April 27, 2017—Two of the nicest things about the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event (aka “The best weekend all year”) are the fact that it always seems the same, and yet it’s always different.
That’s not a contradiction. Drive into the Kentucky Horse Park at the end of April, the way many do year after year as fervently as the swallows head to Capistrano, and there’s a familiar feeling of anticipation combined with joy. Walk the cross-country course, stroll through the trade fair, meet your friends and make new ones.
But when you check out the cross-country, you’ll always see new and exciting fences. It’s nearly as much fun to imagine how the horses will handle them as to actually watch them on cross-country day.
While the sculpture of Bruce Davidson on Eagle Lion in front of the Rolex Stadium is a link with Rolex Kentucky’s glorious past, the names of his era have given way to so many new faces (and of course, his son, Buck, has been going strong here for years).
It’s interesting to watch the first-timers and see how they handle the challenge of the USA’s only 4-star event. And there are always new attractions (this year there’s a centennial celebration of Man O’ War) in the Horse Park.
The old and the new combine in traditions such as the first-day horse inspection, which has become as much a fashion show as a soundness test over the years. At the Wednesday night exhibitors’ party (moved to the spacious Fasig Tipton auction venue from the University of Kentucky’s Spindletop mansion “because we outgrew it,” according to Lee Carter of EEI, which puts on Rolex), Dubarry gave boots to the male and female riders deemed the best-dressed in the trot-up.
The male rider award went to Boyd Martin, who wore a light blue window-pane plaid shirt, yellow tie and brown sportcoat cut like an old-fashioned riding jacket with slant pockets.
Allie Sacksen won the female title with her lace dress and white fascinator hat (the type of chapeau that’s very big with the Duchess of Cambridge in Britain).
“Being here is incredible,” said Allie, who wasn’t able to come last year when her “horse of a lifetime,” Sparrow’s Nio, was injured.
As for winning the boots, she noted, “That was exciting.” She found the dress online and decided to add a hat. Her assessment (echoed, obviously, by the judges) was “This is really cute.” She’s planning an encore of the outfit at a wedding this summer.
The real competition got under way today, but the morning started off with a test ride by Kathleen Blauth-Murray on Ballynoe Castle RM, better known as Reggie. Here’s a trivia question for you: Who is the first person to ride the new 4-star eventing test in competition? Kathleen is the unlikely answer.
She was the groom for Reggie when Buck Davidson was competing him internationally, and Buck came up with the idea of letting her ride him at Rolex, where he will retire on Sunday. Kathleen had a very credible performance (the judges use the test ride to make sure they’re all on the same page) and we talked about it afterward. Click on the right-pointing arrow to see the video.
Buck was right at ringside for Reggie’s swan song with a big crowd of supporters, including Cassandra and Carl Segal, the horse’s owners. Summing up the special equine that he rode for so long, Buck said, “Reggie wouldn’t be the `most’ anything, but he has the biggest heart of anybody,” then added, “he always stepped up.”
The day ended with the last rider, Canada’s Jessica Phoenix, in first place on Pavarotti, with a score of 43.1 penalties. While this horse is in a sense a Rolex Kentucky veteran, if you look at his dressage starts in the Rolex arena, he has never gone on to compete in the cross-country here, though Jess does seem to like the course (more about that shortly) and he looks likely to start on Saturday.
Lauren Kieffer, the national champion here last year as the top-placing American when she was second to Germany’s Michael Jung, had the best U.S. score of the day, a mere 0.7 penalties behind Jess.
She was aboard Vermiculus, a full brother to her first Rolex horse, the Anglo-Arab Snooze Alarm. She bought Vermiculus as a three-year-old but couldn’t “back” him until he was four because when she got home and turned him out, he decided not to get caught for three months.
There was a tiny bit of excitement during her ride when a plastic bag tumbled in the breeze just outside the arena. The people around me were insisting someone should grab it (someone eventually did) but Lauren was unaware of what the tension in the stands was about. Click on the right-pointing arrow to hear what she had to say about her horse.
France’s Maxime Livio, making his Rolex debut, stands third with 44.6 penalties after two mistakes he blamed on himself, rather than his mount, Qalao des Mers. He wasn’t joyful when leaving the ring, moving his hand sideways in a “comme ci comme ça” gesture (meaning so-so) in a comment about his test.
He called the event “incredible. Everything is very nice, the landscape, the organization, the people. My horse loves to be here. He is eating the grass every time.”
While we have one more day of dressage tomorrow, when Jessica is likely to be overtaken by Michael Jung, the world’s greatest event rider (or maybe just the world’s greatest rider) and perhaps former World and European champion Zara Phillips Tindall and a few others I can think of, Saturday’s cross-country is on everyone’s mind.
Course designer Derek di Grazia gave a tour of some of the high points of his route.
When we spoke, I told him I thought the course looked very different from the past few years.
“We try to change all the combinations,” he said.
“I like to find some new terrain and new lines we can do on the course. I really wanted to open up the front part of the course and I think I’ve done that, I hope the riders feel that.
“At the same time, I think the riders are really going to have to make sure they keep some gas in the tank for the last part of the course, because there are jumps to be jumped and they’re going to have to be ready for them.”
Riders who have walked the route have described it as “bold” and a “galloping course.” Buck said he didn’t think it was as “tricky” as in the past.
But there are many spots where, as you might suspect, competitors will have to be spot-on accurate. One is the landmark Head of the Lake, where riders enter in a different direction than the last few years, go over a combination beginning with the Cedar Lodge and then have three strides before the Boathouse obstacle and the drop into the water. After that, they have to stay steady to handle the fish jump that comes up fast.
I asked Derek to explain the Head of the Lake, which likely will draw the biggest crowds. Click on the right-pointing arrow to hear what he told me.
Be sure to come back tomorrow to read how the second day of dressage went.