April 30, 2016 -- A difficult cross-country course and steady rain were no match for super eventer Michel Jung and his wonder mare, fischerRocana FST, as they were only two seconds short of a perfect trip over the Derek di Grazia-designed route at Rolex Kentucky.
Meanwhile, Allison Springer, second after dressage with Arthur, was disappointed yet again by her inconsistent mount when he ran out at the Park Question Ditch, eight jumping efforts from the finish line to drop her to 44th. Allison had the disadvantage of going last, after the track had been affected by the daylong ugly weather that alternated between downpours and showers, though Arthur has ducked out in the past; his rider calls him “tricky.''
Michael, meanwhile, had the advantage of starting only 90 minutes into the competition, so the ground was better for him. His ride was, as always, graceful and smooth. It's a delight to watch the master in action.
With just 0.8 time penalties added to his dressage score of 34.4 penalties, Michael has the luxury of being able to drop three rails in tomorrow's show jumping without losing his second Rolex victory in a row. Even more important, if he wins in Lexington and can manage a victory next week at Great Britain's Badminton, he will become only the second person to clinch the $350,000 Rolex Grand Slam of eventing.
He won the series' other leg, Burghley, in Britain last September with Sam, who will be his mount for Badminton. But today, he was all about the 16.1-hand German sporthorse mare owned by his parents.
While mentioning that the course was a bit of hard work this morning, Michael said, “I am absolutely very happy about my mare...she was absolutely fighting and really concentrating and always trusts me. That gives you as a rider a very, very good feeling. She was galloping in the end...when I push her a little bit, she galloped as hard as she can and she tried all the best.”
We always expect perfection from Michael, so I wondered if it hadn't been raining whether he could have made up those extra two seconds and been the only rider to finish on the 11-minute, 15-second optimum time, a feat that was beyond everyone in the line-up.
That led us into a discussion of footing before I got my answer.
Listen to what he had to say by clicking on the right-hand arrow.
Derek noted that when it rained last year, he thought the footing held up pretty well, but this time, he said, “I noticed it deteriorated.”
While saying “riders did an excellent job,” he believed if the going had been better “we would have had horses within the (optimum) time, without a doubt.” He did add, slightly contrary to what he said to me yesterday, that “I did know the course was going to be harder than probably last year or the year before.”
Phillip Dutton moved up to second and third place with Fernhill Fugitive (47.5 penalties), the first to go in both dressage and cross-country, and Mighty Nice (49.8). For good measure, he's also ninth with Fernhill Cubalawn (55.4). Despite the difficulty of the course, only two in the top 40 had jumping penalties, and both of those were for activating a frangible pin at the Open Oxer (Hannah Sue Burnett/Harbour Pilot) and the Park Question Log (Barbara Crabo/Eveready).
It was fun to see the excitement of Maya Black, standing fourth with Doesn't Play Fair (49.9) on only her second trip to Rolex. During the press conference (she admitted she had no idea the press conference room even existed at the Kentucky Horse Park, since she hadn't had the occasion to be called up there before) her enthusiasm contrasted with the usual laid-back demeanor of Phillip, who has been there, done that, more times than I can count.
By the way, Phillip is the only American to have won Rolex since 2007 (his victory came in 2008 on Connaught), so if Michael can be caught, it's likely Phillip will be the one to do the catching, but it's nice to see that 10 of the top 11 in the rankings at this point are Americans.
Now back to Maya. She grew up on Whidbey Island, Wash., as did her cousin, Olympic dressage rider Adrienne Lyle. Maya reminds me of Adrienne, who I've known for more than a decade. Each got their start in Pony Club. Both are about 6 feet tall, each puts the horse first and they are hard, hard workers.
Doesn't Play Fair is a 15.3-hand Holsteiner owned by Maya's farriers, Jon and Dawn Dofelmier. The horse is aptly named, something I wanted to talk about today. Hear what Maya had to say by clicking on this video.
Boyd Martin, who also had three horses in the competition, wound up with two in the top 10. Shamwari 4 is fifth with 50.2 penalties, and Blackfoot Mystery had a meteoric rise from 34th after dressage to 10th (55.6).
Rolex is an Olympic selection trial and the selectors have to be impressed with Pan Am Games team gold medalist Lauren Kieffer, sixth on Veronica (51.5) and seventh on Landmark's Monte Carlo (52.8). That trip on the horse known as Patrick around the barn earned her a two-year lease on a Land Rover, the prize for the U.S. rider coming closest to the optimum time. Notice I said U.S. rider, so Michael wasn't eligible. Her time of 11:22 was matched by Lynn Symansky (Donner) and Holly Payne (Never Outfoxed) but the tie for the Land Rover Best Ride of the Day was broken by Lauren's better dressage score.
Happily, there were no serious mishaps, but there always are wrinkles at a competition of this stature.
Double Pan Am Games gold medalist Marilyn Little, who experienced bad luck at Rolex in the past, was tagged again when she fell at the Tobacco Stripping Bench table fence, which meant elimination. She had been standing third on RF Demeter.
Another disappointment was the absence of Fernhill by Night, who had been fourth after dressage with Elizabeth Halliday-Sharp aboard. But because he'd had a minor injury that required stitches shortly before Rolex began, she decided to withdraw him rather than go cross-country.
I admire the devotion of eventing fans, particularly Rolex Kentucky fans. Traffic was backed up for miles getting into the Horse Park this morning, on a day when all the weather predictions were dire (at least the thunderstorms didn't happen!)
The areas around the most popular jumps were a sea of umbrellas, and tailgating went on despite the conditions. In all, 34,552 people showed up. That's a pretty impressive recommendation for the Western Hemisphere's only 4-star and its biggest event.
Unfortunately, it appears show jumping may be run in the rain as well, but I'll be there to send you another postcard, so be sure to look for it tomorrow night.