April 26, 2002, Lexington, KY -- I'm not betting on any of the three leaders from the dressage phase at the Rolex-Kentucky Three-Day Event to still be on top after tomorrow's cross-country. The new dressage test, performed here for the first time at a 4-star, was hard -- but the course that is artfully laid out at the Kentucky Horse Park asks a whole different group of questions.
For the riders, it's, "How well do you know your horse," or in some cases, "Did you pick the right horse?" For the horses, what remains to be seen is how fit, adjustable, brave and scopey they are.
William Fox-Pitt of Great Britain, tall and handsome with great presence, stands first aboard the oddly named Springleaze Macaroo (Springleaze is the farm, Macaroo is an Irish nickname -- I couldn't get to the bottom of what it means, but I'm trying.) William's 36.2 penalty score is a bare 0.6 ahead of the USA's
Darren Chiacchia with R.G.'s Renegade. He in turn is 0.6 in front of Australia's Olivia Bunn with GV Top of the Line.
William assesses his mount this way: "He's not a Speedy Gonzalez. He's more of a hunter." That didn't give me confidence that he would make it around the 45 cross-country jumping efforts in the time allowed.
Renegade just underwent colic surgery in November. He has yet to complete a 4-star, getting spun in the final vet check at Burghley two years ago, and falling there last year. I wondered how fit he could be, and Darren said the horse was ignoring doctors' orders to take it easy just days after his operation. But his recent history didn't make me think he could keep his placing.
Top of the Line also has not completed a 4-star, and was spun in the vet check at Adelaide (Australia). Still, his blonde, fresh-faced 23-year-old rider strikes me as the gutsy type, and the Down Under crowd certainly knows how to go cross-country.
"I don't just ride to get around," she said. "I'm going to have a go."
But nipping at her heels will be the very hot Kim Vinoski of the U.S. with the Australian-bred Royal Venture, a new mount, also 0.6 behind the horse ahead of her. Kim was a surprise to finish fourth in the dressage after such a short partnership with her mount, but she'll undoubtedly be tough cross-country. Ditto Rolex defending champ David O'Connor, lying fifth with a total of 38.21 on Custom Made, his Olympic gold medal horse. The dark brown gelding was over-bent and over-eager in his test, unable to replicate his history-making score in the Sydney Games.
I'm going to discount Polaris, the new mount of Canada's Stuart Black, again because their partnership is in its infancy. But Stuart's a good rider who won here in 1992 with another horse, and he'll probably be somewhere in the hunt.
It will be hard, however, to deny a move upward from Australia's Phillip Dutton and Hannigan, Abigail Lufkin's former ride. This is a tough horse cross-country, and Phillip is as good as they get. Then there are plenty of other threats who aren't too far down in the field; British Olympic veteran Ian Stark with Jaybee, for instance, standing eighth, and Kim's number one horse, Winsome Adante, 10th.
I won't go on and on; I'll just say I don't think this one will be won on the dressage.
The new dressage test is much, much harder than the old one. There are four flying lead changes, and a counter-canter serpentine. I plan to try that on my own horse at home, just to see how I do, but I'll make sure no one's watching.
These riders, of course, were closely watched. Jean Mitchell of Ireland had her eye on them, along with the other two judges who will also officiate at the World Equestrian Games this September.
"We felt the test was quite user-friendly to the three judges," Jean said. "All three judges do have a better view of the movements."
She put to rest an insinuating whisper that was going around about the plethora of good marks today. Some called it the Friday effect, but Jean cautioned, "The only people that actually have to watch every test and every movement are the ground jury. It's very easy to come and go and see a little bit of this and a little bit of that and draw the wrong conclusion.
"The tests we saw this afternoon would hold their own anywhere in the world," she declared. So there, whisperers!
Yesterday, a group of us was lucky enough to go on a tour of part of the cross-country course with its designer, the personable Michael Etherington-Smith, and British rider Leslie Law, who each gave their viewpoints of some of the key fences.
First and foremost, of course, is the Rolex signature, the Head of the Lake. It's been redesigned this year, and Mike thoughtfully added a row of life preservers to the logs that riders must clear as they drop into the water. Taking the straight route, they need to clear a very narrow (it seemed to me, anyway) corner of a jetty. As they leave the water and come back onto the turf, the last element consists of two giant geese made of brush, very clever and appealing-looking (unless you're a horse, perhaps.)
The competitors' troubles don't end there -- next is the Creek Oxer, which Mike said looks big, though it wasn't set at maximum height. You could have fooled me -- I considered it major maximum -- but then, I was having trouble clambering on and off the wagons that took us around the course. On the other hand, Ian Stark agrees with my assessment, saying about the whole course, "It's plenty big enough."
Although almost everything appears imposing, Mike said the abilities of the riders are such that it's getting tougher and tougher for him to test them.
"The standard of the top guys is so good," he said, but noted, "Cross-country is not the be-all and end-all. It's about achieving a standard."
It's a tough standard to achieve, and he and Leslie spent a lot of time talking about how important it is to insure "there's enough petrol in the tank" and that horses don't reach the end of the course totally spent.
Rolex gets better each time I come. I remember the first year I was here (I think it was 1988) when the only thing in the press tent was a little table with a single phone, on which you could make local calls. Period. Now we have a huge media center with lots of phone lines and two big-screen TVs for watching all the action (I prefer to be on course, but since rain is predicted tomorrow, we'll see).
The entire event has grown the same way, with the new dressage/show jumping ring two years old now and surrounded by bleachers, such a contrast to the grass field that preceded it. People have responded to Rolex's efforts to improve. The crowds were huge today, considering it was only dressage, with more than 14,000 on hand and some of them four-deep at the dressage arena. Amazing!
Of course, a lot of the spectators come less for the horses than they do for the shopping. That has spread out too, with loads of tents full of the latest in horsewear and horsey people wear. You can furnish your house in "horse" from what I've seen here; the rugs, the paintings, the china, etc. It's a rare spectator who doesn't come away clutching a bag or two of goodies. I'm considering upping the limit on my credit card. (Note to my husband -- just joking!) But I did spend a long-time talking to a salesman about a custom-made saddle...