Lexington, Ky., April 29, 2005 -- The sun wasn't shining bright on the Rolex Three-Day Event's Old Kentucky home today. Gray skies and occasional rain sum up the story, dampening top hats and saddles, but not spirits. Eventers are a hardy lot. I feel at home here in my muddy boots and ancient Akubra hat that I bought when it poured on me at the 1986 eventing world championships in Australia.
There are no dressage queens, with their perfect hair and sparkling jewelry, competing at this venue. On the flip side, as we all know, eventing dressage bears little relationship to its pure Grand Prix cousin. Dressage used to be something simple to get through before the joys and perils of cross-country. These days, though, it is more complicated and has taken on more importance. It will be more crucial still next year, when every 4-star event in the world uses the Olympic, or short, format. That means there isn't as much of a chance to recoup on cross-country for dressage that was less than stellar.
But for now, the endurance factor of roads and tracks and steeplechase are still part of the program at the Rolex 4-star, where horses will be tested in the classic format tomorrow on Michael Etherington-Smith's fabulous course. After giving everyone a break for the first few fences so they can warm up, there will be plenty of big questions demanding pinpoint accuracy, especially at the Head of the Lake.
Michael warned that there will be no time to recover from falling forward on the horse's neck before having to jump a pair of offset giant duck "decoys" in the water. The questions come up so quickly that riders must maintain their position, not to mention their wits, to handle the challenge successfully.
The group at the top of the standings after dressage is no surprise. Kim Severson, last year's Rolex winner and the Olympic team bronze and individual silver medalist, leads by a mile on her Athens horse, Winsome Adante, marked at 38.2 penalties.
The crowd of more than 14,000 cheered as she entered. They know their stuff, but anyone can see that Kim looks simply elegant, even at the walk. She and her gelding are a combination demanding to be noticed. Their test flowed, liquid and forward, showing a partnership in full flower.
Kim, who can afford to be fussy, said she didn't like the test as much as she did her 2004 effort at Rolex. It was nothing major, she told me, "just a little flicker here and there."
The others in the field could only have hoped for such flickers. Olympic individual gold medalist Leslie Law of Great Britain, aboard a new mount, Coup de Couer, and Kim's Olympic teammate, Darren Chiacchia on the equally black Trakehner stallion, Windfall II, tied for second place with 46 penalties. The marks of each for individual movements went up as high as 9, but both had some problems in the canter that netted them 4's from some judges.
Entries are light, with only 36 horses (three of whom were ridden by Australia's Phillip Dutton) participating in dressage. No one is quite sure why there aren't more entries. Mike Etherington-Smith feels it's cyclical. Only three Americans are going to Badminton next weekend, but Luhmuhlen, Germany, has become a 4-star and offers a bit of competition to Rolex.
Yet as Mike Tucker, the head of British Eventing, pointed out, 2004 was a rough year with an Olympics and all the preparation for it that took a toll on some horses. And there were several 3-star horses whose riders just didn't feel as if they were ready for a 4-star.
With the weather a big question here, this is no place for the hesitant. Kim's assessment of the course was, "you don't get to take a break." The difficult complexes of jumps, like the water "just keep coming," as she put it.
But Leslie said it is "a very good course, very fair, very safe." He noted that it remains to be seen how his gelding, "a horse for the future" will cope with his first 4-star and their first three-day event together.
Form would suggest that Kim could go wire-to-wire here, given her past experience both at Rolex and around the world, as well as her special partnership with the brainy bay gelding she calls Dan.
My guess is that Leslie won't go for broke with such a recent partnership. But there could be threats from the next level down, with Darren and Kim's Olympic teammate, Amy Tryon tied for fourth with 47.4 on Poggio II. Australian Olympic veteran Andrew Hoy earned the same score on Moonfleet, yet another black horse (I've never seen so many in one event.) Andrew, having won Burghley last year, is working on winning the Grand Slam for the rider who takes Burghley, Badminton and Rolex in the same cycle.
Below that, Fair Hill winner Phillip Dutton is the man to watch. He's tied for eighth with himself on The Foreman and Nova Top, each of which have 51.2 penalties. The other threat, but with a little longer odds, is Karen O'Connor on Upstage with 53.4. But they'll all have a lot of ground to make up if Kim and Dan play the game as only they can.
Oh, I nearly forgot to mention that yesterday David O'Connor brought his Olympic gold medal horse, Custom Made, to a reception at U.S. Equestrian Federation headquarters here in the park. The occasion was the announcement that Farnam is sponsoring the USEF's awards program, which will now be called the Farnam/Platform USEF Horse of the Year. Named after the company's new line of feed and supplements, it will include for the first time a single Horse (or pony) of the Year who is selected "in the same spirit" as the organization's Equestrian of the Year.
Anyway, it was cool to see Tailor (Custom Made's nickname) at the party with David, the USEF president, and Chris Jacobi, Farnam's president. Needless to say, Tailor was perfectly behaved.
Okay, I've got to get some sleep. Cross-country is not quite as tough for me as it is for the horses, but I still do a lot of running around. I'll be back with you tomorrow to tell you what happens. Let's hope for sunshine and safe trips!
Visit Nancy Jaffer's postcard page to relive all of the action at some of the world's top equestrian events, including the 2005 Rolex cross-country and show jumping segments.