Lexington, Ky., April 27, 2007 -- The leaders in the Rolex Kentucky 4-star three-day event are neck-and-neck now that dressage is finished, but I suspect there might be a lot more distance between them after tomorrow's cross-country.
That being said, it's certainly a possibility that our top four will still be at the head of the pack when the last obstacle is cleared; I'm just not guaranteeing what the order will be.
The leader, 2006 World Equestrian Games individual bronze medalist Amy Tryon, earned 47 percent on Le Samurai, while Australia's Clayton Fredericks (the WEG silver medalist on Ben Along Time) and Becky Holder with Courageous Comet, are tied for third on 47.4 penalties. Second is Rolex regular Polly Stockton of Great Britain on Tangleman. Perennially close here, but never a winner, she was marked at 47.2 percent.
So a small time penalty on cross-country could change everything, and course designer Michael Etherington-Smith told me he only expects two or three to complete within the time.
He's made the course about 20 seconds longer, which might not sound like much to you, but consider how it feels when you're on a tiring horse who has to finish a 34-obstacle route that goes up and down hill, asking all sorts of interesting questions.
I'd like to be on something like Le Samurai. A horse whose nickname is Sparky should be able to go the distance, and Amy really had her hands full in the warm-up today.
"He likes to leap mid-stride and doesn't care where he goes or what he crashes into," Amy said.
That wasn't evident in his smooth test, however, where he looked perfectly under control, even though Amy said, "I don't feel like I have him completely confirmed."
At the other end of the behavior scale in the ring were the British horses, Apache Sauce, ridden by Mary King (practically an institution in British eventing) on her first visit to Rolex, and Full Circle II, handled by her countryman, Ian Stark.
Apache, a bald-faced chestnut who is in a tie for 24th place with 60.7 percent, half-reared after the rein-back. Full Circle, who has a habit of wildly tossing his head at inappropriate times, looked like he was more interested in the chilly wind than in his test. He stands 40th with 71.9 penalties.
The field is not big, only 42 horses. We're missing a lot of the Canadians. Their coach, David O'Connor, explained to me that he is aiming them for the Jersey Fresh 3-star the first weekend in June. The big goal for the Canadians this year is the Pan American Games in Brazil, where they hope to qualify a team for the Olympics. Since the Pan Ams are a 3-star event, why take a chance on injuring key players in a 4-star?
But there is a good foreign representation here, including those I already mentioned and Australians Wendy Schaeffer and Heath Ryan, as well as Karin Donckers of Belgium.
Clayton called his first trip to Rolex "a chance of a lifetime." When I asked him what he liked about it, he said, "It's absolutely fantastic. If the expense of getting here wasn't quite so much, there's no question you'd have a lot more people here, since from a foreign point of view, it's a lot of money to get here. I think it's the best event in the world."
I was curious why he chose Ben Along Time, of all his horses, to come here instead of taking him to the Badminton Horse Trials in Great Britain next week. Listen below to what he told me.
Clayton Fredericks on why he brought Ben Along Time to Rolex
(Click "Play" to listen)
Course designer Mike E-S (as he's called) gave a briefing at the media center yesterday on the route he's laid out. We weren't able to take our usual tractor-drawn wagon tour because of the awful weather, since it poured off and on.
But I was having a little trouble envisioning what he was trying to say about my favorite jump, the signature Head of the Lake, so he agreed to come out today with me and do a show-and-tell there. What a guy, brilliant and considerate.
He started by talking about the two flower-decked logs over which horses will enter the lake. The one on the right is 3 inches or so lower than the one on the left, but a boat moored in the water should force anyone who chooses the easier right-hand option to take the long route that will cost them time. By the way, the logs are secured with breakable pins that give when they're hit hard, geared to preventing frightening falls like the one William Fox-Pitt suffered last year when his horse fell over the log and tumbled into the water. There were a long few seconds when William's head didn't come up, and we all feared the worst, but luckily, he was all right.
Once in the water, those taking the short route will clamber onto an island and jump a little lighthouse, very cute with its red roof. It's only 3-feet, 6-inches high, which should ride well for anyone with a good approach, though it could cause problems for those who get there in a bit of a tangle. Then it's through the water and out again over a vertical brush that Mike doesn't expect to give the horses any trouble.
I talked to Karen O'Connor, who has been around the courses here dozens of times, and she had an interesting insight. (listen below to what she had to say.)
Karen O'Connor on the cross-country course
(Click "Play" to listen)
A day at Rolex Kentucky is filled with far more than competition. This afternoon there were Pony Club games with a celebrity component--big name eventers competing in tandem with the kids. It was fun seeing John Williams looming over the Pony of the Americas that he was riding, or watching Amy deal with a slick paint and try to help Cathy Wieschhoff as she tried and failed to get on a quick-moving little guy. The big crowd appreciated the riders taking time out on a busy day to race around a ring and throw an object in a bucket as part of a timed event.
Then there's the trade fair. This year, for the first time, it's housed in the indoor ring (it attracted tons of people in the rain yesterday, as you can imagine). Talk about shopping--from hammocks and home decor (how about a planter made from the curved piece of a harness for $70?) to the latest gimmicks and gizmos to make your horse feel better, look better and go better. My favorite discovery, which I also unearthed at the World Cup finals, is a vest you can soak in water, then wring out and wear (amazingly, it's dry to the touch) that will keep you cool for hours.
Everywhere you go here, there's the presence of the 2010 World Equestrian Games, which as you know are being held on these very grounds.
We had a little talk today from the very charming Irish-born Dr. Pearse Lyons, the head of Alltech, the 2010 WEG title sponsor.
Alltech manufactures feed additives with a yeast base that are good for everything from stallion fertility to preventing colic, according to Dr. Lyons. To hear his assessment of the Games and Alltech's involvement, listen to this sound byte.
Alltech President Dr. Pearse Lyons
(Click "Play" to listen)
I'll be back tomorrow evening with my next postcard, telling you how cross-country day goes. Mike E-S believes the conditions are optimum. Here's hoping everyone, equine and human, emerges safe and sound, exhilarated by one of the greatest experiences in equestrian sport.
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