Jim Wofford’s Rolex 2016 Report: Déjà Vu For Two Top Riders

Michael Jung and Lauren Kieffer left no room at the top for a leaderboard of promising up-and-comers.

Michael Jung and fischerRocana FST

You rarely see Michael Jung, the German Olympic and World Champion gold medalist, in the wrong place in the saddle. His winning mount at the 2016 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, fischerRocana FST (Roxie), owned by Michael’s parents, Brigitte and Joachim, trusts him completely, which explains the lovely shape she is taking over Fence 10, a maximum cross-country table (3-feet-11 high, 8-foot base spread). Her head and neck are lowered and her knees are up. Photoshop the flags and crowds out of the image and change Michael’s attire and Roxie would not look out of place in a big-time hunter derby. It helps that Michael always demonstrates such solid fundamentals. Here his lower leg is rock-solid, his heel is down, his little toe is on the outside branch of the stirrup and his toes are turned out at the same angle as that with which he walks. Michael has a lovely and soft feel of the reins and a very correct straight line from his elbow to Roxie’s mouth. Note that his lower leg is just in front of the vertical and his seat is quite close to the saddle—both minor adjustments and both entirely logical given that the top placers at Rolex were cruising at more than 20 miles per hour at this point. Someone asked me to describe Roxie, a 16.1-hand, 11-year-old German Sporthorse. I replied that she is a brown mare with big eyes, big ears and a big heart. | © Ben Radvanyi

Now that eventing in the Olympics is run at the three-star level, you go to a four-star event to see the best cross-country riders in the world—and on the North American continent, that means the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. Each year, Rolex provides a unique chance to watch the best of the best in action. This year, Germany’s Michael Jung (aka “The Terminator”) left no doubt as to who is the best of the best as he became the second rider in Rolex history to win Rolex in successive years on the same horse. Michael and fischerRocana FST (Roxie) join Kim Severson and Winsome Adante (Dan) in a very exclusive club. Not content with winning, Michael and Roxie won this year by one of the largest margins I have ever seen at a four-star. By the time they turned toward the last four stadium fences, he and Roxie could have knocked down all four and still won. 

U.S. riders occupied the next five places in the final results, but it was obvious that they were not able to match Michael and Roxie’s efforts. Rising U.S. star Lauren Kieffer must have mixed emotions about her second-place finish. She and Veronica (Troll) were second to Great Britain’s William Fox-Pitt two years ago, but the margin between first and second grew larger this year, not smaller.

Any time a rider wins a four-star, it is a serious achievement. But when the event is held under appalling conditions, it becomes even more noteworthy. Torrential rains fell on the Kentucky Horse Park all weekend, and the footing on the cross-country course was definitely a factor. It speaks volumes about Derek di Grazia’s skill as a cross-country course designer that 54 horses out of 64 starters finished the event. The global eventing community has certainly noticed his designs as he has been selected to design both the 2018 World Championships and the 2020 Olympic Games.

There is no doubt that Michael Jung will be the favorite at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro next month to become only the third person in history to win back-to-back gold medals. It is easier to find major events that he hasn’t won over that past few years than it is to list his growing titles. Winning Rolex 2016 gave him a second leg on the Rolex Grand Slam (where the same rider wins successive four-stars at Rolex, the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials and Land Rover Burghley in any order). One week later, he won at Badminton with his 2012 Olympic gold-medal partner, La Biosthetique-Sam FBW. This, the third leg on the grand slam for Michael, was worth an additional $350,000 in prize money. (In fact, it is the fourth major event he has won in the past year, but he had to win Badminton to clinch the title.) Michael took care of that little detail in his typical fashion: In each leg of the Rolex Grand Slam, he won the dressage and never looked back, adding a grand total of four seconds over the three optimum cross-country times and having one rail down overall in the three final phases. The Terminator doesn’t just beat the best of the best—he embarrasses them.

