We had been dreading the cross-country segment of Rolex Kentucky for days; with dire weather predictions calling for everything from rain to thunderstorms and tornadoes during the most dramatic phase of any three-day event.
The worst hasn't come true--at least I haven't seen any tornadoes yet--but I can vouch for the rain, because I stood in it for hours and got totally soaked and chilled while taking photos. The only people who had it tougher were the riders, and I felt for them, because they had to cope not just with the wet, but also the footing and trying to work out the best way to answer the puzzle of Derek di Grazia's complex course.
Tim Price, who was tied for the lead on 36.3 penalties with Olympic champion Michael Jung after dressage, noted the horrid forecast had been very much on his mind.
When he woke up, he said, "I gingerly opened the curtains in the hotel and looked out." I had done the same. He was a little bit encouraged, because it didn't look as if it had been raining much at that point.
If I had been there, I would have said, "just wait," because I had been reading the hour-by-hour forecast and knew the worst was yet to come.
The Rolex organizers are to be congratulated because they were pro-active and announced changes yesterday. The cross-country would start 15 minutes early, and horses would go out at three-minute intervals, instead of five. So it was all over by 2 p.m. instead of 4:30, and I'm sure the chilled spectators welcomed the chance to go somewhere warm. Though I noted attrition toward the end of cross-country, the turnout of fans was amazing considering the weather, with 31,586 showing up and causing lots of traffic jams early in the morning.
Tim went at the end of the morning on the steadfast Wesko, a blaze-faced Dutchbred who handled everything with aplomb.
That included a long hold, as a fence from someone else's mishap was repaired. While the horse was starting to wind down a bit, Tim noted, "I just tried to use the break to my advantage. It was a little longer than was beneficial, but I had to make do with what I had and get on with the job."
Get on he did, putting in one of six double-clears notched in the field of 71 starters, from which 46 completed.
Michael had the advantage of going early with his second-stringer, Fischerrocana FST, but observed that it was slippery even then. However, his mare--who negotiated awful footing at the World Equestrian Games last year--was up to the challenge and produced a double-clear. On La Bioesthetique Sam, his number one, he was a second over the optimum time of 11 minutes, 6 seconds, and that 0.4 penalties broke the tie, putting him behind Tim on 36.7, while Fischerrocana is third with 39.3.
It didn't go quite as well for defending champion William Fox-Pitt and Bay My Hero. He dropped from third to fourth, but 8.4 time penalties have left him with a total of 46.9 penalties, more than two rails behind Price and Jung going into tomorrow's stadium jumping.
Even so, William was, as he said, "chuffed," a British expression for proud and pleased, after being in the disadvantageous position of riding seventh from the bottom of the roster. Luckily for William, the horse worked hard to deal with the surface as it continued to get slick.
"I am delighted with him," he commented.
"I was worried about the ground for him today, going at the end of the day the ground had really deteriorated. He is not a thoroughbred and hasn't got the scopiest gallop, so I knew it was going to be hard work. He really worked hard all the way: he was fab."
So we may not see a Fox-Pitt victory, which would be his fourth if he pulled it off. It would be nice to have an American win for a change, but that's unlikely as the first five are all foreign riders. William Levett of Australia, who wisely rode in what looked like goggles, is fifth on Improvise, with 48.6 penalties.
Of the U.S. representatives, the closest to the top is the indomitable Boyd Martin, sixth with Master Frisky (48.6), but unlikely to take the trophy.
"He is a green horse, but a real trier," Boyd said of his intrepid mount.
"The ground was tiring, but he dug in and got it done."
Right behind him is his mentor, Phillip Dutton, on Mighty Nice.
Now, I don't want to make too much of this, but both Boyd and Phillip came from Australia.
Boyd had dual citizenship and Phillip is a naturalized citizen. He was the last American to take the trophy, back in 2008 on Connaught. Coincidentally, that horse was owned by the late Bruce Duchossois, who also owned Mighty Nice.
The highest-ranking native-born citizen, so to speak, is Will Coleman, eighth with Obos O'Reilly. But he got a bonus, winning a lease on a Land Rover Discovery Sport for being the American closest to the optimum time. As soon as he was given the keys, he was off to the Land Rover all-terrain course to try his hand on getting the vehicle up and down the hills and around the tight turns. I did it once (even though I didn't get a lease) and it's a kick.
It's interesting that this was Obos O'Reilly's first 4-star.
"When I went to the start box, I wasn't entirely sure how he would handle it, it was a big track, but he was superb," said Will.
"He's a real fighter and I knew he would jump the jumps." It was the time he was worried about, but that obviously worked out.
The riders gave kudos to Derek, and while he didn't plan on the rain, what he did held up in adverse circumstances.
Derek and I talked about his route, so click on the arrow at the left below to hear what he had to say.
Oh, I heard that Zara Phillips was making herself useful by doing commentary on the livestream. Good to keep busy after a disappointment--remember, she withdrew High Kingdom before dressage yesterday after he kicked in his stall and suffered a slight cut.
I'll be back with another postcard tomorrow on the show jumping as Rolex wraps up. I think there will be a lot of tense moments, but with cool heads like Tim's and Michael's (not to mention William's) it should be an experience to watch the outcome.