May 1, 2016--Dressage, cross-country, show jumping--Michael Jung took the lead on Thursday at Rolex Kentucky with fischerRocana FST and never gave it up, as he topped all three phases on his way to seeking the elusive $350,000 Rolex Grand Slam.
The Olympic champion, an instinctive and hard-working horseman, had a flaw in his perennial perfection during the show jumping this afternoon, when he dropped a rail at the B element of the double combination. But the 4 penalties involved hardly made a dent in his margin of victory, an awesome 13.3-penalty edge, as he defended his 2015 title with a score of 39.2.
After the event, he flew across the Atlantic on his way to this weekend's Badminton 4-star. He will attempt victory aboard La Biosthetique Sam to complete the slam that has been won only once--by Britain's Pippa Funnell in 2003. Sam took the first leg at Burghley last year. To win the Grand Slam, a rider (who can use different horses) must take all three 4-stars in the same cycle.
Michael is firmly grounded; his fame hasn't gone to his head. He was quick to thank the people and horses who played a part in getting him where he is. You can see why his horses like him. In addition to being brilliant on their backs, he is low-key and modest, something that doubtless gives them comfort.
There will be pressure on Michael this week, of course, but he has the discipline to ignore it. Even so, he admitted when you have to wait the whole day before going into the ring for a round, as was the case today, “that makes you a bit nervous.”
As he sat in the post-competition press conference, just a few feet from the tall silver Grand Slam trophy that was on display, he said, “When I go to a championship, I say to myself, `This is a normal competition' and not make more pressure to the horse...that's my plan, and what I say also the next week.”
He added that while, “It's important to win, it's important you have a good feeling for the horse and that you have a nice round together.”
While the U.S. once again was unable to win the 4-star competition for the first time in eight years, American took second through seventh places, which is promising. But the best news involved the second- and third-place finishes by Lauren Kieffer and Maya Black, who may well have won themselves spots on this summer's Olympic team.
It's still a few months before the team will be chosen, but these young women--both 28--show the necessary pluck and ability that could earn them a trip to Rio.
Richard Jeffery's show jumping course, using the iconic themed fences that offer a mini-tour of Kentucky horse country, was a stern test for horses tired after jumping in deep footing on cross-country yesterday. Phillip Dutton, who won Rolex in 2008 on Connaught, dropped from second after cross-country to 13th on Fernhill Fugitive when five rails toppled and he collected a time penalty into the bargain.
Lauren was the only rider in the top 14 to escape a jumping penalty, though she did have one time fault with Veronica. She rose from sixth after cross-country to second, and won the USEF Championship for being the top U.S. rider, as she did in 2014 when she and Veronica finished behind that year's winner, William Fox-Pitt of Great Britain. Lauren, it seems, keeps herself in good company. Watch this video to learn her thoughts about finishing behind the world's most famous event rider.
Maya, who won The Fork CIC 3-star last month on Doesn't Play Fair, left only a single rail on the ground today before a packed house of 25,545 fans, who cheered every rider's effort. The spectators' umbrellas were much in evidence because the weather couldn't make up its mind, going from hot sun to rain; stopping and then raining again. The riders ignored the rain, focused on their jobs.
Maya, too, is obviously a strong candidate for Rio with the little horse she calls Cody. Hear what she has to say about it by clicking on the right-pointing arrow.
Drama wasn't reserved just for the top group of 20 in the field of 54. The very popular Laine Ashker (she has 25,000 followers on Instagram) got a rousing response from the crowd when she turned in one of only four double-clears over Richard's course to move up from 27th after cross-country to 19th. She was riding her 17-year-old off-the-track thoroughbred, Anthony Patch, known as Al, who she has had for 15 years and brought along with the help of trainer Buck Davidson.
In 2008, she had a horrific fall at Rolex with Frodo Baggins, who fractured his skull. She was in intensive care and then took a long time to recover. But not to be daunted, she continued in the sport and has shown the value of perseverance.
We talked over her feelings about Rolex, and why she has so many fans. Click on this video to hear what she had to say.
NOTES--The U.S. team of Lauren, Phillip Dutton, Boyd Martin and Marilyn Little (who was eliminated for a fall yesterday) won the Dubarry of Ireland Nations Team Challenge with a score of 178.5 (best three scores to count). New Zealand was second with 238...
Lauren said Veronica is the dam of two yearlings by embryo transplant. When asked if he planned to try embryo transplant with Fischerrocana, Michael was quite definite, saying when the time comes, she will have her foals the natural way...
The biggest leap up the rankings in the top group was made by Boyd Martin and Blackfoot Mystery, from 34th in dressage to sixth in show jumping with one rail down...
Four horses--Shamwari 4 (Boyd Martin), HH Cooley (Elizabeth Halliday-Sharp), Madison Park (Kyle Carter) and Never Outfoxed (Holly Payne Caravella)--were held and asked to return a second time to jog for the ground jury in the final horse inspection during the morning. All eventually were passed except Foxy, who had been standing 19th after finishing with just 2.8 time penalties on cross-country, and his partisans understandably were quite upset.
Ernst Topp of Germany, president of the ground jury, said Foxy appeared to have a problem behind and it was “better for the welfare of the horse not to keep on.”
Discussing the jury's decision to eliminate Foxy, U.S. Coach David O'Connor said “I strongly disagree,” adding Holly “didn't deserve that.”
A tearful Holly pointed out that every horse has a weakness, and Foxy has always had a slight weakness in the right hind, but that it has never affected him.
Veterinarians had said he was fine; “there was never even a thought that they would even blink at him,” Holly commented.
“There's nothing that should have held him back from show jumping.”
Holly's mother, Marilyn Payne, who will be president of the eventing ground jury in Rio, said she was “very surprised” at the decision.
I'm heading to Omaha for next weekend's International Omaha, which will be a test event for the 2017 Longines FEI World Cup™ Show Jumping Finals and the Reem Acra FEI World Cup™ Dressage Finals. I'll fill you in beginning Saturday, so come back and look for my photos and postcards beginning on Friday.