There were no white VIP tents overlooking Rolex Stadium, no vendors setting up their booths and no atmosphere from the buzz of a crowd, as the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event kicked off today. But there was snow.
Everyone knew the Kentucky five-star would be different without spectators and under strict COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. But seeing riders bundled in winter coats as well as required face masks setting out to walk the course for the first time in snow-covered grass added to the feeling that the five-star competition will be like no other in history.
“It’s a very unusually feel in the [Kentucky] Horse Park because of the no-spectators rule,” said eventing legend Jim Wofford. “So there’s not tents, no trade fair, no atmosphere. It’s a very old-fashioned feeling event.”
“It’s a special event that we’re going to look at in years to come and look at the photos of the big jumps with no one watching and everyone jogging up in masks and think, ‘Wow, 2021 was a time in history that we’ll all remember,’” said Boyd Martin, who finished second with Tsetserleg TSF the last time the Kentucky event was held in 2019.
All 63 horses who were presented at the First Horse Inspection this afternoon passed for the CCI5*. The event will also hold a CCI4*, which will kick off tomorrow with the first ride of Canada’s Jessica Phoenix and Wabbit at 7:59 a.m. There are 47 horses and riders in that division. The CCI5* dressage will start at 12:23 p.m. with New Zealand’s Jonelle Price and Grappa Nera.
Happy To Be Here
Most riders were grateful that Kentucky CCI5* was happening at all this year. Equestrian Events, Inc., the group that produces Kentucky, had cancelled the event in February because spectators were not going to be allowed. But amid outcry, a grassroots fundraiser was organized and within a week had raised the necessary $750,000 to put the event, presented by Mars, back on the calendar. In contrast, the Badminton Horse Trials in England, usually held in early May, have been cancelled.
“I feel really lucky to be here,” said Great Britain’s William Fox-Pitt, who didn’t know until about three weeks ago whether or not he would have the funding to travel to and compete in the five-star. “The fact that the event is happening is a miracle. They’ve made it happen against the odds.”
“It’s been tough, losing Badminton,” continued Fox-Pitt. “We’ve lost a lot of the good ones. This sport is certainly suffering. So events like this have really made a difference.”
“For them to figure out how to run it through the weirdest years in history is awesome,” Martin said. “This [Kentucky] Horse Park is just a special place, and it’s a hell of a course. I’m nervous as hell and I think it’s going to be a great competition.”
Added the U.S. eventing team coach Erik Duvander, “It’s absolutely wonderful even though it’s been freezing cold all day. It’s been such a buildup of people wanting to get to a five-star for it feels like such a long time. The horses only have the top of their career for only so long, so you want to put them out there when you can.”
The lack of spectators, though not immediately apparent at the First Horse Inspection, is being anticipated. “There are pros and cons,” said Sharon White, who will be riding Cooley On Show in the CCI5*. “It will be less stressful for some of the horses, less stressful for some of the people. And then a disappointment for those horse and people who want an audience.”
“Kentucky’s so been known for their public and their enthusiasm and their attendance, it will be very weird,” said Fox-Pitt. “Coming out of the arena when you’ve won on Sunday, I’m sure will be quite strange to somebody.”
Ultimately, though, the riders probably won’t notice the lack of crowds, especially on Saturday’s cross-country course. “The first year I came here and there’s hundreds of thousands of people, you get a bit starstruck,” Martin said. “But as you get a bit older and more seasoned, you start getting this tunnel vision.”
“Yes, it’s nice to get a clap when you’ve done something, but you don’t really focus on that when you’re doing it,” added Fox-Pitt, who is here without any of his horse’s 10 owners. They couldn’t get visa waivers from the UK to attend in addition to dealing with the significant worry of traveling for many of them who are elderly.
A First Look at the Cross-Country Course
Before the first horse inspection, many riders walked the course, designed by Derek di Grazia and agreed it will be challenging. “The only concern is that Derek has had two years to design a course and he’s made a humdinger of a course,” said Duvander.
“Derek has set, I think, the most technical course that he’s built here in the last 10 years,” Wofford said. “Some of the foreign riders haven’t had the preparation that they usually get. I think they’ll find this harder than they usually do. Usually the Europeans beat us all hollow. This is a good year for some American to jump up and win Kentucky for the first time in something like 15 years.” (Phillip Dutton won the event with Connaught in 2008 and Kim Severson and Winsome Adante won in 2005.)
Colleen Rutledge, who will be riding Covert Rights in the CCI5* said she always looks forward to Derek’s courses. “They’re always fantastic and he always ask incredibly good questions, so I think it will be interesting no matter what.”
Agreed Liz Halliday-Sharp, who will be competing her veteran Deniro Z and a five-star first timer Cooley Quicksilver in the CCI5* and Cooley Moonshine in the CCI4*-S. “I think Derek’s done an amazing job. It’s fair, but there’s a lot of testing questions.”
(Check out Practical Horseman’s Facebook and Instagram coverage for a review of the course with Wofford and Olympian Phillip Dutton.)
While Deniro is a pro, Halliday-Sharp said the sassy and cheeky Cooley Quicksilver is “an interesting character. This will be a big step for him. He’s very arrogant and he has not found any of the four stars longs he’s done difficult, so this will be a challenge for him but he’s ready for it.”
She added that for Deniro, in the dressage test, “the flying changes are an ongoing struggle for him because he finds it physically so difficult but he does everything else so well. So we’ll do the best we can. But I don’t think it will be a dressage test. I think it’s tough enough out there. It’s a very legit five-star.”
Rutledge said the 15-year-old Covert Rights is “a bit of a princess. He really and truly likes everything just so. He’s really quite laid back, but he definitely has some of his personality quirks. Like he likes the cold weather—he gets really squealy and fun and I might have to worry about staying on him when we’re warming up, but other than that, he’s just a love.”
Riding Oratorio is a bit nostalgic for Fox-Pitt, who rode the 12-year-old’s dad. “He’s a great athlete. He’s a real goer, he’s a galloper.” Fox-Pitt said Oratorio competed in Badminton a few years ago, but there’s been nothing to do since then.
Martin is riding two first timers in the CCI5*, On Cue and Long Island T, who are green but have some mileage. With regards to Tsetserleg, he said, “I’ve just got to watch that I don’t sleep on him. He’s accomplished so much and been around some big courses, I’ve got to make myself not take it for granted and really make sure I stay sharp and give him a good trip.
Martin continued on what all riders have to do on Saturday cross-country: “The real key here is to ride them perfectly when it counts and it doesn’t matter the lead up events or the training or the practice days before the contest. It’s 11 minutes on Saturday, you’ve got to give them a perfect ride.”
For complete coverage of the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event, check out Practical Horseman’s Facebook and Instagram pages throughout the competition for results, photos and Instagram story takeovers by Liz Halliday-Sharp (Thursday), Sharon White (Friday) and Phillip Dutton (Saturday).