April 29, 2016 -- The closest anyone could come to the impressive 34.4 penalty dressage mark set yesterday at Rolex Kentucky by German eventing genius Michael Jung on fischerRocana FST was the 39.7 penalty test produced this afternoon at the Kentucky Horse Park by the USA's Allison Springer.
Allison has been at the top of her dressage game before with Arthur in the Western Hemisphere's only 4-star event, but it doesn't always go right after that (as Allison put it, "he's tricky"), though the duo did finish second in 2012. This is their seventh time at Rolex, and it may be the last, since the Irishbred gelding is 17.
No other rider broke into the 30s, but Marilyn Little did have an impressive ride on her Olympic prospect RF Demeter to wind up third with 42.5.
Hear what Marilyn had to say about her test by pressing the right-pointing arrow.
There are only 2.2 penalties separating third and 10th place, with six Americans in that group looking to score their country's first Rolex victory since 2008.
But everything will change tomorrow, including the weather, when 71 entries set out on the taxing cross-country course designed by Derek di Grazia. Rain and thunderstorms are predicted, so I'll have to trade my sun visor from today for foul weather gear, just as I did last year when I stood in the rain for five hours to take cross-country photos.
I talked with Rolex veteran Sinead Halpin, whose best finish here was an impressive third place with Manoir de Carneville, about how tough the course is--and how much tougher it can be if it's storm-soaked.
Click on the right-pointing arrow to listen to what Sinead, who stands 18th, has to say about her impression of the course.
Derek has a slightly different view. Watch the video to learn his thoughts.
Most of the people I spoke with agree with Sinead that it is a tiring course with many challenges. Not only the hills and the weather, but redesigned obstacles and new jumps will be a lot to tackle for Rolex veterans who have handled what came their way here previously. The new water obstacle, number 19, the Land Rover Landing, will be a surprise to horses who think they've seen it all at the Horse Park. It demands accuracy for a jump out of the shallow water to a brush-topped corner.
There are 29 fences, built by Mick Costello, and so many new concepts that there's an exciting feel to the course. The little touches count toward that too, like the Loch Ness monster made of greenery at the signature Head of the Lake, which has a very different (and difficult) look.
The optimum time is 11 minutes, 14 seconds to complete the cross-country challenge, which is nearly four miles long. It will be interesting to see who comes away without time penalties. My money is on Michael, of course. He's known as Ze Terminator, but I call him Ze Dominator.
If the weather holds, Michael won't be cautious.
“We go fast because I think my mare is in very good form. She feels very happy and very strong, but it can change tomorrow morning,” said Michael.
“I'm not coming here just to have a nice holiday,” he pointed out, noting Kentucky is a very long trip from Germany.
“At the moment, I have definitely a plan,” he said of his cross-country agenda, “but I have always, on every fence, two or three plans. You have to know the alternatives if something happens.”
It's always fun to spot the stars reviewing their route on foot.
Michael is taking no chances. He pays attention to detail and said he had walked the course three times before setting out on it again this afternoon. Indeed, on my trip out there I saw him counting off strides and walking from fence to fence, while his parents rode between obstacles in a golf cart.
He's planning to walk it again in the morning before setting out on his mare. His 11:36 a.m. start time, 96 minutes into the competition, will be an advantage if the rains come as predicted. Poor Allison will get the worst of it because she goes last at 2:40 p.m. New Zealanders Blyth Tait and Mark Todd walked it together, with Mark getting a real feel for the terrain by going barefoot.
There is incredible enthusiasm among the Rolex fans. This is my 29th year covering the event, and I have never seen as many people walking the course the day before cross-country. Jimmy Wofford drew a huge crowd for his guided course walk, presented by Practical Horseman.
It was amazing to see the main grandstand packed--for eventing dressage! Today's attendance of 14,171 appears to be a record, and it is expected based on advance ticket sales that by the time the event ends on Sunday, more than 90,000 people will have made a pilgrimage to Rolex.
Eventing at the Horse Park has come a long way since 1978, when Bruce Davidson won the world championship that set the course for eventing’s future at the facility.
I asked Bruce, who was on hand to watch his son, Buck, competing, how he felt about all the changes here over the last 38 years.
Click on the right-pointing arrow to hear his comments.
For complete results, go to http://startbox-real-time-scoring.s3-website-us-east-1.amazonaws.com/leaderBoard.html.
Don't forget to go to facebook.com/practicalhorseman for more photos. I'll be back with you tomorrow (after I dry off) with a cross-country report.