It's time to pack your bags and arrange for someone to feed your horses while you are gone, because the Rolex 4-star at the Kentucky Horse Park is about to start!
Any time you go to Rolex is an occurrence, but when you look at the improvements that have been made to the Horse Park and the cross-country course, you know that this year will be special. Add to this an outstanding international entry list, world-wide live television, and a record crowd -- and you have the makings of the best Rolex ever. Event director Janie Atkinson and her ever-efficient staff never rest on their laurels, so you will be attending what is arguably the best-run event in the world this week.
Janie has wisely retained the services of Michael Etherington-Smith, the world's premier cross-country course designer, to set the standard for the riders again this year. Rolex Kentucky is like the old song about Kansas City: "They've gone about as far as they can go." The perennial question that faces a cross-country course designer is how to build fences that will test the best riders in the world without eliminating the rest of the field. The designer has to walk a fine line between making things so easy that the event becomes a competition decided by the dressage scores, and designing problems that only a few riders in the world can jump successfully. This is an unenviable task and we are lucky to have Mike design for us because he has the gift of getting things right. Last year at this time Mike was quoted as saying he felt that cross country courses had gotten about as hard as they could get. Be that as it may, when competitors walk this Rolex course, you can be assured that there will be some new problems for them to solve, and there will be a lot of riders with long faces in the barn on Friday evening before the next day's cross-country ride.
Over the past several years, Mike has shown a refreshing tendency to use terrain to influence the difficulty of his design and not just to build a series of show-jumping problems interspersed with obstacles with an incredibly narrow face (corners, arrowheads, stiles, etc.). Narrow-faced jumps caused a lot of grief when they first appeared on the scene a few years ago, but riders and trainers have learned how to train horses to handle the problem, and horses are becoming accustomed to jumping through narrow openings. I have always been somewhat opposed to the excessive use of narrow jumps when it should be the rider's ability to maintain the horse's balance going up and down hill that is being tested. It is called, after all, the cross-country phase.
Jimmy's Picks for Rolex:
There is a strong cast of characters appearing at Rolex this year. The spotlight of course will be on David O'Connor, our individual Olympic gold-medal winner, but he is joined at center stage by Phillip Dutton, the two-time Olympic team gold medalist; Bruce Davidson, twice World Championships individual gold medalist; and Ian Stark, the longtime stalwart of the British team who is bringing his 1999 Badminton winner, JayBee. However, these boys won't have center stage to themselves. Karen O'Connor knows what it takes to win Rolex and at this writing she has gotten special permission from the FEI to ride four horses around the course. The FEI is requiring her to be examined by a doctor after her third ride before she will be allowed to start her last horse of the day. When I spoke to her about this, I pointed out to her that she should have her head examined instead. Karen just laughed and said she has four nice horses to ride and she should have had her head examined for riding some of the horses around Rolex that she has in the past. I assume she meant The Optimist, a terrible puller, who caused her to finally call her coach (me) out of retirement in order for the horse to win at Rolex. When this happened, I told Karen that she looked as if she had mixed emotions. I told her the old joke that mixed emotions were watching your mother-in-law drive your new car off a cliff. I gave her the new definition of mixed emotions: breaking your arm at the World Championships (Gawler, Australia, 1986), calling your coach out of retirement to ride a horse you didn't want to ride anyway, and then watching him win Rolex. That's mixed emotion!
Jimmy's WEG Outlook:
Karen knows what it feels like to step into the spotlight as the winner at Rolex. Kim Vinoski knows what it feels like to be the understudy. This year she and her 2001 Horse of the Year Winsome Adante are back and they are better than ever. Look for Kim to become the leading lady of the 2002 Rolex. Joining these luminaries in the top 10 will be some of the foreign contenders, notably William Fox-Pitt of Great Britain, who is shipping two horses, and Olivia Bunn, who is bringing her horse from Australia. When you look at this collection of riders you are probably looking at most of the top 10 places. I look for Mara Depuy and Holly Hepp to go well. Depending on their speed cross-country, they might just elbow their way into the lineup.
I am handing out a new trophy this year which I am calling, "Where'd They Come From?" This trophy goes to the highest placing unknown rider, and a possible winner of this prize is Gina Miles from California. She has had a good season of preparation. Her wonderful Irish three-quarter-bred McKinlaigh is jumping well and looks fit. They may surprise you with their final results.
But there will be no surprises in the top four. I predict that the O'Connors, Phillip Dutton and Vinoski will be the last four riders into the ring Sunday afternoon. When the dust settles, Kim Vinoski will be standing at the winner's podium with Linda Wachtmeister's Winsome Adante.
The U.S. selectors will be watching closely because they have to choose a team for the World Equestrian Games this summer. Riders know that if they go well at Rolex they have a real chance of making the team. Based on the depth of their string, I would say that both Karen and David O'Connor are shoo-ins. I look for Amy Tryon and Lauren O'Brien to go well at Badminton and earn a spot on the squad. Nina Fout with her Olympic veteran 3 Magic Beans has yet to have a cross country jumping fault at the 4-star level, and Darren Chiacchia hopefully has survived the incredible string of bad luck that has attended his efforts over the last several years and is poised to rejoin the team. Robert Costello with Chevalier is another proven veteran and has an excellent chance of making the team as well.
And finally, Kim Vinoski must be the best rider in the world who has never ridden for her country. I look for her to break that jinx this year, and if my prediction here at Rolex comes true, she will win the individual gold medal in Jerez, Spain, this September.