Michael Jung and La Bioesthetique Sam tied for first with Tim Price and Wesko | Photo copyright 2015 by Nancy Jaffer
I had figured that Germany's Michael Jung would lead the pack after dressage at America's only 4-star event with his World Equestrian Games, European Championships and Olympic gold medal mount, La Bioesthetique Sam.
But I didn't think he'd have company in the form of New Zealand's Tim Price with Wesko.
Tim Price of New Zealand received congratulations on his way back from the arena aboard Wesko after going into first place. | Photo copyright 2015 by Nancy Jaffer
The two tied on 36.3 penalties. Tim, who is based in Britain, was the winner of the Luhmuhlen, Germany, 4-star last year, but is looking for retribution after failing to finish on cross-country at the 2014 WEG.
"I came with all intent to do what I did today," said Tim.
"He's a very capable horse."
For his part, Michael did not think it was Sam's best performance. He noted the horse was nervous, reflected in a less-than-perfect halt, reinback and subsequent canter departure. But overall, he looked pretty good to me.
Rolex Kentucky defending champion William Fox-Pitt on Bay My Hero played to a packed house | Photo copyright 2015 by Nancy Jaffer
Just as impressive to my eyes, though marked a shade lower at 38.5 penalties, was defending champion William Fox-Pitt of Great Britain on Bay My Hero, his winning horse here last year. With his lustrous (bay, what else?) coat and defining quarter marks, he and his long-legged rider were quite the picture.
"He's a great one to be here with," said William.
"He's very easy. He knows where he is, he's very happy to be here and there's always a fantastic atmosphere in that main arena." William also pointed it out that his horse handled it well.
The long and the short of it—Michael Jung and William Fox-Pitt | Photo copyright 2015 by Nancy Jaffer
Michael's other mount, Fischerrokana FST, the leader after the first day of dressage, is fourth on 39.3 penalties.
These three 4-star riders are the key players in the Rolex drama, especially since there are only 3 penalties separating them.
Consider, though, the distinct possibility of time penalties on cross-country and the lead could change in a heartbeat. Derek DiGrazia's course is so difficult I think it would be impossible to avoid those penalties, especially if it rains.
It was nice to see so many riders dispensing with their top hats and wearing helmets. Among those were Phillip Dutton and Buck Davidson, who many riders in this country look up to. But Michael, William and Tim stuck to their top hats, which is really a shame.
"For me, it's tradition. It's top hat and tails, not crash hat and tails," said William.
What could make him switch?
"It might take someone designing a slightly better-looking helmet. I don't want to look like I should be on a skateboard," said William.
Michael noted that he wears a helmet in dressage when he's riding young horses, but added, "when you saw the pictures, you can put it away, because it looks not so good."
What a shame that looks trump safety. The FEI needs to make a rule that everyone must wear a helmet, period. If it's good enough for the world's greatest dressage rider, Charlotte Dujardin, to wear a helmet, it should be good enough for anyone.
Accidents can happen even to the best of riders (that's why they're called accidents) and I have a feeling when we look back at these photos of riders wearing top hats in years to come, they'll simply look antiquated.
MacKenna Shea, at 22 the youngest rider at Rolex Kentucky | Photo copyright 2015 by Nancy Jaffer
Going back to the competition, for one brief shining moment this morning, 22-year-old Mackenna Shea encroached on Michael's turf with Fischerrokana. Mackenna nearly stole his thunder, standing second after her 9:54 a.m. ride on Landioso with a mark of 43.7.
That was quite some accomplishment for the youngest rider at Rolex. But as she predicted, her mark would be overridden while the day went on, and of course it was (as was Michael's). She is now sixth, but that's still quite impressive, considering the company she's in.
A resident of Washington State, she has been in the U.S. eventing program for developing riders, and has worked with U.S. coach David O'Connor. It showed today.
All sparkly in a blinged-out helmet and silver stock tie, she chatted with me about her time here, and her expectations. Click on the arrow on the left below to hear what she had to say.
Listen: Mackenna Shea
Mackenna is just behind Colleen Rutledge's Covert Rights, fifth on 42.3 penalties.
Disappointment reigned this afternoon as Zara Phillips withdrew High Kingdom after warming him up.
Many in the crowd of 13,065 (pretty phenomonal for eventing dressage on a Friday) had been waiting to see the former world champion, who is better known to some as Queen Elizabeth's granddaughter, and the daughter of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips, the former U.S. coach.
Zara Phillips warmed up High Kingdom before withdrawing him due to a cut | Photo copyright 2015 by Nancy Jaffer
Zara, who had never ridden at the park before, was looking forward to it. But according to British eventing coach Yogi Breisner, High Kingdom kicked out in his stall an hour before she was ready to warm up and split the skin on the outside of his right hind pastern.
Zara gave it a go, but "the horse was just not 100 percent," Yogi explained. Since his welfare was paramount, he was withdrawn.
So can you imagine, Zara came across the Atlantic with her horse for the trot-up, a little warm-up and some shopping in the trade fair. And now they're going home. Of course she was let down, but Yogi said it's possible she might be able to compete next week at Badminton, where she is also entered, if the horse has recovered sufficiently when he arrives home on Tuesday.
Oh, Zara did one other thing while she was here. Rolex is presenting a new trophy for its Grand Slam (for the same person winning Rolex Kentucky, Badminton and Burghley consecutively in any order; it only happened once), and she was on hand to help when it was unveiled here. It has three handles, one for each of the events it represents. I hope I'm around long enough to see it presented to someone again, someday.
The forecast for rain on cross-country day has not abated, so organizers took action. They're starting the competition at 9:45 a.m. instead of 10 a.m. tomorrow and are sending horses out at three-minute intervals, rather than five minutes as originally planned.
The hope is to end the competition at 1:40 p.m., 20 minutes before thunderstorms are predicted to hit the area in the wake of the rain.
Knowing how cross-country goes, there likely will be time-consuming refusals, the need for fence repair and holds on course that means it will be tough to avoid the storms.
Let's hope it works out and that everyone stays safe. I'll send you a postcard tomorrow night to fill you in.