April 28, 2011 -- Even before the Rolex Kentucky 4-star event got under way, it was all about Allison Springer. At last night's exhibitors' party, she received a pair of pricey DuBarry of Ireland boots for being judged the best-dressed woman in the trot-up, and then she won a drawing for a Rolex watch.
The good news continued through today's dressage competition, when she led the standings on her impressive-looking Arthur with 42.3 penalties. Deciding to parlay her winning streak in a big way, she has opted not to continue at Rolex, but instead will be going to Vegas to try her luck at the poker tables.
Just kidding! Of course, she remains at Rolex and even has a second horse in today's dressage wrap-up. That's Destination Known. But she's a realist, and isn't counting on her score continuing to head the pack after this afternoon, as she expects to see some marks in the 30s.
We'll be watching a bunch of superstars today, including last weekend's Badminton winner and two-time Olympic individual gold medalist Mark Todd of New Zealand with Grass Valley; defending champ William Fox-Pitt of Great Britain, the number one eventer in the world on Neuf des Coeurs and another previous Rolex winner (2007), Australia's Clayton Fredericks with Be My Guest.
Arthur looks terrific. I haven't seen him this year, and I was so impressed that I asked Allison what she had done to achieve the sparkle.
"Thank you for that," she said, obviously very proud of the way he looks. She attributed it to her sponsors, Hay Gain, with the steamed hay convincing her "finicky" eater to chow down, and Smart Pak, especially a product they have that promotes better digestion.
Arthur wasn't perfect; he can be tense and he spooked a little at the end of the ring, but Allison--who had the difficult task of going first--rode him through it.
"He's growing up a little. I think he will always be who he is...a quirky, spooky horse. He is enormously talented and I think he's been waiting for me to learn a little bit more," said Allison, who noted she has been "working hard" in that direction with her 12-year-old Irishbred, winner of the CIC 3-star at Red Hills in Florida last month.
She trains in dressage with Jessica Jo Tate, concentrates on cross-country with Phillip Dutton and hones her jumping with Katie Prudent.
Mary King, the indomitable Brit whose horses always have "King" in their name, stands second on 47.7 penalties with King's Temptress, seventh at the Burghley, England, 4-star last year. This is not a particularly pretty horse, but Mary gave her a good ride to edge Will Coleman and Twizzel (48.2), whose final flying change was rather disjointed.
There were the usual assortment of highs and lows, including three errors of course. Surprisingly, one of those mishaps belonged to Boyd Martin, the Australian-turned-American who seemed so prepared when he entered the arena on Remington XXV and stands fifth on 49 penalties. Without that mistake, he would have been second on 47.
The toughest moments to watch belonged to Katie Ruppel's Sir Donovan. From the time his dressage test started, it was obvious he was having none of it. Katie had to work to get him off of his initial halt, and his further resistance culminated in a giant buck (thank goodness she stayed on.) Finally, she was excused. He just wasn't performing, and it was easy to empathize how she felt about a Rolex experience cut so drastically short.
Last year, Allison was the lone rider wearing a helmet in dressage. This year, 10 of today's 28 starters wore them. Helmets are only mandated in U.S. national shows, not international like Rolex, but as I always say, it's just a matter of time before it's helmets across the board. I'm echoing USEF President David O'Connor on that and may I add, the sooner the better.
Kentucky has been deluged with record rain this month, and the time of the initial trot-up had to be changed twice yesterday because of a tornado warning. The funnel clouds stayed away, though, and while the course is sodden (the sunken road now has a water feature) it is expected to dry up by Saturday for cross-country, courtesy of today's wind and tomorrow's sunny forecast.
Derek DiGrazia, the 1985 Rolex winner (before it was a 4-star) has taken over for Michael Etherington-Smith as cross-country course designer. Mike E-S was brilliant in helping make Kentucky one of the world's most intelligent challenges in the sport, an effort that culminated in last year's Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games here, after which he retired.
Derek, whose many other designing duties include the fall Fair Hill International 3-star, had worked with Mike for several years, enabling the seamless transition to a new designer.
My favorite obstacle is the signature Head of the Lake, which has been nicely redesigned. It may not look as awe-inspiring as it sometimes has in the past, but it's still a real test. (My favorite part of the complex is the narrow 3-foot, 11-inch wooden frog, with a giant bug on his tongue.)
"It's a bit easier than it was at the WEG," conceded Derek about the entrance to the grouping, noting that was a championship drawing the world's best riders, while Rolex is an individual test and not so much for national glory.
But he pointed out that after jumping a set of 3-foot, 7-inch rails, riders "will have to make sure they maintain their control" down a slope and into the water, where there is just one route to take while aiming for two 3-foot, 10-inch wooden ducks that are offset (not in a straight line.)
More about Rolex tomorrow, but meanwhile, new sponsorship for the National Horse Show was being announced this evening. Guess who it is? Think Kentucky Horse Park, think World Equestrian Games; that's right, it's Alltech stepping in to, as NHS President Mason Phelps expressed it, "put the National Horse Show back on the map."
He noted the show "really had lost its identity" during the wandering years after its last Madison Square Garden performance in 2001. It was staged in Florida, at a pier in New York and in Syracuse, but nothing really worked. This fall's move to the Kentucky Horse Park offered the show its own home, but the Alltech deal (a one-year contract with renewal options) will enable it to regain its reputation.
"I think it's a great partnership," Mason said.
"The relationship that the National Horse Show now has with Alltech was the shot in the arm it needed to bring it back to its importance on the U.S. stage as an indoor horse show."
Open jumpers will have good money classes nightly, with a big bucks grand prix as a centerpiece (probably more money than ever offered by the National folks) and everyone will get to enjoy the post-show parties that were a part of the tradition when it was held in New York. Of course, the ASPCA Maclay remains a big piece of the action.
Funny story about how the deal came about. Mason and some other folks from the National went with Kentucky Horse Park Executive Director John Nicholson to Alltech headquarters near here to discuss grand prix sponsorship. They met with several officials, but were told Dr. Pearse Lyons, the native of Ireland who is Alltech's founder and mastermind, wasn't available. Then the door opened and in walked Pearse, saying, "I think I smell horse people." (I don't believe he was speaking literally.)
There was no commitment, however. A day later, Mason was sitting in his Florida office when his receptionist told him, "There's a gentleman on the phone pretending to be the Pope." Mason doesn't know why he took what appeared to be a crank call, but it was a good decision. Pearse, who had been playing a little joke, came on the line. He told Mason Alltech didn't want to sponsor the Grand Prix--Alltech wanted to sponsor the whole show.
So now officially it's "The Alltech National Horse Show, the 128th Edition."
After next week's board meeting, expect some heavy hitters to become part of the National's letterhead.
This fall, Nov. 2-6 exactly, we'll be focusing on the National, but for now, Rolex is the game. I'll be back tomorrow to tell you who's leading going into Saturday's cross-country.