Repeat after me: “This is not a dressage competition.”
You’ve heard that said many times at three-day events around the world before cross-country gets under way: Sometimes it’s true, and sometimes it’s not.
But at this weekend’s Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event, everyone seems to agree that Saturday’s cross-country will tell the tale. The consensus is that Derek DiGrazia (who is also set to design cross-country for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo) has outdone even himself. We soon will see.
Oliver Townend of Great Britain, the winner of the Land Rover Burghley 4-star in England last September, calls the course at the Kentucky Horse Park, “fantastic, cleverly designed.”
He added, “I think your man over here, Derek, is exceptional at his job. I think a lot of people could learn a lot from this man.”
Ollie is in a unique position. Burghley, Kentucky and next month’s Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials are part of the Rolex Grand Slam. There’s a $350,000 prize for the rider who wins all three consecutively (the rider can be on three different horses if he or she chooses). Yes, Rolex is still in the game, it’s just that it has been succeeded as Kentucky’s title sponsor by Land Rover.
Only two people—British rider Pippa Funnell in 2003 and Germany’s Michael Jung in 2016, have ever won the grand slam. If Ollie is victorious here, he’s two-thirds of the way home toward the hope of a big bank deposit. He has two horses going at Badminton in addition to two here.
Ollie is in fifth place on Cooley Master Class, a cool customer indeed who was unfazed by the atmosphere in the Rolex arena and earned a mark of 28.7 to stand fifth. Ollie also is tied for eighth with the “tricky” as he puts it, MHS King Joules on 31.3. Does he have a shot at bettering his position?
Absolutely. Because (all together now) “This is not a dressage competition.”
The removal of the 1.5 coefficient for dressage (Kentucky is the first 4-star held since that went into effect) means scores will be more tightly bunched before cross-country than in the past. That’s according to the mathematical wizards at Equiratings.
It seems to be true here. Marilyn Little overtook yesterday’s leader, Michael Jung on fischerRocana FST with her lyrical performance on RF Scandalous, marked at 24.8 (37.2 under the old scoring method). Maybe she got extra points for the mare’s sparkly braids (Marilyn is known to be a lover of bling.)
Michael is not even one rail behind (we’re looking ahead to Sunday’s show jumping now) with a score of 27.1.
I was very impressed by the third-place rider, Australian Olympian Christopher Burton and his Nobilis 18, who, as his name suggests, seems a noble beast. Nobilis was groomed to perfection, with distinctive quartermarks on his rump that set off his gleaming coat.
Burto (as his friends call him) was very frank about why he was marked at 27.9 and not higher. He wasn’t straight for one flying change, and the horse had a leg out behind on the halt at A.
“That’s his party trick, to do a square halt,” Burto said a trifle regretfully. “But that’s how dressage goes in these big atmospheres.”
There were high expectations for him, since Nobilis had the best 4-star dressage score on British soil in 2016. It was a 30.2, which would be a 20.1 under the new system.
Burto called Kentucky “the best event in the world, no question.” Equiratings calls it “the toughest of the 4-star venues,” and they have the numbers to back up that claim.
The only other rider to score in the 20s during the dressage phase is the USA’s Kim Severson, fourth with Cooley Cross Border (28.3)
Don’t even think of writing off Michael Jung’s chances of making it four Kentucky trophies in a row because he’s in second place now. As Equiratings noted, Michael was second after dressage last year before going on to the win. And in 2015, he was even further back in fourth.
Marilyn, the 2015 Pan American Games double gold medalist, knows better than to be cocky. When I asked her feelings during the press conference about being ahead of Michael in the competition, she replied, “Those feelings will come and go, I’m sure. So I will enjoy this very moment and then I can go out there and walk the course and move on to what’s probably the next feeling.”
Marilyn, who started in horse sports as a show jumper, continues with that discipline. She competed today in the $35,000 3-star welcome grand prix that was being run in conjunction with the Land Rover event, but didn’t finish in the top three. Marilyn will have another chance after cross-country, as the featured $225,000 Invitational runs Saturday afternoon.
She rides Clearwater, owned by Karen O’Connor, who was a winner at Kentucky in the days when she was eventing. As we all know, the equestrian world is a small world.