One of the most difficult-looking new combinations on course consisted of two huge corners. Surprisingly, it took a toll on only one rider: Phillip Dutton, who fell off his 2000 Olympic mount, House Doctor, at the first element. Many riders wisely chose to take the long route here--a line of four easier jumps over which many tired horses seemed to perk up, as if happy to see such a familiar-looking gymnastic exercise. Four-star rookie Natalie Rooney, however, tackled the double corners impressively, taking several strong half-halts as she lined Aladdin up and rode straight and steady through the two-stride combination.
The Sunken Road
The last major new complex was the Sunken Road, a terrific test of reflexes at the end of a long, grueling course. The distances (a bounce over rails to a drop down into the road, one stride across the road, then bounce up the bank and over more rails) were snug enough that horses entering with just a little too much speed paid the penalty: getting too close to the last element, making awkward jumps out (causing a few riders to fall back on their reins and yank punishingly on mouths)--and, in many cases, striking the rail hard with their legs. The cattier horses demonstrated their talent here, snapping their knees up to clear the fence from even very close takeoff spots.
Again, the experiences of the early riders benefited the later riders. Toward the end of the day, most riders approached the combination in controlled, bouncy canters and jumped neatly through the combination. Kiwi Bryce Newman, who stood second at the end of cross-country day, was one of the few riders to opt for the slightly longer route, which allowed his horse to take a full stride between the first rail and the drop into the road. As he explained later, his Dunstan Inishturk ?is a fairly big horse, so I gave him that little bit of extra time to make that stride so I could control the stride at the bottom of the sunken road a little more efficiently than bouncing in. As it turned out, he probably would have gone straight, but it felt good, and it was a decision I made earlier on. It helped a little being late in the draw, being able to watch a few others go through. That made up my mind there, really."
Looking Ahead to Next Year
Now that the top riders in the world have risen to what may have been Michael Etherington-Smith's toughest challenges to date, he'll have his hands full putting together new questions for next year. "The quality of riding here this year was fantastic," he says. "It actually makes it quite tricky for people like me."
What's in the works? Among other things, he plans to change the Head of the Lake. But he's not letting the cat out of the bag yet. Riders aiming for Rolex 2002 will have to wait till next spring to start working on their strategies.