Rolex Results

Place Rider/Horse Score

1 Michael Jung (GER)/fischerRocana FST 39.2

2 Lauren Kieffer (USA)/Veronica 52.5

3 Maya Black (USA)/Doesn’t Play Fair 53.9

4 Phillip Dutton (USA)/Mighty Nice 57.8

5 Phillip Dutton (USA)/Fernhill Cubalawn 59.4

6 Boyd Martin (USA)/Blackfoot Mystery 59.6

7 Mark Todd (NZL)/NZB Campino 60.4

8 Elisa Wallace (USA)/Simply Priceless 60.6

Lauren Kieffer and Veronica

1. Lauren Kieffer and Team Rebecca’s Veronica (Troll), a 16.1-hand, 14-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare, have met the first element at Fence 4ABC, the Market Moguls, just right and are landing full of confidence. Derek di Grazia, the course designer at Rolex, knows what happens when he places a drop early in a combination. This forces riders to slip their reins, making each succeeding element more difficult. When the last element is extremely narrow (as it is here—just wait!), accuracy is at a premium. Lauren’s stirrup leathers are too long for cross-country riding. She is landing with a straight knee, which means her entire weight is transferred straight down into Troll’s front legs. If Lauren had a spring in her knees, she could absorb most of the shock of landing from this 3-foot-11 high, 5-foot-7 wide fence. (Jumping straight-legged has the same disadvantages for the rider as the now-discredited “cruising position” for galloping, a passing fad from several years ago.) A rider who stands straight up has all the balance of a needle poised on its point. Lauren’s stirrup length will start to cause her difficulty as she gallops to 4B. | © Amy K. Dragoo/aimmedia
2. I teach riders to adjust their reins within three strides on level ground and I want them seated between elements of a combination. This will give the rider more stability plus a wider and more sophisticated range of aids. Because her reins are too long, Lauren has to use her body to engage them. Troll is not too worried about Lauren—she is already mentally locked on to the second element. She jumped this combination well when it was used last year and can hardly wait to jump it better this year. | © Amy K. Dragoo/aimmedia
3. You can almost hear Troll saying “Uh-oh.” Her enthusiasm has carried her a bit too close to 4B (3-feet-11 high, 3-feet wide), and she is now carefully considering her takeoff. Lauren can feel this, but her ability to help with the reins is limited because her upper arm is already vertical. To increase the tension of the reins, the rider must have already adjusted them—it’s too late for that here—or must lean back and lift her hands, which can cause a horse to drop his back and jump inverted. In this situation, it helps a lot to have a horse as nice as Troll. | © Amy K. Dragoo/aimmedia
4. I love Troll’s expression here, locked on to the final element already. Lauren and Troll went late in the day, and you can see the footing has been repaired. When you prepare your horse for Rolex, you get ready for the worst conditions, not the best. | © Amy K. Dragoo/aimmedia
5. Troll is on autopilot already while Lauren is judging the remaining distance to the narrow stump at 4C. | © Amy K. Dragoo/aimmedia
6. Lauren feels that Troll is a bit too aggressive and that her stride is getting strung out, but she is not in the best shape to help her horse. Because her stirrups and reins are too long, she has to lean back against Troll’s mouth. Don’t get me wrong—riders have to slip their reins over big drops. But they have to get them back again quickly. (Go to www.PracticalHorsemanMag.com for my article on gathering the reins.) | © Amy K. Dragoo/aimmedia
7. This pair has obviously decided to “go with what they got.” Troll is setting herself for the last element, and Lauren is being as supportive as she can be. | © Amy K. Dragoo/aimmedia
8. Because there is so much slack in her system, Lauren has come out of the saddle a split-second too early, which causes her mare to sprawl into the air. You can see that Troll’s knees are uneven, which is a sign of loss of balance at the point of takeoff. I like to see the rider closer to that saddle at this instant with adjusted reins. | © Amy K. Dragoo/aimmedia
9. Can you hear Lauren and Troll over 4C (3-feet-11 high, 4-feet-9 wide brushed)? “Sheesh, he is SO picky. We got this!” I have been critical of Lauren here but just think how she will ride when her technique matches her talent. Look out, Rolex 2017: Lauren has been a bridesmaid here twice—maybe the third time’s the charm. | © Amy K. Dragoo/aimmedia

