April 24, 2014--It was all about dressage today as competition got under way at Rolex Kentucky, but thoughts of Saturday's cross-country challenge were never far from anyone's mind.
When you sum it all up, isn't that really what Rolex is about? The biggest crowd of the weekend always is the one coming to be amazed at how the horses can handle obstacles that are seemingly impossible, but made to look easy by the likes of experienced hands such as Great Britain's William Fox-Pitt and his equal, Andrew Nicholson of New Zealand. They are two of the world's best, who are here to write another chapter in their heated rivalry.
A mini-course tour hitting the highlights of Derek di Grazia's route led to only one conclusion: it's going to be tough. And that isn't just coming from my perspective after not having jumped a cross-country fence in years. No, it was confirmed by Derek himself, a straight-talking guy who doesn't exaggerate.
Listen to what he said when we talked about the challenges of his layout at the Kentucky Horse Park.
The Head of the Lake, the 4-star event's signature complex, for instance, is very different this year. Derek warned that if over-eager riders push too strongly over the log as they drop down into the lake, they'll have trouble at the giant fish a few strides away, whereas in the past, they had room to gallop through the water before worrying about another fence.
Riders are always cagey when asked about their opinion of the course they walk many, many times before mounting up to engage it.
Michael Pollard, who took the lead with Mensa G after the first day of dressage, said, "You know it's a 4-star, so it's going to be hard for everybody, but I'm riding a very good horse and I feel good about the preparation, so it's just a matter of treating it like another event and doing my best.
Is that vague enough for you? But it's hard for riders who are put on the spot to comment. They'll be more specific Saturday evening after they've galloped through the finish markers (hopefully) and have something on which to base their comments.
Here's a little tidbit about Mensa, a very tidy thoroughbred. He formerly was owned by Andrea Leatherman, now Buck Davidson's fiancee, who paid $5,000 for him off the track in West Virginia. She brought him along and said she decided to sell him so she could continue to afford eventing.
Mensa, who earned 49.5 penalty points, is only 0.3 ahead of Will Faudree's ride, Pawlow, so things are close. Doug Payne, third with Crown Talisman (51.2) is bowing out. He got a grant to ride in the 3-star at Saumur, France, next month, so he just brought the powerful bay here to get some crowd exposure. He'll do a tune-up in May at Jersey Fresh before crossing the Atlantic.
Michael, ever the realist, doesn't expect to be on top at the end of dressage, but you never know. Mensa wasn't a surprise for the top of the standings, but the marks were not generous, and I heard more than one comment about the judging.
Sinead Halpin, who has been tipped by Jimmy Wofford to win the event, stands sixth on 51.7 penalties with Manoir de Carneville, known to those who love him as Tate.
I asked Sinead for an assessment of her performance, which I felt flowed nicely, and she replied, "I thought Tate was really, really good, I thought he came in well and bar one (late) change at the end of the test, I thought he went in there and did as well as he normally does, but I don't think the judges agreed with me."
There was quite a disparity in her marks: Gillian Rolton at M gave her 63.67, while Sandy Phillips at C marked her at 68 and Christina Klingspor at E was in the middle at 65.
Canadian Grand Prix dressage rider Jackie Brooks is working with Sinead and some of the other U.S. riders. She had trained with David O'Connor, now U.S. coach, when he held a similar post with the Canadians, so she came south of the border to help. She's a terrific person and a great sport; I'm glad she's hooked up with our side.
Marilyn Little, Karen O'Connor's protege who is fourth on RF Demeter, really could be considered to have clinched third because of Doug's departure. She was marked at 51.3, just 0.1 penalties behind him.
Phillip Dutton, pinch-hitting for Boyd Martin, did well to finish eighth on the flashy Trading Aces, marked at 52.5. Boyd has graduated from crutches to a snazzy leopard-spotted cane after breaking his leg earlier this spring. He's had a very speedy rehab, but just not speedy enough to compete here. The good news is, he'll be ready to rock long before the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in August.
I caught up with him this afternoon and asked how he's feeling, and inquired after his wife, Silva, who suffered a serious head injury earlier this year.
One of the great things about Rolex is seeing so many old friends. I had a bittersweet chat with John Nicholson, who leaves at the end of the month as executive director of the Kentucky Horse Park after 17 years. But good news for Virginia, he'll be consulting at that state's Horse Center, and I'm sure it will be the better for his input.
Richard Jeffery and I had a talk at the jammed competitors' party last night, which has outgrown its quarters at stately Spindletop, the historic estate down the road from the horse park. I've been coming to Rolex for 27 years, but Richard has a pretty good history of his own with the event, as he reminisced.
Rolex, of course, is more than an event at the point -- it's an institution, drawing people from all over the country and yes, all over the world. It's a long way from the 1978 World Championships on the grass field that Richard mentioned.
I spoke with Lee Carter, executive director of EEI, which puts on Rolex Kentucky, to get his view on how things are going.