April 28, 2017— It was over by lunchtime.
The top four places in the Rolex Kentucky standings after dressage belonged to riders who performed their tests this morning. It started with today’s first competitor, Liz Halliday-Sharp, an American who spends most of her time in Great Britain and also is involved with car racing and stints as a TV presenter.
Riding the stunning Fernhill by Night, she earned 41.3 penalties, taking over the lead from Canada’s Jessica Phoenix on Pavarotti (43.1), who topped the rankings after Thursday’s competition. But Liz didn’t keep her edge for long.
Clark Montgomery and Loughan Glen stepped into the arena at 10:32 a.m. and blew everyone away with a game-over 33.6 penalty performance. Although he went before two-time Rolex winner Michael Jung of Germany and Fischerrocana FST, that didn’t affect the way Clark put together his performance. He simply was focused on riding his horse the way he needed to be ridden.
His fluid effort highlighted the new 4-star dressage test, which is being used at Rolex in its debut.
One of its most interesting moments is a stretchy 20-meter canter circle near the end, where the horse reaches down and lengthens his neck.
Clark noted that actually helped Glen relax, because he tends to die out at the end of his tests.
But with the new movement, “he kind of came back up there” and was able to execute the last couple of movements well, Clark said.
As you might remember, Clark and Glen were on the 2016 Olympic team, but ran into trouble on cross-country when the horse wasn’t going well, so they retired. Turned out Glen had a bone chip in his knee that was bothering him. That has been removed.
Clark lived for several years in Britain to hone his skills, but he has now moved back to the U.S. and is a resident of Lexington, where the Kentucky Horse Park is located.
I talked about that and the dressage with Clark. Click on the right-pointing arrow to listen.
At noon, 90 minutes after Clark rode, it was Michael’s turn to be graded. He and his mare put in a lovely test, but perhaps it lacked a bit of the dynamism that Loughan Glen exhibited. Michael was marked at 37.1 penalties, which would remain in second place. Let’s say neither Clark nor Michael has any penalties in tomorrow’s cross-country. (It’s unlikely, with temperatures predicted to be in the mid-80s, which won’t be invigorating the horses the way a little cold snap would.)
But anyway, pretend that’s going to be the case. If so, Clark couldn’t afford to have a single rail in show jumping, because he’s less than 4 faults away from Michael. That just gives you an idea of how close it is.
As I’m discussing Michael, I should mention how down-to-earth he is, and generous with his fans, signing autographs non-stop when presented with requests (people just converge on him when they spot him, as they did after his dressage ride today.)
He also took the time to pose with the young Rolex volunteers, who were thrilled beyond words—look at those smiles!
I can see why horses like him so much; he’s got an aura about him that puts everyone at ease.
It was great to see the USA’s Kim Severson, once the queen of Rolex Kentucky, settle into third place on 41 penalties with Cooley Cross Border. She won Rolex in 2002, 2004 and 2005 with the indomitable Winsome Adante, but hasn’t had a really good horse since. This is the one, though she did admit to some concern about the flying changes, which apparently can be his weak point.
On that note, let me digress. I saw more leaping flying changes than usual, I thought. There were also a number of problems with horses that put on the brakes too hard when they halted, or broke into a canter in the medium trot.
I had to keep reminding myself, “You’re not in Omaha at the World Cup Dressage Final anymore.” Grand Prix dressage is an end unto itself; eventing dressage, done at a much lower level, is part of a three-discipline package. So I don’t want to judge it by the wrong standard, though it does have to be correct and properly executed for what it is supposed to be.
Although Jessica Phoenix’s mark with Pavarotti sank to sixth today (not that sixth isn’t pretty darn good in a field of 59), she came back later in the afternoon on Bentley’s Best, a gray who’s an “aah” mover, and moved into fifth with a score of 43.
I should also mention Lauren Kieffer and Vermiculus, seventh on 43.8, just ahead of a non-North American, France’s Maxime Livio on Qalao des Mers in eighth (44.6). So North America has a strong hand, but we’ll see what happens on cross-country. If you didn’t read my postcard from yesterday, take a look and listen to course designer Derek di Grazia’s video as he explains the Head of the Lake, long the signature of the Rolex course.
I talked with Boyd Martin, who always strikes me as fearless, about his thoughts on the course. I met up with him after his ride on Steady Eddie, tied for 14th on 46.3 penalties. Boyd whipped up the crowd as he left the ring, asking them to cheer—which they did, all 13,402 of them. There was a time when a number like that would have been unheard of for dressage at Rolex, but the competition is so popular people want to see every minute of it.
Anyway, Boyd, who is also tied for 23rd on the steady Crackerjack (48.6), gave me his thoughts about the crowd. Click on the right-pointing arrow to see his video.
After lunch, I looked down at the list of starters and didn’t see anyone I thought could edge out the top four. I was right. But the fans were still enthusiastic. I should mention how they cheered for Phillip Dutton on Mr. Medicott, an old campaigner who has been absent from the scene for far too long and looks marvelous.
Remember when Karen O’Connor was the top-placing American at the 2012 Olympics on him? Phillip and Mr. Medicott are tied with another Dutton ride, Fernhill Fugitive, in ninth place (44.8). Phillip’s star status from winning individual bronze at the 2016 Olympics hasn’t abated, and it was nice to see how appreciative the fans are of what he does.
The day ended with the performance of Arthur, Allison Springer’s longtime mount, who is retiring from eventing after being diagnosed with a heart problem. He has always been a dressage star and although we weren’t informed of a mark for his test, I’ll say it was beautiful and leave it at that. A fitting goodbye to an old campaigner, Arthur did himself and his rider proud. After their ride, they made a circuit of the arena and got a standing ovation. What a way to go!
I’ll send you another postcard tomorrow night after the cross-country. I have a feeling the standings could go topsy-turvey following that challenge, and you know I’ll tell you all about it.