Lexington, Ky., April 22, 2010 -- It never fails to stir my soul every year, that first glimpse of the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event cross-country course.
Cross-country is, of course, the heart, soul and signature of eventing, the thing that makes it unique. So I always look forward to seeing it, green and as yet untrammeled by pounding hooves , when I go on a little annual tour led by course designer Michael Etherington-Smith of Great Britain.
Mike E-S, as everyone in the know calls him, is a genius and regrettably, this is the last time he will lay out a Rolex course. After 18 years here, he is retiring from designing following this September's Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games at the Kentucky Horse Park.
So on this tour, he brought along Derek DiGrazia, who will replace him here next year. Mike's a great talker, Derek is quiet, but it seems as if they have worked well together and that the master will have a worthy successor. Mike is looking forward to slowing down after the intensity of his work around the world.
"My long-suffering wife has put up with it for 30 years, so it seemed like a good time to finish," said Mike.
He understandably got tired of the traveling; and never more so than when the Icelandic volcano wreaked havoc with his reservation this week. There was concern he wouldn't make it here until tomorrow, but British team leader Will Connell found a flight out of the Netherlands that landed in Dallas, where a private plane sent by eventing owner and organizer Rebecca Broussard picked up the men and whisked them to Kentucky yesterday.
I wondered if there was a theme to this year's cross-country route, a way to characterize the fences artfully flung across the undulating fields. "This course is very much about everything I'm not doing for the Worlds, I'm trying not to give much away," said Mike. "This is really about disguising what the plans are for later on."
When we chatted, however, I tried to find out a little bit more about what the WEG course might look like.
Unlike many previous years, he expects a good number of people to make the optimum time of 11 minutes, 8 seconds cross-country, weather permitting.
"To me, it's not the most difficult of courses, though I could be totally wrong," he said.
"One of the things you're always conscious of is what comes out of the sky, and the forecast for this weekend is pretty awful."
The course will be "pretty familiar" to those who are Rolex regulars, because it appears the real innovation will be saved for WEG. However, there was a new thing that immediately caught my eye. A log at the Head of the Lake water complex isn't actually a log. It's what's known as a deformable fence, something that will crush and collapse if a horse hooks it. These obstacles have been becoming more numerous as a safety consideration aimed at eliminating the dangerous somersaulting that too often takes the life of both horses and riders.
The Horse Park means something special to other Brits besides Mike E-S, because that country always sends representatives to compete.
Yogi Breisner, the British eventing coach, noted, "We love to come here," and never more so than for the WEG.
"We were delighted when it was undertaken here, because it's almost an advantage when you know a venue as well as we know here," he said.
Will commented about this WEG, "It's going to take the World Games to a new level, and I'm not sure where else in Europe especially they're going to be able to reproduce a venue like this. It's going to be great...I think Kentucky's in for a couple of cracking weeks in September/October."
On the way back from the course tour, I had a little cross-country excitement of my own, deciding to take the Land Rover challenge and drive their version of an obstacle route.
I signed a waiver, hopped into a stunning $54,000 Land Rover Sport with my intrepid guide, Tom, and started the engine for what I thought would be a fun little spin. It was more like a roller coaster--except that I was driving. We went up steep hills and down steps, through water (it can handle 27 1/2 inches), motored sideways and I marveled that the car didn't tip (it has all sorts of special adaptive strategies that means it practically drives itself.) We ended up with the teeter-totter. There I drove straight (with some good guidance from Tom and a man on the ground) onto logs set in two tracks that formed a seesaw. Up we went and then down. Bump. Though of course with this vehicle's fabulous suspension, it didn't even rattle my bad back. Tom didn't turn a hair, though I think I may have screamed a couple of times; I don't know, it was all a blur. But when I sent the photo of the teeter-totter to my husband, he was impressed and promised never again to criticize the way I take the car into the garage.
The action today was low-key, the first segment of eventing dressage. When it runs after Grand Prix dressage, what we've been seeing the last two days in the Kentucky Cup WEG test event, it's always a little disconcerting to adjust to a different level of the discipline. And during much of the day, there were a number of disappointing performances.
Of course, several riders did manage to show what an eventing dressage test should look like. Karen O'Connor, that veteran of veterans, demonstrated that she knows how to do a proper flying change with her 2008 Olympic mount, Mandiba. Going into tomorrow's dressage wrap-up, she leads with a score of 43.7 penalties.
Mandiba was smooth and professional, gliding through his paces, in contrast to some of the choppiness and awkward moves we had seen from other contenders..
"He's more confirmed than he's ever been," said Karen, who got all "8's" from the judges for her riding.
"I feel very confident going down centerline now on him," she observed, proud that he wasn't fazed by the atmosphere of the big stadium.
"I was over the moon with how relaxed he was, he was very swinging in his back and connected," continued Karen, who blamed herself for small technical glitches, such as the first shoulder-in not having enough of an angle.
Second place with a mark of 45.2 percent went to Becky Holder and Courageous Comet, always a dressage standout here.
Becky doesn't have to win on Sunday to cash in on part of the victor's booty, a Rolex watch. She won one at the competitors' party last night, after her husband urged her to make an out-of-the-way stop back at the stables to collect the ticket riders needed to turn in for the drawing. So if she wins on Sunday, he'll get that Rolex.
Phillip Dutton was third on The Foreman, who has spent a long time recovering from an operation to remove a broken splint bone and subsequent complications, but is finally back in action at the highest level of the sport. His mark was 47.2 for a well-produced test that was nicely controlled.
Can you believe Phillip is riding four horses here? I had to talk to him about that.
Rolex, like the Grand Prix dressage and the Kentucky Cup show jumping beginning Saturday, is a test event for the WEG. While Rolex is a power player on its own, the WEG seems to crop up in every conversation.
I spoke with Jamie Link, CEO of the World Equestrian Games 2010 Foundation, about how he thinks things are going at T minus five months and counting.
I started this postcard with a retirement and so I'll end it with one, too. Janie Atkinson has been all about Rolex Kentucky. She was its executive director; it was her life. And now, after the WEG, she's moving on.
We talked about it at ringside today.
There's a wonderful tribute to Janie in the event program. Funny story; she reviews the program before it goes to print, but quick-thinking folks who wanted her to be surprised made sure her proof didn't have the Janie page.
Oh, one last thing. As expected, Tina Konyot won the Grand Prix dressage freestyle tonight, with a stunning 76.25 percent performance on Calecto V to run away with honors. Second, at 70.20 percent was Canada's Chris von Martels on Naomi.
Tina, who is a good bet to make a return trip here with the U.S. WEG team, is having quite a week here. Not only was she two-for-two in Kentucky Cup classes, she also was at the side of her boyfriend, trainer Roger Attfield, when Lady Shakespeare from his stable won the Bewitched Stakes at nearby Keeneland yesterday.
That's it for today. I'll be sending another postcard with the final dressage results while everyone is thinking about revving up (as we Land Rover drivers say) for Saturday's cross-country. Let's hope the rain holds off until the last horse is over the finish line.
Visit Nancy's archive to read more coverage from the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event.