The first thing that occurred to me as Germany's Michael Jung left the ring after his dressage test was the phrase: "Master of all he surveys."
The European and Olympic champion (who is also the former world champion) turned with a satisfied smile, patting Fischerrocana FST while looking around the Rolex arena as if he owned it. And today, he did.
In his first Kentucky appearance since taking the world championship here in 2010, Michael dominated once again. And he's not through.
Dressage is just half-way finished, but Michael is on top of the standings with a score of 39.3 penalties. Can he be beaten tomorrow?
I will say yes, but only by himself. Fischerrocana is his second-string horse, the mare who took over to help him earn a silver medal in last year's world championships after his number one, La Bioesthetique Sam, was injured.
But Sam, his mount at the 2010 world championship, is back. And he's at the Kentucky Horse Park, scheduled to compete near the end of the afternoon, something worth waiting for all day.
If I were a betting person (my experience in Las Vegas last week taught me not to do that) I'd say Sam can't be beaten, barring a mishap of Biblical proportions. Still to come are Rolex defending champion William Fox-Pitt of Great Britain with Bay My Hero and a few other big names, but I can't imagine Michael won't be first, or maybe even 1-2 by the time day is done.
Interestingly, he has no interest in the Rolex Grand Slam, which goes to the rider who wins Rolex Kentucky and the British 4-stars, Badminton and Burghley (it has only happened once). As someone pointed out, Michael could have sent one of his horses here and the other to Badminton next week, but he said he is only focused on championships. With the European Championships coming up this summer, you can understand his train of thought.
He noted he had (understandably) "very good memories of Kentucky. It's a really nice place with very good conditions."
I had a hard bump back to earth after watching Grand Prix dressage last weekend at the Reem Acra FEI World Cup Dressage finals in Vegas. Eventing dressage is at a much lower level, and sometimes painful to view. A number of the horses I saw today had big trouble with flying changes and head-tossing.
But Michael's performance made me forget I was watching eventing. It was a lovely, flowing test, so on-target, yet so comfortable. As soon as he finished, he let loose the reins and his mare immediately relaxed, stretching her neck walking out of the arena as if she were on the trail.
He said this was "one of her best tests. She was fantastic to ride." He's not sure even Sam will be able to beat her.
His stable of 25 mounts is half eventing horses, half jumpers and two dressage horses (I know, the numbers don't really add up, but that's what he said.) His ability to ride FEI-level dressage obviously pays off down the line at events.
The mare will go on course before Sam competes Saturday, when thunderstorms are predicted for the cross-country phase. He is unfazed at that prospect, saying, "She is a very tough mare." He pointed out she did the world championships in France last year, when there was "bad ground." To put it mildly.
Second place went to a thrilled Laine Ashker. Rolex is barely two days old, and she's already been on a roller-coaster. When she trotted up Anthony Patch at the horse inspection yesterday, he was held and had to be re-presented. Luckily, he passed. That night at the competitors' party, she won a pair of Dubarry boots for being the best-dressed woman at the trot-up. Laine is known for her style at the inspections. A few years ago, I did a story for Practical Horseman on the fashions people wear at horse inspections, and my interview with Laine provided interesting insights into the process.
Competitors really look snappy at the Rolex inspection, putting a lot of thought into what they wear. It obviously paid off for Laine.
So on the up phase of the rollercoaster, she finished behind only Michael, with a score of 44.2 penalties. By the way, if you are curious what the scores would translate into as a percentage, Michael's was 73.83 and Laine's, 70.33. That should help you understand it if you are a fan of straight dressage.
Laine's test was so good that she was moved to tears.
"I was a little emotional," she conceded when I asked her about it.
"I try not to let my highs get too high and my lows get too low," she said, but noted such a good score at the 4-star has "been a long time coming," and this is her eighth Rolex. She has gotten ready by riding an Andalusian at Intermediaire I.
I like the fact that Al, as she calls her horse, is a thoroughbred. Remember when nearly every event rider had a thoroughbred, back in the days of the late-lamented long format? Now few do, so I asked Laine about it.
Click on the arrow on the left below to hear what she had to say.
Phillip Dutton is third on 47.3 with Fernhill Fugitive, who he said was "a little on the fresh side" but still managed to do his best test ever. By the way, Phillip earned his own pair of Dubarrys for being the best-dressed man in the trot-up. He had a lot of visibility, appearing at the inspection with three horses, that also included Fernhill Cubalawn, seventh on 50.9 and and Mighty Nice, who will compete tomorrow.
All the riders are being asked what they think about the course Derek DiGrazia has laid out for them to tackle on Saturday.
The consensus is that it's going to be difficult, but Derek said he thinks it will be more of a level playing field (so to speak) for the Rolex newcomers, since the track has been changed radically in a way that doesn't give the veterans an advantage.
"It will be interesting, as the day goes on, to see how the horses cope with the new track. As much as changing the jumps, it's also changing the track that is part of the challenge," Derek said during a tour of the course.
The Head of the Lake, the park's signature obstacle, has a completely different entrance, on a side that hasn't been used much for a jump into the water in years. Derek also is resurrecting some of the older features on the property, including the mounds, 16A and B of 29 numbered fences.
The first mound is topped with a keyhole; the second with an angled brush that will come up very fast.
The first three fences on course are easy, geared to galloping and getting the horses going before they approach the more complicated jumps and the distraction of big crowds. If it rains, the complications will ensue, particularly for the horses at the end of the day who will be going in the slippery tracks left by their predecessors.
I've been coming to Rolex since 1988, and this is one of the most imposing courses I've seen. Let's hope it rides easier than it looks.
In other eventing news, Canada has qualified for the Olympics after the French team lost its placing from the 2014 World Equestrian Games because one of its members' horses tested positive for a prohibited substance. Canada, next in line, moved into France's spot.
I thought that might be good news for the U.S., which failed to finish a team at WEG. I wondered if maybe the Canadians wouldn't have as many of their big guns out so the U.S. could get gold at the Pan American Games this summer, the only way left to qualify a team for the 2016 Olympics.
But then I realized the Pan Ams are in Canada, so there will be national pride at stake, even if no Olympic qualification is on the docket.
I discussed the situation with U.S. coach (and former Canadian coach) David O'Connor when I ran into him today.
Click on the arrow on the left below to hear what he had to say.
Check back tomorrow night and I'll wrap up dressage for you. In the meantime, if you want to see all the placings, go to www.rk3de.org.