April 26, 2012 -- I rode the Rolex Kentucky 4-star cross-country course today.
Well, to be more exact, I rode ON the Rolex Kentucky 4-star cross-country course today. I didn't jump. I didn't even canter; my horse barely broke into a jog a few times.
Okay, full disclosure: I was part of the Rolex Ride the Course initiative that enabled a small group of journalists to see Saturday's route from horseback. Normally, we ride on hay wagons pulled by tractors, stopping at two or three obstacles for some insights from course designer Derek Di Grazia.
But this time, we roamed most of the course, led by David O'Connor, a course designer himself, not to mention Olympic eventing gold medalist, U.S. Equestrian Federation president and the next coach of the U.S. eventing team.
I was really hoping for great insights on the course from David. I'm sure there were many. Unfortunately, I couldn't focus on them (or even focus my camera) because the horse I was riding, Sky, wanted to eat grass. I never, never let my own horses eat grass when they're wearing bridles. But I eventually figured out that if I let Sky nibble, maybe I could take some photos. Didn't actually work out that well, as he kept pulling anyway.
Still, it was fun to see the course I've walked so many times from the vantagepoint of the saddle. It gives you some idea (if you switch into fantasy mode) of what it must feel like to be a competitor. And it puts the size of the fences into another good perspective.
In the moments when I was not battling Sky, I got to ride alongside David and chat (chatting I could do; concentrating I could not). I asked him if he ever missed riding the 4-stars, and he said the only one he misses is Rolex. We were accompanied by Gina Miles, the 2008 Olympic individual silver medalist, who hopes to be at Rolex again (on an eventing horse, not a horse from the Kentucky Horse Park's hack string) in a year or two. Her old partner, Mckinlaigh, is retired, enjoying the peaceful life, but she is bringing along several mounts with potential.
I had the presence of mind to speak with Derek about his course before I mounted up. Derek is in his second year as the head man for the Rolex course, and I thought he had some interesting comments, if you want to take a listen.
The first half of dressage was held today. At the top of the heap was Boyd Martin, a huge crowd favorite, on Remington XXV, whose flying changes are, shall we say, expressive. But his score of 45.3 doesn't put him very far ahead. Karen O'Connor (David's wife, as most of you know) is second on Veronica with a score of 47.8, followed by Andrew Nicholson of New Zealand on Calico Joe (48.7) one of his Plan B horses for the Olympics, in case something goes wrong with the top of his string.
Courageous Comet, who missed a lot of competition with an injury, is fourth (48.8) while Running Order (50.2) stands fifth with Doug Payne. His initial halt was textbook, worth 73.3 percent from the judges. It was square and beautiful.
I'm always surprised at how many people aren't able to put in a good halt; they seem to have a habit of skidding to a stop. The other thing that surprised me was how many horses today broke into the canter from the extended trot.
Trying to improve the picture is international dressage judge Linda Zang. This morning, I watched her work with Sinead Halpin on Manoir de Carneville, who vaulted to fame when she finished third here last year as the highest-placed American.
"She's ready to win," Linda said as Sinead walked toward the arena. But Sinead couldn't win; she wasn't even entered. Like Boyd's Neville Bardos, Sinead's horse didn't have to do a 4-star this year because she was on the "A" training list for this summer's London Games. So her appearance was as a guinea pig for the dressage judges to make sure they had their act together. Anyway, she and "Tate" looked good.
But back to Linda, she told me she got involved with eventing when Jimmy Wofford called asking her to help his student Sharon White, who rides Rafferty's Rules. It snowballed from there. Linda works with Doug and his sister, Holly (19th with Madeline) and a bunch of big names, including Karen O'Connor.
So Linda doesn't have an official position, but she'll be talking to the top 10 U.S. Rolex riders come Monday and there may be a chance she'll go to London to put some polish on the Olympians.
Back to the dressage: Boyd called Remington "a good old horse," the first one he picked up when he came to this country from Australia, who hadn't done much by the age of 11 and was a foxhunter. The owners paid him $20 to ride Remington every morning before Boyd went to his job at Phillip Dutton's place.
"He's been a very, very good horse for me. He's taken me around the world," Boyd said. Tomorrow, he'll be on another Olympic prospect, Otis Barbotiere, while Karen will be aboard her new ride, Mr. Medicott.
But even before the dressage, Karen already was a winner. She got a pair of Dubarry boots for being the best-dressed in the first horse inspection. Her white suit, paired with a gold blouse and heels, was selected by her "fashion consultant," Marilyn Little Meredith, the show jumper turned eventer. Karen gave the boots to Marilyn, who in turn presented them to her mother, Lynne. Karen and Marilyn already had Dubarry boots; everyone has them; it's amazing. I guess Lynne was the only other person, besides me, who doesn't own a pair. Doug, who wore a dark suit for the trot-up, was the male fashionplate winner.
Speaking of the trot-up, our hearts stopped beating for a moment as Phillip Dutton's horse, Mighty Nice, slid on the footing and went down. It was scary, but he got up and when the ground jury looked him over, he was pronounced okay, no worse for wear than having some white stone dust on his side.
Last night was the exhibitors' party, which is always held at Spindletop Hall, a place just down the road from the Horse Park. Once a private mansion at the end of a very long driveway, it is now owned by the University of Kentucky, but still has gracious southern charm about it.
Riders usually aren't seen at parties once the event gets under way, but they love to frequent this one before the action gets started. They dine on traditional fare, such as ham on biscuits and Kentucky hot browns, turkey with bacon and Mornay sauce. The food trays always look as if locusts have attacked; better get there early or you may not find any food, or at the least, you'll have to wait for it.
Activities include presentation of the boots and a Rolex watch, chosen in a drawing (it went to Canadian Peter Barry, a really nice guy, so I'm not jealous). It's also a chance for some short speeches.
Lee Carter, the new executive director at Equestrian Events Inc., which puts on Rolex Kentucky, was one of those who gave a talk, and I was eager to talk with him.
He's seeing the Rolex event for the first time live, but he assured me he's been busy watching it on videos.
I'll be back with another postcard tomorrow as dressage wraps up. Can't wait to see William Fox-Pitt ride; he's trying for the Rolex Grand Slam (which goes to anyone who can win Burghley, Rolex and Badminton in same cycle). He won Burghley and he's here to try for the second leg.