April 24, 2009 -- "Wow, that was worth the price of admission," a spectator behind me said in a hushed voice after an amazing eventing dressage test by Ringwood Cockatoo, the mesmerizing gray gelding who has long been the king of amazing eventing dressage tests.
At age 18, the king's reign is coming to an end, but his 28.8 score at 4-star-rated Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event proves that he still has "it," big-time. He and Bettina Hoy of Germany--who is more of a partner than a rider--were nothing short of sensational, getting bouquets of "8's" and "9's" from the three judges at the Kentucky Horse Park.
The new stadium here, built for next year's Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, is an imposing structure that served as the perfect showcase for Cockatoo's performance. And make no mistake, it was a performance, rather than a test.
"It feels like an old married couple now," said Bettina, smiling happily about her equine other half.
"We know exactly what to do and how to go about things to excel in tests, and that's exactly what he did. He seems to be getting better with getting older, and that's a nice feeling. Certainly to ride, this is the best test he's ever done," she commented, referring to the feel of the presentation, noting he had received a 28 before, but that was in a 3-star.
I caught up with Bettina after the press conference to ask her a few more questions about her appearance here.
Bettina famously lost double-gold for Germany at the 2004 Olympics by going through the starting line twice, but she still has won plenty and Cockatoo will be missed when he finally retires.
She got some extra help from abroad while walking the course. Her husband, Australian Andrew Hoy--who won here in 2006--is at home in England, but via photos she transmitted as she went around, he was able to give her pointers as he sat at his computer, thousands of miles away.
Don't you just love technology?
Headley Britannia, quite the dressage horse herself, stands second with Lucinda Fredericks of Australia on 32.3 penalties. She had less "9's" in her garlands from the judges, but still produced a beautiful test. "Brit" won the eventing dressage at the Olympics (Ringwood Cockatoo was not there) and she's very purposeful. Lucinda's husband, Clayton, is, by the way, a former Rolex winner (2007) and I'm sure she'd like to join him on the list of those who have topped this event.
The top-placed American was Buck Davidson (son of Bruce), third on My Boy Bobby with a mark of 39. Okay, he may seem far back, but tomorrow's cross-country test has a way of evening things out. It's going to be warm, in the low 80s by the time the event finishes, so my guess is that fitness will play a big role and an 18-year-old horse could be at a disadvantage.
As for Buck's chances, he said, Bobby is "a fantastic jumper...as good a jumper as there is. We'll see if he's a 4-star horse; there's no way to find out until you do it."
Frighteningly, when looking ahead to the WEG, Buck is one of only two Americans in the top 10 after dressage. Number 10 is defending champion Phillip Dutton on Connaught, whose score was 47 as he still made those flying changes that literally look like flying, he goes so far off the ground.
Nicholas Touzaint of France, last year's Badminton winner with Hidalgo De L'ile, had a rough start to his test, breaking into the canter twice during what was supposed to be the collected trot, earning two "3's" and a "2" for the mishap, sending his score into the 40s, 44.3 to be exact, putting him seventh.
The crowd of 12,953 provided a colorful backdrop for the action, but when I didn't have a problem getting into the parking lot this morning, I expected there were fewer people here than in 2008. I was right; the official count showed the number of fans was nearly 7,000 less than last year, but the issue probably is the economy. That certainly was the case at the World Cup finals last weekend in Vegas, and all I can hope is that there will be a healthy amount of spectators tomorrow for the event's big day.
Plenty of big-name foreign riders are here, all scoping out the place out before the WEG, as Bettina noted, and the U.S. is decidedly thin on prospects here this weekend. Standing fourth on 42 penalties is the leader after the first day of dressage Thursday, Tim Lips of the Netherlands, whose credits include being Dutch champion. I loved his horse, Concrex Oncarlos. If he's as smooth over the jumps as he is in dressage, he'll be one to watch. I don't know much about Tim, so I asked him a few questions after his ride.
The Horse Park is so amazing, full of changes. Cross-country course designer Mike Etherington-Smith kept calling it "a building site," and yes indeed, there certainly are spots that are unfinished." But the overall look is amazing, especially the new indoor arena and the stadium, part of which looks as if it would be at home as a major league ballpark.
The Horse Park has grown so much since I first came here in 1988, it's astounding. But Roger Haller, who has known it more than a decade longer, has an even longer perspective.
Although the competition this weekend is Rolex Kentucky 2009, everything you see is pointing toward the WEG. It's all working, which is a relief, since you never really know how such an impressive and major project will come out until it is near completion.
At the competitors' party Thursday night, held at Spindletop, an old Kentucky mansion, I was speaking with Horse Park Executive Director John Nicholson about how far the effort for the WEG has come. John actually seemed relaxed, which was good news for those wondering how things will be next year.
Right now, however, we'll all be focusing on the cross-country test. The route has had a lot of revisions.
"I turned the track around this year; it was time," said Mike E-S. "My issue this year and next spring is to try and avoid giving too much away of what I'm planning for the Worlds, which given the limited amount of space we have here is a challenge. It's been great to have the opportunity to reshape this."
Mike thinks his course is " a shade easier this year," he said, but noted he made no conscious effort toward that end on his part.
"There's plenty of room for rider errors on the course. As always, you try and not punish the horses if riders make mistakes. Hopefully, you'll keep the riders concentrating all the way through."
Let's all pray for a safe day tomorrow. The tragedy of losing two horses last year is still a specter that remains with us. For the sake of the horses and sport, we need to have a day when everyone returns to the stable on four good legs.
Look for my cross-country postcard tomorrow evening.