April 28, 2016 -- Here's a statistic to make you think: Only one American has won the Rolex Kentucky 4-star in the last decade. That was Phillip Dutton on Connaught in 2008, but otherwise, we've been treated to an array of riders from Australia, New Zealand and most especially Great Britain (five times) during the trophy presentation in Lexington.
In the absence of three-time British winner William Fox-Pitt, it might have seemed to some that the odds have shifted. But when the world's greatest three-day eventer, Michael Jung of Germany won last year and decided to defend his title this spring, the comment would be--not so much.
Michael, who has won the Olympic, World Championship (at the Horse Park in 2010) and European titles convincingly, basically blew everyone away this afternoon with a score of 34.4 penalties on the first day of the dressage phase. But doing a lovely job to finish second on a very respectable 43 penalties was Liz Halliday-Sharp, carrying the flag for America aboard Fernhill by Night, also known as Blackie. With Phillip third on another Fernhill, Fugitive (43.l) and Boyd Martin fourth with Shamwari 4 (44.6) followed by Maya Black and Doesn't Play Fair (45.5), let's hope Michael hears hoofbeats behind him.
I caught up with Liz to discuss her horse and the fact that she spends lots of time at her other base in England, where there are numerous eventing opportunities. Watch this video to learn what she said.
Everyone is thinking about the Olympics, of course (Rolex is an Olympic selection trial for the U.S. and other nations are watching their riders here.) So I asked Michael which will be his choice for the Games from his three horses, a group that also includes Sam (the biggest star) and Fischertakinou (his 2015 European Championships double gold medal horse). I was surprised when he answered Takinou, so I asked the obvious follow-up question. To listen, click on the right-pointing arrow.
I was very impressed by Boyd's test on Shamwari, who competed in the last Olympics under the Swedish flag. During the tests, running scores are posted on the scoreboard as “good marks” (before they are converted to penalties at the end of the ride). Boyd had just started his test when I saw an 80 percent go up on the board for his medium trot. That's Charlotte Dujardin territory. I think the highest mark I saw for Michael was a 77.
Before I knew it, I heard someone watching Boyd say “Wow.” It was me. Maybe we should call Shamwari Shamwow, like those cleaning cloths they advertise on late-night TV. On second thought, maybe we should just stick with Shamwari.
The rest of the test was good, though there were no more 80s that I saw. I asked Boyd about his performance. Click on the right-pointing arrow to hear what he had to say.
Who else impressed me? Tim Price, the well-spoken New Zealander who was the runner-up here in 2015 on Wesko. He had planned to bring that horse back this year, but he wound up as one of 17 scratches from the original entry list of 90 after a soft tissue injury that will keep him out of the Olympics as well.
Tim is in a tie for eighth with Bango (48.3 penalties for an attractive test) and might consider the 10-year-old chestnut as an Olympic prospect, though he has Sky Boy at Badminton next week, and he's also a contender.
“I'm hoping the horses put their hands up for me,” commented Tim with a smile about which he'll choose.
Bango is “an unknown quantity in this type of atmosphere,” added the New Zealander, who has ridden the horse “with old-fashioned Irish quality about him” since he was a 3-year-old.
As for today, Tim thought Bango “acquitted himself well. He's got a lot more to give in the future. He's still learning. To really score well, you've got to be seamless.”
Not everyone can be at the top of the leaderboard, of course, but if you're near the bottom, you have to keep perspective. And no one does that better than Colleen Rutledge, who realizes that eventing is “not the real world” and that falling on the jog strip as she did during yesterday's horse inspection is a minor mishap when looking at the big picture.
Her top horse, Covert Rights, was withdrawn from Rolex after an injury, so she was left with Escot 6 (Monkey), a work in progress who finished 32d with a 64.4 penalty test.
I asked Colleen how she keeps her spirits up under the circumstances. Listen to what she told me by pressing the right-pointing arrow.
Rolex is always a fun and exciting experience, but this year, it has been tinged with sadness. Last night, there was a celebration of the life of Karen Stives, who died last August. Karen was the Olympic team gold and individual silver medalist in eventing at the 1984 Olympics, and after she finished riding, she headed the selectors involved in choosing U.S. teams for other Olympics, World Championships and the Pan American Games.
She was incredibly generous, giving a $1 million endowment in her name to the U.S. Equestrian Team. The fund is designed to promote international excellence and build for the future.
During a celebration of her life, we watched a moving video in the theater at the Horse Park's visitors center, which showed highlight's of Karen's riding career and included comments from friends, all familiar faces in the horse world, such as David O'Connor and Bobby Costello.
Jim Wolf, who organized the tribute, noted Karen wouldn't tolerate second-rate champagne or second-rate athletes, human or equine. Champagne, as you can imagine, flowed during the evening.
Tonight, there were several hundred people honoring the memory of Roger Haller, who designed the 1978 world championships cross-country course at the Horse Park for an event that put the facility on the map and eventually led to Rolex Kentucky. Roger also designed the course for the 1996 Olympics and was active on committees, always giving back to the sport he loved. Moving tributes that prompted tears were given about him.
It was announced that the U.S. Eventing Association will be awarding grants in his memory for education to upgrade officials' rankings. And he also was awarded posthumously a lifetime achievement award from EEI, which stages Rolex Kentucky. There will be a plaque with Roger's name at the Head of the Lake, the signature obstacle of the course.
At the end of the memorial, we all went out and blew soap bubbles across the lake. Just as that happened, a bird flew over. It seemed symbolic. I cried.
Tomorrow is the second day of dressage. For more photos, go to facebook.com/practicalhorseman. Look for my next postcard tomorrow night, which also will include information I have gleaned after a tour of the cross-country course with designer Derek di Grazia.