April 25, 2013 -- For some in the horse world, the coming of spring means Rolex Kentucky, America's only 4-star-rated three-day event. Um, yes, but this year, it felt more like winter for Wednesday's trot-up, and some of today's dressage kick-off.
Never mind, everything else is as it should be. Defending champion William Fox-Pitt of Great Britain is here with two horses, the trade fair is humming with tack, clothing and jewelery, while volunteers are everywhere, providing a cheerful engine for the event. In a calorie-laden section of the Kentucky Horse Park, junk food reigns. Fried whatever, anyone? You'll find it here.
It's time to walk the cross-country course, hopefully with someone who can dissect it for you; do some star-spotting and get autographs from amazingly patient and friendly riders. Yes, there's no place on this side of the Atlantic like Rolex.
During Wednesday's competitors' party at the grand old estate, Spindletop, down the road from the Horse Park, Lee Carter gave a brief speech that really rang a bell with me, a 26-time Rolex-goer. Lee is the executive director of Equestrian Events Inc., which puts on Rolex. I asked him to repeat a shorter version of the speech for me so you could hear what he had to say; it really struck a chord and sums up the underlying allure of this great event in Lexington.
The first half of the dressage today (the rest of the competitors ride tomorrow) added an extra layer of excitement to the proceedings with New Zealand's Andrew Nicholson standing first after an engaging test on Calico Joe that was graded at 40.8 penalties, a good distance ahead of Rolex regular Becky Holder on Can't Fire Me (44.2) and Canada's Shandiss McDonald aboard Rockfield Grant Juan (45.7). William was fourth on Seacookie (46.2). Nice international top four, right?
At any rate, if Andrew wins here, he will be challenging William for the Rolex Grand Slam, which would come in a showdown at Badminton next week. You know the Grand Slam -- worth $350,000, started in 2003, only won once (Pippa Funnell). It's for whoever sweeps Burghley, Rolex and Badminton, the world's three highest-profile 4-stars. Problem was, when William was on track to take it all at Badminton 2012, there was no Badminton 2012. It got canceled in the wake of torrential rain. So William gets a second chance and Andrew, last year's Burghley winner, also has a shot. He has yet another opportunity here tomorrow when he rides Quimbo.
I asked Andrew whether he was thinking about the Grand Slam. A natural question, right?
"I've come out here with that in mind," he replied, "but at the moment, I'm concentrating on trying to win this one first and worry about next week after this week."
I watched the action all day of course, and felt my usual eventing dressage angst. I see the same missteps over and over. People revving their horses in the rein back, then jumping into the canter, the next movement. Awkward and exaggerated flying changes (as one of my friends observed, if so-so hunter riders can get smooth changes, why can't the eventers?) Scrambling into the halts. Rocky transitions. Summing it all up: Losing easy points. You may not have the greatest mover, but there's a way to make up the deficit with smoothness and accuracy.
Andrew, of course, is an incredible pro, the world number one last year. Hence his nice test. But Becky, a Rolex regular, also offered many silky moments with Can't Fire Me (Teddy), who is the same color (gray) as her previous star, Courageous Comet. That's where the similarity ends, she said.
"Comet is a ham, he loves attention," she said, reeling off some insightful observations on their differing personalities.
"Teddy would be happy to be sweating away by himself with no one in sight. Comet is the actor in the back room who has to have his Perrier water with the lemon in it, just so. Teddy is the guy with the cigarettes rolled up in his shirtsleeve."
Shandiss is one of 13 riders in the field of 46 who are Rolex first-timers, and I wish them all luck. It is, as always, a handsome layout, cunningly prepared. I love the giant Fallen Dueling Tree, with a wooden acorn and snail adding interest. The double brush tables boast horse heads and tails carved out of greenery. Scenic, however, is secondary to challenging.
But on a tour of the cross-country course with designer Derek di Grazia, I wondered if the route might be slightly soft to make things easier for the debutantes.
Here's the conversation:
In fact, the course is a bit longer than last year, due to the way Derek reconfigured the beginning of the layout.
There were a number of drop-outs in the last week or so. The most recent was Emily Beshear, who pulled out Here's to You right before the trot-up after he sustained a mild soft tissue strain that she noticed while working on the flat when he took a funny step. Emily is married to a veterinarian who is the son of Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, and together they decided it was better not to take a chance with their horse, even though his problem was minor.
"It was very, very tempting to see if we could go on, but at this level, horses need to be given every chance possible to do this well," she said, explaining the decision to withdraw.
"He has so much heart, the last thing I wanted was to come out here and have him trying his heart out when he had a physical problem."
She offered some insights on the course, noting that when she rode last year, she was glad to be aboard a thoroughbred. There's plenty of terrain, as well as obstacles en route, and your horse better be properly conditioned. Not to mention attentive.
Though she felt that Derek was "quite a bit kinder at the end of the course than he was last year," she pointed out, "everyone who comes here knows they have to have a fit horse to answer all the questions. I think you'll see the thoroughbreds prevail. They'll go on to do what they're bred to do, which is gallop and jump."
For more photos and information on Rolex Kentucky, go to facebook.com/equisearch and facebook.com/practicalhorseman. I'll be back with another postcard tomorrow night as dressage wraps up and we look toward cross-country. Let's hope the 30 percent chance of rain diminishes to zero that day.