Kurt Martin and Delux Z 

When I make my picks for Rolex every year, I usually forecast a winner of the “Whodat Award,” an imaginary trophy I give for the least-known rider who does the best. In a senior moment, I forgot to predict a Whodat winner this year but would like to think that Kurt Martin and his and CarolJean Martin’s Delux Z (Lux), who finished 25th, jumping a clear cross-country round with time faults, would have been one of my finalists. Shown here at Fence 26B, the Water Park Duck (3-foot-9 high), Kurt and Lux, a 17.1-hand, 11-year-old Irish Sporthorse gelding, show little effect from more than three miles in deep going. Kurt is in the process of turning left toward the last few obstacles and the finish line. His right leg has moved back to create the turn and he has opened his left rein to guide Lux on as tight a turn as possible. It is a real sign of maturity in a rider when he rides the course the way he walked it. This is a combination for the future. | © Mackenzie Clark

Maya Black and Doesn’t Play Fair

1. It takes a brave horse and rider to gallop up to something that the horse can’t see over. Maya Black and Dawn Dofelmier’s Doesn’t Play Fair (Cody), on their way to third place, are shown here in the final approach to the Curving Brushes at the Mounds, Fences 14AB. When the 15.3-hand, 11-year-old Holsteiner gelding is reincarnated, he will come back as a Jack Russell terrier. I have watched him for several years while he and Maya worked their way up the ranks, and he makes me laugh. He shows up at every event with a little-guy chip on his shoulder. He might be the smallest horse there, but he is going to make up for it with attitude, and Maya is going to match his efforts with talent and a work ethic to die for.

2. Look at Cody’s face: “Is that all you got?” Like most experienced four-star horses, he has figured out that he doesn’t have to jump the brush (3-foot-9 high, 4-foot-6 brushed) and he is pushing through the top to save energy. Maya is in a good place here, although I would like her eyes already fixed on 14B, three strides away. | © Mackenzie Clark

Maya Black and Doesn’t Play Fair

3. Now you’re talking! Maya has done a good job with her reins: She has slipped them just enough but is staying in touch with Cody. She has set her sights on the next element while he makes nothing of the landing on the backside of 14A.

4. Cody’s aggressive nature is about to get him in trouble, so Maya is reminding him that she was the one who walked the course. His second stride has carried him all the way across the flat, which is going to make his third stride a little too close to 14B.

5. Riders must work to stay with their horses when galloping up a slope. Maya has driven her heel back and increased her hip angle to stay with Cody’s powerful uphill step.

6. Now you see why Maya was tugging on the reins a stride before—she knew Cody’s takeoff stride would be a little close for comfort. But Cody understands the nature of the problem and pushes through the 3-foot-9 brush. This shot gives you a good look at the extreme angles at which four-star course designers ask horses and riders to jump. Maya and Cody’s attitude is that they are straight—it is the jump that is crooked. | © Amy K. Dragoo/aimmedia

Tim Bourke and Luckaun Quality

1. How’s this for casual? The Irish combination, Tim Bourke and his Luckaun Quality (Obie), who finished 11th, are out for a stroll in the park. If you cropped the 6-foot-6 drop out of this photo, Tim would look as if he is popping over a small warm-up fence. At the same time, Obie is having a ball. I guess when you are 17.2 hands, everything looks small to you. I have ridden Obie, an 11-year-old Irish Sporthorse, a few times, and the closest comparison I can make to that experience is to tell you to sit on the front of a locomotive, tie your reins to the cowcatcher and hang on. I am convinced that if he wanted to, Obie could break the world high-jump record; he is that strong. | © Allie Conrad
2. Most of the horses jumped through the brush at this fence (2-foot-5 high, 3-foot-5 brushed) to lessen the drop. Not Obie. He clears the brush with his ears up and is looking for territory to gallop over. Tim shows a nice economy of motion here, and is already telling Obie that the next obstacle will come off a right-hand turn.

3. They’ve just completed the drop into fairly deep water yet they are already balanced and ready for the turn.

4. Obie is in no doubt what Tim wants and is leaning into the right turn along with him. Tim slipped his reins correctly and is now in the process of getting them back. | © Allie Conrad

Tim Bourke and Luckaun Quality

Obie cracks me up. He senses that Tim wants to continue the right turn toward another obstacle. The Rolex Head of the Lake, 12AB, is seven strides away from this corner at 11BC, which is 3-feet-7 high, 4-feet-7 brushed. He is busy pushing the brush and red flag away with his shoulder, just like a polo pony riding another horse off the line. Clearly, Obie understands the game. Because Tim has his reins adjusted and is focused on the next obstacle, we can forgive his slight smile at how easy Obie makes this feel. | © Allie Conrad

This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.

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